Transgender bathroom bill passes Utah House after tearful floor debate

Jan 19, 2024, 2:19 PM | Updated: 2:32 pm

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan...

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, speaks about HB257 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday. The Utah House advanced a controversial bill Friday limiting bathroom access for transgender individuals in taxpayer-funded facilities. (Marielle Scott, Deseret News)

(Marielle Scott, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah representatives gave approval on Friday to a controversial bill restricting bathroom access to transgender individuals in government facilities following an emotional back-and-forth in the House chamber — advancing the proposal to the Senate within the first week of the session.

HB257 prevents individuals from using a gender-specific bathroom that differs from their biological sex, unless they have undergone gender-related surgery and legally changed the sex on their birth certificate. The proposal also narrowly defines both “male” and “female” in state code.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, the bill sponsor, has called it an effort to protect privacy in schools, prisons and other taxpayer-funded buildings, and included a requirement that such buildings provide more unisex or single-stall restrooms and locker rooms.

“Currently today in the state … any man could walk into any women’s facilities, and there’s nothing that can be done,” she said. “Women and men across Utah want more privacy. … This bill doesn’t target anyone specifically, it creates privacy at all times.”

Birkeland grew emotional in her closing arguments, saying she is aware the issue “can be difficult and uncomfortable,” and that she tried to take a middle-ground approach.

“I’ve given it this language because I care, and thanks to the media, and thanks to people who lie … we’re being portrayed as bad guys because privacy is now controversial,” she said.

“When did not believing women become OK?” she added.

She said too much attention has been paid to the restroom previsions, rather than sections to codify Title IX protections for boys and girls high school sports in state code.

“This legislation doesn’t hurt people the way people say it does, if you actually read it,” she said.

Birkeland has said she believes most taxpayer-funded facilities already have some unisex facilities available, and she believes many transgender individuals already use single-stall restrooms.

During a lengthy committee hearing on Wednesday, opponents of Birkeland’s proposal said it doesn’t meaningfully protect women or children and that it further stigmatizes transgender individuals. Others expressed concern that the inclusion of domestic violence and rape recovery centers in the bill could threaten federal funding to those providers.

Equality Utah, a Salt Lake LGBTQ organization, has spoken out against the bill, while praising Birkeland for engaging in dialogue with the group.

Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Millcreek, who is the only openly queer member of the Utah Legislature, spoke emotionally against the bill, her voice breaking as she described fearing for a loved one who is transgender.

“I’m scared for every kid that has to face the choice of outing themselves to people that might not be safe for them. … I’m scared for every transgender person who has to choose between holding their bladder or potentially being seen as a criminal,” she said. “And I’m scared for my family. We have had multiple discussions about what our lives would look like if this should pass.

“This is our home,” Hayes said. “I don’t want to leave this place, but what kind of life am I asking my loved ones to lead if they cannot go to the bathroom in safety in public?”

Hayes and other Democrats praised provisions in the bill that require equal access for girls high school sports teams and codify parts of federal Title IX law in Utah code.

Supporters of the bill argued that it will increase privacy for everyone, and Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, said her grandson, a student, at times feels uncomfortable with locker rooms at school.

“I want him to have that privacy,” she said. “This is not just only for young girls and for women, it’s also for young boys.”

The Utah Democratic Party issued a statement following the vote, accusing House Republicans of “repeatedly using vulnerable communities as a political punching bag.”

“Unfortunately, despite trans people making up just 1% of our state’s population, Republican legislators have spent a massively disproportionate amount of time legislating their basic human rights,” the statement said.

HB257 passed mostly on party lines, 52-17.

House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, was asked during his weekly press conference Friday ahead of the floor vote on HB257 why lawmakers are addressing controversial topics such as Birkeland’s bill and another bill limiting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public institutions.

With hundreds of bills expected to pass during the 45-day session, Schultz said lawmakers can “get sucked up and can’t focus on all the different issues and bills coming at us.” He said both proposals are among the Republican supermajority’s priorities, and lawmakers are taking advantage of the slower first week of lawmaking to let both bills get time during public hearings.

Schultz noted that the the public received “more time than what normally has been allowed to come up and comment” on the transgender bathroom bill during the hearing on Wednesday.

“This is a more inclusive process,” he told reporters. “People are engaged on it, and we’ve allowed the time to focus on these issues instead of having to deal with 400 bills through the process. So we’re not going to skip any rules, we’re going to follow our rules and move it through the process.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Birkeland’s bill and the bill on diversity, equity and inclusion could come before the Senate as soon as Wednesday or Thursday, when House bills are set to be considered.

“We’ll take them through our normal process,” Adams said during the Senate’s daily media availability held while the House was still debating.

“We’re not going to delay them. I think they’re on course. I think they’ll come next week,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll push them, either. I think they’ll just happen under the normal course of business. … We’re not going to suspend the rules for them.”

Asked if he anticipated any changes to the bills being made in the Senate, Adams said he didn’t know.

“We have 29 senators. I don’t know. We’ll see what the changes are,” he said. “I would like to know what we get.”

The Senate president said the bills will get committee hearings, likely in the Senate Business and Labor Committee. “They’ll vet it whenever they meet and then we’ll get a chance to do the same.”

Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she has concerns lawmakers are acting too quickly on the bills.

“These are new tactics that we’ve seen since last year. We have 45 days and I think we should use all 45 days and we should do the heavy lifting at the end,” she said.

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Transgender bathroom bill passes Utah House after tearful floor debate