SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prevent transgender students from using bathroom facilities of their choice, joining a debate playing out in a handful of other states sparked by a California law that broke new ground on transgender rights.
Republican Rep. Michael Kennedy says his plan would pre-emptively block Utah from allowing transgendered students to choose between the girls' or boys' restrooms, locker rooms and sports teams, depending on the gender they identify with.
A law that provides those protections for public school students in California took effect Jan. 1 over the objections of those who said it would violate the privacy of most students and lead to false gender identity claims.
Supporters of the California legislation say it will reduce discrimination against transgender students.
But Kennedy disagrees. "For these individuals," he said, sharing a restroom or showers in the locker room is "probably not going to be the best way to use the facilities" because it could make the transgender child and other students uncomfortable.
Rather than allowing transgender students to use facilities set aside for the gender they identify with, Kennedy's proposal would require schools to provide additional bathrooms for transgender students who desire one or whose families request one.
Utah education officials say the issue hasn't come up often, but this is how they have typically handled such cases.
Critics say Kennedy's measure violates civil liberties of transgender students and points them out as different.
Sara Jade Woodhouse, a transgender Utah woman and adjunct film professor at Salt Lake Community College, says they rule would further relegate transgender students to secondary status.
"It's basically hanging a sign around someone's neck that says, 'I'm not like you.' And that is so damaging to a person's self-worth," Woodhouse said. "Really, it's kind of frightening what it actually could mean."
Brandie Balken, the executive director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Equality Utah, said the measure would step on parents' role in negotiating what's best for their children.
"It's a misguided solution at best," she said Tuesday.
Similar debates are taking shape elsewhere. A proposed referendum aims to overturn the current California policy. Maine's Supreme Judicial Court recently found school officials there violated state anti-discrimination law when they required a 16-year-old transgender student to use a staff restroom instead of the girls' room. And national attention turned to a Texas high school in November after officials said a transgender boy couldn't take a yearbook photo in a tuxedo, a decision they eventually reversed.
Gay rights have been at the forefront of Utah politics in recent weeks. Same-sex marriage was legalized briefly in December, leading to more than 1,000 weddings. A court challenge blocked the practice and a judge is expected to rule on the matter this spring. And Republican state Sen. Stephen Urquhart has proposed a bill that would ban housing and job discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Kennedy's proposal stands little chance of becoming law this year. The Utah Senate and House have agreed to hold off on bills dealing with religious liberties and LGBTQ issues this session, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said Tuesday. They don't want to risk interfering with the state's pending court case over its gay marriage ban, Niederhauser said.
Kennedy earlier said he sees the issue as distinct from gay marriage but added "I can't say what leadership's going to say about that."
Kennedy's proposal would rely on a doctor's exam or birth certificate to settle any questions concerning which bathroom students may use.
The proposal is "misguided, sad and, really, pretty creepy," Urquhart said. "Any time we pass legislation that deals with inspecting someone's genitalia, certifying that person's genitalia, that's just really odd. I think it highlights how people with sincere beliefs can come up with some pretty odd approaches to opposing something that scares them."
Carol Lear, the director of law at the Utah State Office of Education, said it's up to school districts to decide how to handle instances concerning transgender students and restrooms. She recalls two cases of families requesting schools to accommodate transgender children in recent years, she said, and in both cases, school administrators set aside a separate, private bathroom.