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Ban on transgender surgeries for kids, puberty blockers headed to Utah Senate

Utah Senate committee endorses flurry of bills targeting transgender, LGBTQ children

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Ryan Woods, Tarek Mango and Nate Brimhall debate transgender issues after a committee meeting at the Utah Capitol.

Ryan Woods, Tarek Mango and Nate Brimhall debate transgender issues after a Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. Woods is a gay drag artist who goes by “Lady Maga USA”. Mango and Brimhall are parents of transgender children.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

After an emotional committee hearing filled with personal stories of both the harm and benefits of transgender medical procedures, Utah lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a flurry of bills directed at LGBTQ children.

The first and most controversial was SB16, a bill to ban gender-confirming surgeries and enact a moratorium on prescribing puberty blockers for minors. Gender-confirmation surgeries are medical treatments that transgender and nonbinary people sometimes use to transition or alter their sexual characteristics.

The second, SB100, a bill to require schools to allow parents access to education records or other information related to the child “regarding a student’s gender identity that does not conform with the student’s sex.”

The third, SB93, a bill to block changes to birth certificates for anyone under the age of 18, save for certain errors.

One after another, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee endorsed the bills along party lines, advancing them to the full Senate for consideration.

The votes came despite protests from members of the LGBTQ community, advocates, parents of transgender children and physicians, and arguments from Democratic senators that the bills single out an already vulnerable population trying to find their place in the world.

“It is strange for the Legislature to be practicing medicine,” said Minority Assistant Whip Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, before she voted against the bill to ban gender-confirming surgeries and puberty blocker prescriptions.

The three bills, Plumb said, feel “fairly directed at one particular, very vulnerable community.” She urged lawmakers to step back and recognize the impact the legislation is having.

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Audience members react to a speaker who was in favor of SB16 “Transgender Medical Treatments and Procedures Amendments” during a Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. SB16 would ban gender-confirming surgeries and enact a moratorium on minors being prescribed puberty blockers.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“If we could think about this before we essentially eliminate a population from their valid existence, is what this feels like to me,” she said. “I just really hope we can think about the messaging that comes out of saying, ‘You don’t get to exist,’ according to the government.”

‘Caring for our children’

SB16 sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, told detractors if they “hate this bill, I’ll take all the blame.” He said he’s “working my best” to address a “complicated issue,” while also adding “we don’t have long-term research” and there is conflicting data on the lasting impacts of sex change procedures on minors and puberty blockers.

Rather than placing an immediate ban on puberty blockers for minors, Kennedy said his bill would only stop new patients from entering into treatment plans, but would allow current patients to continue working with their doctors. The bill would hold doctors harmless who are already prescribing gender-confirming care and provide regulations for the procedures going forward.

“Caring for our children does not mean riding the latest radical wave,” Kennedy said. “In this instance, caring for our children means stepping back from the churning waters and asking some tough, complex questions. Questions such as “Can a child appropriately consent?’”

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Chloe Cole, a self-described former transgender child who de-transitioned, left, returns to her seat after speaking about SB16 “Transgender Medical Treatments and Procedures Amendments,” as Dr. Nicole Mihalopoulos walks to the table to speak during a Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Chloe Cole: ‘My childhood was destroyed’

As part of his presentation for the bill, Kennedy set aside time for both supporters and opponents to speak to the bill. His first invited speaker was Chloe Cole, an activist from California who has described herself as a “former trans kid.”

Cole told lawmakers her experience with social media and how LGBTQ content was “celebrated endlessly online” introduced to her the idea that she could be a boy. Shortly before she turned 13, she said she came out to her parents.

“They had no idea what to do. They sought professional help,” she said, and doctors suggested she transition. She said she started medication at age 13, then underwent a double mastectomy at 15.

“I was disgusted,” she said. “I couldn’t look in the mirror. The healing process is horrific.”

Cole said she’s “still facing complications from the surgeries because I did it so young.”

“My childhood was destroyed for the sake of medical experimentation,” she said.

