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SALT LAKE CITY — After another lengthy evening of emotional public testimony, Utah is another step closer to banning sex reassignment surgeries for minors and placing a moratorium on new prescriptions of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for Utah children and teens.
The House Health and Human Services Standing Committee voted Tuesday to endorse SB16, a bill that's already made its way through the Senate. But the committee also voted to strike down a separate bill, HB132, that would have implemented a more hardline ban against both sex reassignment surgeries and medical treatments for transgender minors.
The committee's 9-5 vote to defeat HB132, sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, was seen as a victory by LGBTQ community members and advocates who opposed the bill — but SB16 from Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, as currently written continues to concern groups including Equality Utah, which could lead the bill to be challenged in court if enacted.
Calling Kennedy's bill more balanced and nuanced than Shipp's, more Republicans on the House committee rejected Shipp's total ban and lined up in support of SB16, which Kennedy, a practicing family physician, has spent months crafting.
Reps. Stewart Barlow, R- Fruit Heights; Steve Eliason, R-Sandy; Marsha Judkins, R-Provo; Anthony Loubet, R-Kearns; Ray Ward, R-Bountiful; and Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, voted against Shipp's bill but in favor of Kennedy's. Only the committee's three Democrats voted against SB16.
Surgeries are among the medical treatments that transgender and nonbinary people sometimes use to transition or alter their sexual characteristics. 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.
However, Utah's Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation to regulate transgender medical care, arguing Utah must step in and "protect" children because there is not enough research on the long-term impact of these procedures and medications on children.
"I've thought about this for hundreds of hours trying to figure out what is the right path, and I believe we're almost there," said Kennedy, SB16's sponsor. "I'm trying to land this plane that may crash and burn or it might land and actually can be OK with wherever we land."
Bill detractors — many wearing pink and blue hearts meant to represent transgender youth who could not appear at Tuesday's committee meeting — at times bristled at comments from some bill supporters saying people who identify as transgender are "confused" and may regret transitioning later in life.
"I am not delusional. I am not confused. I am transgender whether you agree with me or not, and I do not need your protection," Oliver Day, a 16-year-old who identifies as a transgender male, told lawmakers.
Day said transgender youth want access to hormone therapy and puberty blockers "simply because having the ability to express yourself in the way you see yourself is the most beautiful thing in the world." Day said he spent the first 14 years of his life "trapped inside a body I hated. A body that did not reflect who I truly was ... I hated myself."
"Giving trans people the medical access for what they need can save a life, because I know that it saved mine," Day said.
Bill supporters including Chloe Cole, an 18-year-old activist from California who has described herself as a "former trans kid," urged lawmakers to protect children from life-altering procedures that can leave transgender patients with permanent scars, medical issues and sterility.
"No child deserves to be abused like this," Cole said.
Erin Brewer, who described herself as formerly transgender, urged lawmakers to place more guardrails around transgender medical care. Brewer said her "gender dysphoria was a result of sexual assault" when she was in grade school, not because she was transgender.
"I have no doubt that if I had taken puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, I would have done everything I could have to obtain them, including threatening suicide, because I was that desperate to change myself," Brewer said. "It would have been so much easier to kill myself as a girl in attempt to be a boy ... rather than work through the difficult feelings of my trauma."
Some medical professionals spoke in support of the bills, arguing transgender medical treatments have irreversible impacts on children later in life, while others including Nicole Mihalopoulos, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said treatment decisions for transgender minors are not made lightly.
"Treatment decisions for minors are made together with Utah families in thoughtful consultation with their health care teams," she said. "They're conservative, they're safe, and based on national and international guidelines are supported by a wealth of research."
While speaking in favor of HB132, an emotional Rep. Quinn Kotter, R-West Valley City, said he brought a Bible with him to Tuesday's hearing. He choked back tears while urging his fellow lawmakers to remember the founders of the United States "knew there was a higher power," and "there are absolute moral truths, and the male and the female is something that comes from our creator."
