Utah becomes latest state to regulate bathroom access for transgender people

Utah on Tuesday became the latest state to bar transgender people from using restrooms in public schools and government-owned buildings that match their gender identity, after Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed sweeping legislation enforcing the restrictions and narrowly defining sex in a way that excludes transgender people.

The bill, House Bill 257, prohibits individuals from using gender-designated facilities that differ from their sex assigned at birth, unless they can prove they have had gender-affirming surgery and changed the sex on their birth certificate.

The law includes criminal penalties for transgender people who use changing rooms that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth, as well as for any trans person who “intentionally or knowingly remains unlawfully” in a restroom or locker room “where the general public has an expectation of privacy.”

The measure passed Utah’s GOP-controlled Legislature last week, just 11 days into its annual session. Cox, who is running for reelection this year, signed it into law late Tuesday.

“We want public facilities that are safe and accommodating for everyone and this bill increases privacy protections for all,” Cox said in a brief statement.

The law also requires local school districts to establish “privacy plans” for transgender students to use either unisex or single-occupant facilities or have access to a faculty restroom. Opponents of the legislation have argued the requirement may “out” transgender students to their peers.

Others have said the measure’s restrictions on bathroom access unfairly target transgender people and could worsen stigma and violence against the community.

“This bill perpetuates discrimination, needlessly imposes barriers to the everyday needs of people in Utah, and risks harmful and discriminatory enforcement against transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah wrote Tuesday in a letter to Cox encouraging him to veto the legislation.

“All it does is invite scrutiny of people who are transgender or perceived to be transgender when they are lawfully going about their lives,” Brittney Nystrom, the group’s executive director, wrote in the letter.

Utah Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill’s primary sponsor in the House, said the legislation is necessary to protect women and children from “bad actors.”

Statistically, transgender people are more likely than their cisgender peers to experience violent victimization, including rape and sexual assault. A 2021 Williams Institute report found that trans people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crimes.

The law also redefines “sex” in a way that LGBTQ advocates have said will allow discrimination against transgender people.

House Bill 257 changes the legal definition of “female” to “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions in a way that could produce ova.” Males under the law are defined as individuals “whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to fertilize the ova of a female.”

Similar laws were passed by GOP lawmakers last year in Kansas, North Dakota, Tennessee, Montana, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The laws could have dangerous implications for transgender people in accessing restrooms or obtaining accurate identity documents, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks LGBTQ laws.

Utah Democrats and LGBTQ rights advocates on Tuesday condemned Cox’s approval of the bill and accused the governor of doing so to score political points with Republicans ahead of the state’s gubernatorial primaries in June.

Cox, who has served as Utah’s governor since 2021, will face off against four GOP challengers, including the former chair of the state’s Republican Party.

Cox as governor — and before that, as lieutenant governor — has branded himself an ally to the LGBTQ community in the GOP.

In 2022, he became the first Republican governor to veto legislation preventing transgender student-athletes from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. The Legislature quickly voted to override Cox’s veto of the bill, which was also sponsored by Birkeland.

Cox’s veto message is often cited by opponents of anti-LGBTQ legislation in state legislatures and in Congress. In it, Cox wrote: “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”

Last year, however, Cox approved legislation banning gender-affirming health care for transgender minors — one of 19 Republican-led states to do so in 2023 — in a move that angered transgender rights advocates.

Cox has defended his decision to sign the bill, arguing that the legislation simply pauses access to care until more research and “better data” are available to determine the long-term effects of medications such as puberty blockers and hormones. At a Washington Post Live event that followed his approval of the bill, Cox described himself as “an ally to the LGBTQ community.”

Democrats on Tuesday appeared unsure whether that is still the case.

“I wish it was the governor of 2022 that showed up to sign tonight,” Utah Democratic Rep. Sahara Hayes, the Legislature’s only openly LGBTQ member, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday evening.

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