Senators significantly alter transgender bathroom bill

Signage for the restrooms at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.
Signage for the restrooms at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Utah senators adopted significant changes to a transgender bathroom bill on the Senate floor Wednesday — removing sex-based distinctions in restrooms in government-owned buildings, while retaining limits on restroom use that doesn't match an individual's sex at birth in publicly-operated changing rooms and bathrooms in public schools.

A substituted version of HB257 — which was adopted and given preliminary approval by the Senate — also excludes domestic violence shelters and other entities that receive federal grants, after service providers expressed concern the original bill could threaten millions in federal funding.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the floor sponsor of the bill and sponsor of the substitute, said the new version makes a distinction between restrooms and changing rooms. The bill still requires an individual to legally change the sex on a birth certificate and undergo gender-related surgery in order to use a changing room or locker room that doesn't match their sex at birth.

"We want to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in privacy areas in Utah," he told colleagues on the floor.

He praised bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, saying he's “proud of what she’s done in working with stakeholders and working with drafting attorneys and with me. I'm not always easy to work with, so I give her hats off for doing that.”

The most recent changes do not restrict access to transgender individuals in government-owned or -operated buildings — except for public schools — as long as the individuals don't engage in lewdness, voyeurism or loitering. Bathroom use would still be limited in public schools because they are already required to provide privacy accommodations such as unisex spaces for transgender students, according to McCay.

HB257 still includes requirements that government buildings increase the number of unisex or single-stall facilities available to the public.

Senators unveiled the substitute version of the bill shortly before taking recess on Wednesday, with plans to vote a final time Thursday morning. Due to the bill being made public only a few minutes earlier, a representative for Equality Utah, an LGBTQ+ rights organization, told the group had no comment on the changes as they are still reviewing the bill.

Senate Democrats have yet to take a position, citing further review of the changes.

"We are eager to read it," Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, told reporters.

The Senate GOP caucus appeared to be split on the proposal ahead of the vote. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said Republicans discussed the bill during their caucus lunch meeting on Tuesday.

"We did talk about the transgender bathroom bill and had significant discussion about it, but did not take any position," Vickers said. "We are considering some changes and (Senate President) Adams is working with Rep. Birkeland and others to look at potential policy changes to make sure we get it right."

Republican Sens. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, both signaled support for the changes in speeches on the floor. Thatcher has spoken passionately against bills in previous sessions to prohibit transgender girls from competing in high school sports and ban gender-related surgeries for minors.

He said he was "prepared" to "fight this battle," but was encouraged by the changes.

"I want to express my incredible gratitude for this big change," he said. "Removing the sex designations related to restrooms and focusing on the behavior is a huge change, and I hope is enough to bring support from the community and to send the message that we are trying to solve a problem and not target anyone specifically."

"It looks like it's a vast improvement," said Weiler, who still voted "no" in a preliminary round of voting because it would be "irresponsible to vote yes on something I don't understand yet."

Senators are expected to vote on the bill on Thursday. In the meantime, negotiations are likely ongoing between stakeholders and additional changes could be made before the bill is approved.

Because the Senate changed the bill that was approved by the House late last week, HB257 will go back to the House for consideration once approved by senators.

This story will be updated.