LGBTQ advocates on Friday decried a letter recently sent by a Republican state lawmaker to school principals across the state providing guidance on the treatment of transgender students.
"On the first day of Pride Month, as many in our community began celebrations of our lives and families, Rep. Kera Birkeland sent a letter to all of Utah's school principals, in which she purported to provide 'guidance' and 'sound science' to school principals on the treatment of transgender youth," Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said in a statement.
Birkeland, R-Morgan, did send the letter on the official House of Representatives letterhead, a House spokeswoman confirmed.
Williams contends that the letterhead "created the illusion that she was providing official guidance to our schools."
"She was not. As an individual member of the House of Representatives, Rep. Birkeland does not have unilateral authority to provide official guidance to Utah schools," he said.
Birkeland did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
In the letter, Birkeland expresses concern about what she calls the "transgender phenomenon, where an increasing number of children are seeking to be identified as something other than their biological sex." The representative also included a pamphlet titled "Navigating the Transgender Landscape School Resource Guide," which she encouraged principals to distribute to staff members.
The House spokeswoman said leaders learned about the letter early Friday and researched state law regarding use of the letterhead. There are no rules against its use by representatives, the spokeswoman said, adding that she does not know if that could change in the future.
House leaders do not intend to comment on the issue, the spokeswoman added.
The letter was co-signed by Joel Thornton, an attorney from Georgia who co-authored the guidance pamphlet, Williams noted. The pamphlet has also been touted by conservative activist group Utah Parents United, which often vocalized its opposition to masks in schools during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as books deemed inappropriate in schools.
In a description of the pamphlet on its website, its authors say: "Until now, school leaders trying to implement policies to address this phenomenon have only had one-sided resources with the agenda of affirming a child's belief that he or she was 'born in the wrong body.' These ideologically driven materials omit important scientifically accurate information about the serious mental health and medical concerns raised by this phenomenon and fail to address the rights of other students and of parents."
Williams said Birkeland's views stand "in stark opposition" to medical and educational experts. Williams added that the Utah State Board of Education "is responsible for guiding our schools on how to educate Utah students."
"When it comes to science, we align ourselves with the official positions taken by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations, among many others," Williams said.
Williams pointed to Birkeland's sponsorship of a bill in 2021 and 2022 that sought to ban transgender girls from competing on girls high school sports teams. The bill failed to pass the Senate in 2021. This year, Birkeland proposed a watered-down version of the bill to create a commission to decide if each transgender student can play. But other lawmakers in the final hours of the session proposed an all-out ban, which passed.
The controversial bill was then vetoed by Gov. Spencer Cox, and the Legislature met to overturn the veto. The ACLU and other groups announced they filed a lawsuit against the bill earlier this week on behalf of two transgender students.
"Rep. Birkeland's ongoing attacks on transgender youth and public school educators will not stand. This Pride Month, we are reminded that there are craven politicians who can only build power by persecuting those who can't fight back. But transgender youth are not alone in Utah. We see you, we love you and we stand with you. We will never stop fighting for you," Williams said.