Kotter tearfully went on to say he personally "struggled for a long time, trying to get married because didn't feel attractive enough." He said he spent 10 to 15 years "in the gym" and on a "low carb diet I found myself under severe anxiety." He said while he was in a facility receiving care, "I connected very well with a transgender individual ... their problems were very different from my problems but we both had a lot of pain."
"I just feel like a return to fundamentals is what we need in our nation. How do we govern ourselves if we can't acknowledge a higher power in this body?" Kotter said. He urged lawmakers to vote in favor of HB132, saying it's "good for the family. We need to protect our families."
Shipp, in a text message to the Deseret News, called his bill's failure "disappointing," but he said he will work to help Kennedy's bill pass the House.
"I'm just very worried about the kids that are just confused and will be fine in their biological sex when they reach adulthood, because their bodies will be irreversibly damaged if they start on the blockers and hormones," Shipp told the Deseret News.
What SB16 does, and where it goes now
SB16 would outlaw sex reassignment surgeries for Utahns under the age of 18 and place a four-year moratorium on hormonal treatments for Utah children and teens not already being treated for gender dysphoria for at least six months.
It would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a "systematic review" of medical evidence regarding hormonal transgender treatments and provide recommendations to the Legislature, as well as require a health care provider to meet certain requirements before providing hormonal transgender treatments.
SB16 now heads to the full House for consideration, where it may see additional changes that the Senate would need to agree to before the bill receives final legislative approval.
Kennedy, near the end of Tuesday's committee hearing, indicated he may be open to more adjustments to the bill if they might impact Equality Utah's "calculus" on potentially filing a lawsuit against the bill.
At the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, Marina Lowe, policy director for Equality Utah, told the Deseret News there's no guarantee "there won't be any lawsuits," but she said if the bill includes a "narrow pathway for access" to transgender medical care through clinical research, it would make the bill more acceptable.
"Doctors on both sides of this issue (say) we need better data, more data," Lowe told lawmakers on Tuesday's panel. She said countries in Europe, while they study this issue, "have not actually stopped the ability for patients to continue to get care. That care just has to be done in the context of a clinical study. So I would advise that this body consider taking that same approach."
An added benefit, Lowe said, is it "limits the possibility for litigation as well."
Lowe, in an interview with Deseret News, called Tuesday's hearing "challenging to sit through," but out of the two bills lawmakers considered, "Kennedy's is more compassionate, trying to figure out a more nuanced approach."
"We think it would be a better bill with the addition of a narrow pathway for clinical research moving forward," she said.
A rally for transgender kids
Before Tuesday's hearing, a crowd of about 200 gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol, despite the frigid winter cold, to rally in support of the state's transgender youth. Many carried pink and blue flags, as well as signs demanding Utah lawmakers leave transgender children alone.
One after another, speakers including LGBTQ advocates, parents of transgender kids and those who identify as transgender themselves told the crowd they're loved and supported no matter what Utah lawmakers do.
"No matter what happens ... nobody will be able to take away who you are," said Sue Robbins, a transgender woman who serves on Equality Utah's Transgender Advisory Council, to cheers from the crowd.
Robbins encouraged youth to be authentic, telling rally goers "your joy demonstrates that transition is a true act of self-love."
"This is just a speed bump," said Lance Sweeten, of Woods Cross, who described himself as a "proud" father of a transgender daughter and a member of the Dragon Dads, a support group for fathers of LGBTQ children.
"We know what's going to happen today. ... It's a reality. But everybody here needs to just stay calm, support each other, and put your arms around those trans (and) nonbinary people you know."
Brie Martin, a 17-year-old from Salt Lake City who identifies as transgender, gave a fiery speech, saying the bills making their way through the Utah Legislature "threaten trans lives all throughout Utah, especially those seeking hormone therapy."
"As one of the many trans kids attending school in this great state, I understand what it feels like to have my rights threatened again and again and again," she said. "The injustice we face is steeped in misinformation and fear-mongering, and the end is far past the horizon, but we will not falter."