Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — "And, I love you, random citizen!" was the response a transgender student gave to an individual in the audience Thursday at the Utah Capitol at a rally in support of transgender youths. The response gained a round of applause and a show of heart-hands held high in the air.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Capitol the night before the Republican-led Utah Legislature's planned vote Friday to override Gov. Spencer Cox's veto on a controversial bill that would ban transgender girls from competing on girls high school sports teams.
Proponents of the bill say it will protect fairness for girls competing in high school athletics. Changes to the bill worked out in compromise with LGBT advocates fell through on the final day before a new version of the bill with a total ban was introduced and passed in the final three hours of the 45-day legislative session.
The rally featured speakers of all ages who both represented and were in support of the transgender community, with the focus on speaking to the youths. Latina activist and educator Chelsie Acosta told protesters just that.
"When I was asked to speak, I said, 'Only if I can speak to the youth,'" Acosta said.
Acosta then invited all the transgender youths "who were comfortable doing so," to sit on the stage with her as she spoke to them. She also asked the audience to gather close around the youths.
"Tomorrow will come and go, but this right here will never leave you. I hope you take this home with you and back to school with you, OK? It will help get you through the weekend and the weeks to come," she told the transgender youths.
Acosta went on to talk about her experience as an educator helping transgender youths, and said that this isn't "about points on a scoreboard."
"As humans that pride themselves on family and love in our state, I cannot begin to comprehend the disconnect and rationalization of such discrimination and harm especially to our most vulnerable youth seeking visibility, voice and safety," Acosta said. "This isn't about points on a scoreboard or college sports scholarships; this is fundamentally about survival, safety and community. … I ask you to pause, sit with your fears, educate yourself and ask yourself: what if this was my child?"
Several transgender youths spoke to the audience — one a transgender athlete named Jay who participates in marching band, band and baseball.
"Sports help me get through a lot of things, and we just want to play and have fun with the rest of the kids," Jay said.
Another transgender youth, who goes by Ivy, spoke about the challenges of coming out as transgender, and said that when people, especially parents, are supportive, it makes all the difference.
"I was talking with my friend today about how people change their perspective on LGBTQ individuals as soon as it affects them," Ivy said.
"My parents didn't really realize what I was going through or how to help me, but they really came through, and I'm actually really proud of them," another youth speaker said.
Cox's reason for vetoing the bill
In a letter to Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Cox said he "believes in fairness and protecting the integrity of women's sports" but pointed to data showing that out of 75,000 kids playing high school sports in Utah, only four were transgender, with only one of those involved in girls' sports.
"Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports," Cox wrote. "That's what all of this is about. Four kids who aren't dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few."
In the letter, Cox cited research showing that a sense of belonging could reduce suicide rates among transgender youths.
"I don't understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly," Cox wrote.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted support for transgender youths Thursday afternoon, saying, "You are welcome here. You have a place. You belong."
Mendenhall issued a joint statement signed by her and the seven members of the Salt Lake City Council.
"Transgender youth are at much higher risk of mental problems including suicide and this bill will tragically and then necessarily add to those statistics," the statement reads, in part. "Participating in sports is not just about who is winning, it is about being part of the group, having fun, and staying healthy. Denying transgender use the right to participate in sports is further ostracizing in harming them. However, we, the Mayor and City Council of Utah's capital city, want you to know that you are welcome here, you have a place, and you belong."