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How is Utah enforcing its new transgender bathroom law?


How is Utah enforcing its new transgender bathroom law?

May 02, 2024 | 8:02 am ET
By Katie McKellar
How is Utah enforcing its new transgender bathroom law?
The sign for a women’s bathroom at the Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

Utah’s public schools, state agencies and other publicly owned or controlled facilities must now start complying with Utah’s new law that restricts transgender people from accessing the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with

While the law, HB257, took effect immediately when Gov. Spencer Cox signed it in January, certain provisions had a delayed effective date to give government entities a few months to comply with the law. On Wednesday, those measures took effect. 

Starting this week, the Utah State Auditor is now required to “receive and investigate alleged violations” of government entities not complying with the law. A new page on the Utah State Auditor’s complaint hotline website went live on Wednesday, where Utahns can file complaints of government violations.

The Utah State Auditor is “limited to assessing a government entity’s compliance” with HB257, the auditor’s website notes, and “does not review or make any determination on the actions of private individuals, nor does the State Auditor investigate or determine an individual’s sex or gender.”

Utah governor swiftly signs bill to restrict transgender bathroom access

The law requires government agencies to contact law enforcement if they receive complaints or allegations about criminal behavior in a “privacy space,” which includes going into a sex-designated changing room that doesn’t correspond with their “biological sex,” according to the bill. 

“The alleged violation must have occurred at a publicly owned or controlled facility, program, or event,” the auditor’s website states. “When possible, citizens should make a good faith effort to address and resolve concerns with the government entity before submitting a complaint to the State Auditor.”

If an auditor’s investigation substantiates a violation and if a government entity “fails to cure” it within 30 days, the auditor could refer the violation to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, and the school or agency could face a fine of up to $10,000 per violation per day, according to the bill. 

Utah Auditor John Dougall told Utah News Dispatch on Wednesday afternoon his office had not yet received any official complaints. But given Utah’s government agencies only now are required to comply, time will tell whether his office will receive any.

Allegations would not be made public unless the auditor’s office investigates and details the findings in an audit report, Dougall said. That’s a standard practice for how his office handles complaints. 

How are schools and students responding?

In the weeks leading up to the May 1 effective date for state agencies, public schools have been scrambling to prepare students and teachers for the law’s requirements. 

Like many of the other 10 Republican-controlled states with similar bathroom restrictions, Utah’s rollout “has been roiled in confusion for Utah families amid a patchwork of plans that differ across districts,” the Associated Press reported

The Utah Legislature left it up to individual school districts to determine how to communicate the bill’s new restrictions and requirements. The law also requires schools to create “privacy plans” for students uncomfortable with using group bathrooms.

“Boys must use the boys bathroom/locker room and girls must use the girls bathroom/locker room,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, posted on X ahead of Wednesday’s deadline. “If for some reason that doesn’t work for a student, they need to use a single occupancy bathroom/locker room.” 

The state’s largest school districts (Granite, Alpine, Davis and Salt Lake City) told the AP their principals have been trained to address bathroom concerns on an individual, case-by-case basis with discretion and empathy for LGBTQ+ students.

However, Graham Beeton, a Salt Lake City fifth grader who uses he/they pronouns, told the AP the need to create a “privacy plan” with the school district can be isolating, and he doesn’t understand why the government cares which bathroom he uses.

“It hurts me,” Beeton told the AP. “I might be uncomfortable going into that restroom, so I want to go into a different one, but the law doesn’t say that I can.”

During the bill’s debate on Capitol Hill, Birkeland and other Republican supporters argued it wasn’t meant to “target” transgender individuals. Rather, they said it’s intended to “protect” Utahns, especially women, from uncomfortable encounters while creating more privacy spaces for everyone. (The law also requires government agencies to include single occupant facilities in new construction, as well as consider the feasibility of retrofitting or remodeling existing buildings to include unisex bathroom facilities). 

Critics of the bill, which included a handful of Republicans and all Democrats, argued it singles out transgender individuals, an already vulnerable population, by forcing many of them to use facilities where they don’t feel safe or comfortable while painting them in a criminal brush.

What does the law do?

HB257 includes no explicit penalties to punish a transgender person for simply entering a government-owned bathroom they identify with — unless there are circumstances or behavior that cause “affront or alarm.” Then they could face enhanced criminal penalties if they get charged with lewdness, trespassing, unlawful loitering or voyeurism. 

The law, however, does make it a crime for a person to simply enter a sex-designated changing room that does not correspond with their “biological sex” and they could also face increased criminal penalties for other crimes committed in that situation. 

The bill defines stand-alone bathrooms separately from changing rooms, which include fitting rooms, locker rooms, communal shower rooms and restrooms that are attached to changing rooms, according to a page Equality Utah and the ACLU of Utah created to address frequently asked questions about the complex bill. 

The law applies only to public schools and government-owned buildings, such as the Utah Capitol, and city or county buildings. In K-12 public schools, the law restricts access to bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms. In other government-owned facilities like country recreation centers or public universities, it only explicitly restricts access to sex-designated changing rooms. 

The law’s restrictions do not apply to privately owned buildings. 

The law also includes exceptions: if a person has legally amended their birth certificate to correspond with the sex-designation of the changing room and has undergone a primary sex characteristic surgical procedure. 

Equality Utah and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah pointed out on their fact sheet that HB257 does not require Utahns to show documentation or paperwork to access a bathroom or privacy space. However, they also noted the law requires government entities to contact law enforcement in response to complaints or allegations about criminal behavior, which could include simply accessing a sex-designated changing room that doesn’t correspond with someone’s “biological sex.” 

“Accordingly, people that others suspect ‘do not belong’ in a particular ‘privacy space’ might be subjected to interactions with law enforcement even when those spaces are not covered by the law,” Equality Utah and the ACLU of Utah’s fact sheet says, which included a link to resources to help Utahns know their rights when interacting with law enforcement. 

They also note the law does not include a measure for “individuals other than law enforcement officers to investigate or otherwise confront anyone for any purpose in relation to the bill’s prohibitions.”

“If you are confronted by someone other than law enforcement about your use of a restroom or changing room, we advise you to use your best judgment about how to react and stay safe given all of the circumstances in that situation,” Equality Utah and the ACLU of Utah said. 

For more answers to frequently asked questions, read the entire FAQ sheet here: