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Transgender surgeries, puberty blockers: What will Utah lawmakers do?

East High School students protest the Utah Legislature’s passage of HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports, at the school in Salt Lake City on April 15, 2022.

East High School students protest the Utah Legislature’s passage of HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports, at the school in Salt Lake City on April 15, 2022. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — On the emotional last night of the Utah Legislature's 2022 general session, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox became visibly upset when he was blindsided by a final-hour vote that hijacked a bill his administration and LGBTQ advocates had been negotiating.

Lawmakers instead passed an all-out ban on transgender female students participating on girls' sports teams.

Cox immediately promised to veto it, saying he was "stunned" by the move and that "some of the worst decisions get made at the last minute." He later vetoed the bill as promised, expressing concerns with its "serious legal and financial implications," as well as how it targeted only a handful of Utah kids that are part of a community that already struggles disproportionately with suicidality.

That led lawmakers to swiftly override his veto, arguing they opted to go with the all-out ban because negotiations on HB11 weren't going anywhere. If the bill ended up challenged in court, as expected, that would trigger a provision to create a commission to determine student eligibility, something they were trying to negotiate from the beginning.

That court challenge indeed came, and since then a judge halted the ban. However, the rest of the bill remains in effect, requiring transgender girls to seek permission from a commission to play on girls' high school sports teams.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, left, speaks against HB11 as Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, right, stands with his head bowed during the last evening of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 4, 2022.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, left, speaks against HB11 as Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, right, stands with his head bowed during the last evening of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on March 4, 2022. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

It was an emotionally charged, controversial move that put Utah in the national spotlight — and one that Cox has expressed disappointment in for overshadowing the rest of the work of the 2022 legislative session.

So this year, with Utah lawmakers expected to tackle more hot-button transgender issues, including gender-affirming surgeries on minors or legislation on puberty blockers, Cox said he hopes they'll negotiate in good faith.

"I've had lawmakers apologize to me for what happened last time, they feel bad about it," Cox told the Deseret News in an interview Thursday. "Partly because it turned out I was right. The lawsuit came. Exactly what they did never really got put into place. We could have ended up exactly where we are without that divisiveness on the last night of the session."

Cox said he hopes that with this round of bills tackling sensitive topics, "we'll have these conservations earlier and we'll allow people an opportunity to come, express their concerns or their support, that we'll listen and we'll strive to the best policy."

So far, at least two bills have been proposed for the 2023 Utah Legislature to consider. One, SB16 would ban a variety of medical procedures for minors when done for the purpose of gender-confirmation surgery. Another bill, HB132, seeks to punish doctors who provide such surgeries.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also told the Deseret News in a recent interview to expect legislation on puberty blockers.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The bills are likely to attract plenty of controversy to Capitol Hill, promising to bring complex and emotional debates around what role lawmakers should or shouldn't play in the lives of transgender kids, their parents and their doctors.

Asked about those bills Thursday, Cox told the Deseret News he's talked to "some of our transgender youth in our state, I've talked to their parents. We're trying to hopefully find the best policy."

Cox said he's encouraging others to "try to take the emotion out of it" and "look at the best and latest science" related to the issue. The goal, he said, is "making sure we're protecting our youth both now and in the long run, and making sure that we understand what happens with the surgeries and these medications over the long term."

He added, "this is not just a culture war issue."

"It is a culture war issue," Cox acknowledged, "which is the part I don't like, I wish we could take that piece out. But this is an issue that even very progressive governments in other countries are looking at."

Last year, countries including Sweden and Finland limited access to puberty suppressants and hormones before the age of 18 to exceptional cases. The shift followed a Swedish public television documentary that claimed doctors tried to hide spinal damage in a young patient whose bone density wasn't adequately monitored, the New York Times Magazine reported.

"So I do think that we can have that conversation," Cox said, "and that's where I'm going to try to focus it."

Adams, in a recent interview with the Deseret News, said he has "full confidence that we'll try to be respectful, we'll try to be thoughtful. Even though they're controversial issues, we'll try to do what we think is the right thing to do in the most sensitive way."

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Katie McKellar

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