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SALT LAKE CITY — Less than 24 hours after a Senate committee endorsed a trio of bills directed at LGBTQ children, the full Utah Senate on Thursday voted to give initial approval to the bills, including one to ban sex reassignment surgeries and place a moratorium on puberty blockers for minors.
The vote marks a major legislative hurdle for the legislation and comes just three days into the Utah Legislature's 2023 general session. The bill, SB16, is now poised to advance through the Senate and on to the House of Representatives.
The Senate vote comes after an emotional hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, in which lawmakers heard personal stories of both the harm and benefits of transgender medical procedures.
Some medical professionals, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, say the best way to treat children and teens with gender dysphoria is to provide them with medical interventions sometimes referred to as affirming care.
"We as a Legislature must stand up and push back to protect our children," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said on the Senate floor, arguing there is a lack of long-term research on the impact of those procedures and medications on children.
Kennedy is a practicing family physician.
Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, said Thursday he's "not planning to veto" SB16. Appearing on KSL NewsRadio's "Let Me Speak to the Governor" shortly after the vote, Cox said he's had "lots of conversations" with Kennedy and other stakeholders about the legislation.
"I believe this one is the right bill, the one that approaches it in the right way," he said. "All he's saying is we're going to push pause, we're going to look at the research, we're going to gather all of the data and make sure we're not doing any long-term harm to our young people. And I think that's a very reasonable approach."
All (Sen. Mike Kennedy is) saying is we're going to push pause, we're going to look at the research, we're going to gather all of the data and make sure we're not doing any long-term harm to our young people. And I think that's a very reasonable approach.
–-Gov. Spencer Cox
Last year, Cox vetoed a highly controversial bill that was changed in the final hours of the 2022 legislative session to fully ban transgender female athletes from participating in girls school sports. That version of the bill undercut negotiations to establish a commission to determine student eligibility — a provision that was later triggered anyway after a court challenge halted the ban, which went into effect briefly after lawmakers overrode Cox's veto.
"We're so caught up in our social battle, and I'm trying to take the emotions out of it. Let's look at the science. Let's look at the research. Let's try to do what is right," the governor said.
Cox added he's met with members of the LGBTQ community and transgender youth and their parents to "try and get a better understanding of what they're facing."
Asked if he's concerned about the message the bills are sending, Cox said he's "always concerned about the message," noting he also invited lawmakers to meet with LGBTQ community members "so they can understand the impacts as well." He credited Kennedy with doing so but said there are some that haven't yet.
"I would encourage them to be more thoughtful, to be more kind, to be more engaging, and to keep an open mind because these conversations might change your mind on some topics that you think you know," Cox said.
'Really challenging for me'
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said SB16 is "really challenging for me," as a big believer in parental rights, but he's also been "startled" by what's happening in other countries, including Sweden, France and England, which have made moves to overhaul medical care for transgender youth.
"Those countries started performing surgeries and administering hormone blockers to kids ... almost a decade before that became a routine practice in the U.S," Weiler said. "And with that decade longer experience, those countries ... have all started putting the brakes on this."
Weiler said he doesn't want to "increase the burden" on transgender children and their families, but he worries some in the medical community have "rushed to judgment on what is mostly a political agenda rather than what is necessarily in the best interest of their patients."
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community, spoke against the bill. As he stood to speak, he wore a neck brace. He said he is currently being treated for a series of strokes and attended Thursday's floor time "against doctors orders."
He asked that if he's unable to continue speaking before the vote, that his vote be recorded as a no.
"We should not be prohibiting care that could save and protect these children," Thatcher said, referring to parents of transgender children that told lawmakers they believe those treatments saved their children's lives from depression and severe suicidal thoughts. "The people with children this will affect are begging us not to do this."
'Trying to thread the needle'
After Thatcher's comments, Kennedy told Thatcher when he's fully recovered to "please come into the fray" on this issue.
"Because you know what?" Kennedy said. "My life over the past six months has been pretty disturbingly difficult because of this issue ... I'm trying to thread the needle and find a policy that works for almost everybody. And I believe that this does this."
The Senate passed SB16 on a preliminary vote of 22-7, with Thatcher joining all six Democrats in opposition. It now faces one more vote in the Senate before potentially advancing to the full House.
Shortly after the vote — as senators were moving on to discuss SB93, a bill to block changes to birth certificates for anyone under age 18, save for certain errors — the Senate paused its work while Thatcher sat hunched over in his seat. Several lawmakers and staff members went to his side.
After several minutes, the Senate resumed its business. Thatcher later told the Deseret News he wasn't having a "medical issue," only that he was trying to "manage my heart rate."
"After a very emotional speech, I was sitting down and taking deep breaths ... to bring my heart rate down. People got concerned, then it escalated and everybody in the universe had to come over and make sure I was OK," he said. "I was fine the whole time ... I was just really, really irritated."
The Senate ultimately voted to give initial approval to SB93 and SB100, a bill to require schools to allow parents access to education records or other information "regarding a student's gender identity that does not conform with the student's sex."
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told the Deseret News after the votes that he has "deep concerns" about SB16.
"I've seen little evidence that lawmakers are really listening to families with transgender children (and) seeing the positive impact of this care. I fear that it's fait accompli and they've already made up their minds," Williams said. "I hope that lawmakers will continue to listen to parents with transgender children and to respect their rights and liberties as well."
As for the other bills, Williams expressed gratitude to Weiler for striking language in SB100 that Equality Utah found concerning. The bill, Williams said, now just codifies already established school policies to not keep "secret" information from parents about students' gender identity or other information.
Weiler told reporters he's running SB100, even though school policies already match what the bill proposes, because "we have several national organizations who are contacting school board members every day" to provide "model" policies for transgender students.
"All of those 'model' policies say you can hide this information from the parent," Weiler said, adding, he's not OK with a principal telling a teacher to call a student by a name in school but keep that name secret from parents. "We've had some teachers put in that position, and that's why I ran the bill."
'The best policy with all children'
Williams, however, said Equality Utah is opposing SB93, a bill to block changes to birth certificates for anyone under the age of 18, except for certain errors.
"This is related to lingering concerns about transgender children participating in school athletics, and it's concerning that this is moving so rapidly, and I hope the sponsor will continue to engage with us to find the best policy with all children," he said.
It's concerning that the careful deliberation and compromises that we've achieved historically in Utah around LGBT issues seem to be pushed to the side to cater to the hysteria of the extreme right.
–Troy Williams, Equality Utah
Overall, Williams said it's disappointing to see lawmakers focus so much of their energy so early in the session on those bills, saying it's clearly spurred by national conservative fervor over transgender issues.
"This is part of a national trend being driven by far-right, anti-LGBT groups who have whipped lawmakers in red states up into hysteria around transgender children," he said. "So it's concerning that the careful deliberation and compromises that we've achieved historically in Utah around LGBT issues seem to be pushed to the side to cater to the hysteria of the extreme right."
Sen. Dan McCay, sponsor of SB93, told reporters after Thursday's votes that lawmakers today are "trying to say is there a way to slow down the rapid progression and at the same time leave room for decision-making and thoughtfully find ways to move this policy forward over a number of years."
"I know the people in this room, and there is no hate for anyone, period," McCay said. "We're dealing with the law, and the law sometimes is a blunt instrument, and in a lot of ways it has to be that way so we can continue as a society to progress an inch at a time."