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Lance Sweeten, of Woods Cross, parent of a transgender child, speaks against SB16 “Transgender Medical Treatments and Procedures Amendments” during a Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. SB16 would ban gender-confirming surgeries and enact a moratorium on minors being prescribed puberty blockers.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Parents of transgender children

After Cole, several more speakers lined up to speak, including a handful of Utah parents of transgender children.

Lance Sweeten, of Woods Cross, said when his daughter came out to him, it was far from “easy.”

“I didn’t do the right things at first, but I’m grateful to my daughter for being loving and forgiving of her not so accepting dad,” he said. “I watched my child suffering in pain and anguish, not knowing who they were and asking God, ‘Why would you do this to me?’”

Sweeten said he saw his daughter experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts, and he heard her tell him “that if she cannot be who she knows she is, then there is no point in her continuing to live.”

He said those are just some of the challenges parents of transgender children deal with on a daily basis. “But what I have been blessed to see,” he said, is his daughter “thrive and blossom as she received proper counseling, hormones, medical procedures.” He said it “eased her dysphoria and made her begin to love herself again.”

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Utah Eagle Forum’s Gayle Ruzicka requests to speak in favor of SB16 “Transgender Medical Treatments and Procedures Amendments” during a Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. SB16 would ban gender-confirming surgeries and enact a moratorium on minors being prescribed puberty blockers.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“I guarantee you that if she did not have access to these life changing opportunities, she would not be with us today,” Sweeten said. “I’m a father doing exactly what I’m supposed to do, love and protect my child. Unfortunately, bills like this make it harder if not impossible for me to fulfill my most important responsibility ... to be a protector. No child deserves to have their bully be their father.”

Drew Armstrong, co-founder of Dragon Dads, a support group for fathers of LGBTQ children and a Utah Republican delegate, told lawmakers his transgender child “came out when they were 3 years old.”

Armstrong said his child was “persistent, consistent and insistent in regards to gender identity,” and as the years went by they realized “we had a really depressed young man on our hands, we thought a daughter at the time.” He said they consulted with medical professionals, and his son started on puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and “finally top surgery at 17.”

“Absent these treatments, I believe the odds are that our happy, healthy 20-year-old wouldn’t be with us,” Armstrong said. “It was a struggle. It’s hard for a lot of us. You don’t need to import or export witnesses from California ... You’ve got a zillion parents that are right here.”

Armstrong argued lawmakers should leave these decisions to parents, their child and their doctors.

“Please allow parents to be parents. Please allow physicians to be physicians,” said Jason Lebwohl, another father of a transgender child and a practicing emergency room physician.

Others spoke in favor of the bill, including Ryan Woods, a drag artist also known as Lady MAGA USA, who supported Donald Trump for president during the 2020 election. He said he represents a group called Gays Against Groomers, which “stands up against the mutilation of children.”

“I”m here to stand up for little boys like I was, and tom boy girls ... for being groomed, manipulated, drugged, chemically castrated, and essentially tortured, as we heard from Chloe,” Woods said. “It is wrong to convince children that they are in the wrong body. Nothing could be more abusive or harmful to an innocent child like I was then to be told something is so wrong with you that we have to cut off your body parts.”

Wednesday’s committee spanned hours. After senators voted to forward SB16, they also fielded comments on SB100, a bill to prevent schools from keeping “secret” policies from parents on what names they use when referring to a student.

Parents and teachers also voiced concerns about the impact of the bill on children, some worried it would “out” children to parents that could disown or abuse them as a result.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, offered an amendment to remove language that would have prohibited schools from treating “a student in a manner that relates to a gender identity that does not correspond with the student’s sex” without written parent consent. As the bill stands now, he said, should simply maintain the “status quo” of what already happens in Utah schools.

The committee also endorsed SB93, which would allow changes to birth certificates only for Utahns over age 18, except for certain errors. Parents of transgender children also spoke against the bill, arguing it unnecessarily restricts an already complicated process that transgender teens may benefit from, especially as they enter their college-aged years.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton said he would consider changes to the bill as it progresses through the legislative process.

“It’s day two,” he said, “and it feels like day 75.”

The Utah Legislature’s 45-day session ends on March 3.