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‘MAGA antics’: Utah auditor chides transgender bathroom law as hoax reports mount to nearly 12K

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‘MAGA antics’: Utah auditor chides transgender bathroom law as hoax reports mount to nearly 12K

May 15, 2024 | 8:01 am ET
By Katie McKellar
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‘MAGA antics’: Utah auditor chides transgender bathroom law as hoax reports mount to nearly 12K
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The sign for a unisex bathroom at the Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

As hoax complaints protesting Utah’s new transgender bathroom law continue to inundate his office, now totaling nearly 12,000, Utah Auditor John Dougall is continuing to mount his own criticisms of the law and his fellow Republicans who passed it. 

The issue is laying bare a divide between the auditor and Republican lawmakers as election season heats up heading into the June 25 primary. 

Monday evening, Dougall — who is among a crowded field of five Republicans competing in the primary to replace Rep. John Curtis in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District — posted a video to his campaign account on X that was filmed in a bathroom.

In the video, which he titled “Just a day in the life of Utah’s new ‘bathroom monitor,’” the sound of a toilet flushing can be heard before Dougall opens the stall door. 

“Oh, hi. Are you the bathroom monitor? I actually thought the Legislature assigned me to be the bathroom monitor,” Dougall says in the video. 

He then goes on to expand on his criticisms of the Utah Legislature and the law, which took full effect on May 1, from last week, when he aired his frustrations about its “rushed” passage without input from his office, which is tasked with making sure Utah schools and other agencies are complying with its new transgender facility restrictions. 

Utah auditor slams transgender bathroom law as 10,000 hoax complaints flood his office

“It’s interesting,” Dougall says in the video. “We have a piece of legislation that the sponsor doesn’t seem to actually understand. She implied that I didn’t care about women’s safety in bathrooms. Nothing could be further from the truth. If this bill were actually about making girls safer, you would think the Legislature would actually spend some money retrofitting bathrooms and providing greater privacy and greater safety.” 

In addition to restricting transgender people from accessing the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with (with some exceptions), the law also requires government agencies to include single-occupant facilities in new construction. But existing facilities  are only required to study the feasibility of retrofitting them to include more unisex bathroom facilities. 

The GOP-controlled Utah Legislature did not include any funding along with the bill to pay for more unisex facilities, as Dougall points out.

“Instead,” Dougall continues, “it looks like this piece of the bill was really more about show than substance. But it wouldn’t be the first time the Legislature did something like that, would it?”

Dougall’s comments target HB257’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who on Thursday posted on X accusing “activists” who are flooding the auditor’s online complaint website of trying to “overload the system” and “hide the very behavior that they claim doesn’t exist.” 

“The joke is on these activists. While they waste their time, Utah will continue to protect girls and women,” Birkleand posted, before taking a jab at Dougall. “And I look forward to working with our next state auditor, because I know that he will take the role of protecting women seriously.”

In response to a request for additional comment from Birkeland on Tuesday, a House GOP spokesperson told Utah News Dispatch to refer to Birkeland’s posts on X. The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, declined to comment. 

‘MAGA antics’

Dougall’s attacks on the law and the Legislature come as he campaigns against four other Republicans in the race for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District to replace Curtis, who is running for outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat. 

Dougall was eliminated at the Utah Republican Party’s state nominating convention, while delegates gave Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine the nomination. But Dougall and three other Republicans gathered enough signatures to secure their place in the primary under Utah’s dual path system, so all five candidates will be on the June 25 ballot. 

The auditor’s criticisms of HB257 (which was supported by most of Utah’s Republican supermajority and backed as a priority bill by GOP legislative leaders), could hurt his campaign among conservatives, but Dougall told Utah News Dispatch on Tuesday he’s just focusing on his “day job” as auditor. 

“The job of the auditor is to speak truth to power,” Dougall said. “It doesn’t matter how difficult or uncomfortable it might be, my job is to call it like I see it. … I’m not one of those that tries to package themselves to be something that they’re not to just win an election.” 

Dougall said his criticisms of Utah’s transgender bathroom law “calls out the MAGA antics” of the legislation, which he said has more to do with sending a message rather than “substance.”

“We should be focused on public policy that actually makes a difference,” he said. “I am tired of the government portraying as if it did something, when it only gave the perception of that, and there is no actual substance to any change. It makes people feel like they’re doing something to make them safer. But it’s all for show. It’s all theater.” 

The law’s limitations

HB257 is a complex bill with many caveats:

  • It only applies to public schools and government-owned or controlled facilities, like the Utah Capitol or city and county buildings. It does not apply to any privately owned buildings. 
  • In public schools, it restricts access to bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms, while in other government-owned facilities only changing rooms and locker rooms are restricted. 
  • It 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.” 
  • It does, however, 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. 
  • It allows exceptions if a person has legally changed their birth certificate to correspond with the sex-designation of the changing room and has undergone a primary sex characteristic surgical procedure. 
  • It does not require Utahns to show documentation or paperwork to access a bathroom or privacy space. 
  • It does, however, require government entities to contact law enforcement in response to complaints or allegations of criminal behavior, which could include simply accessing a sex-designated changing room that doesn’t correspond with someone’s “biological sex.”

After HB257’s passage, Equality Utah and the ACLU of Utah published a joint FAQ page that highlights the complexity — and limitations — of HB257. 

“Despite the heated rhetoric around this legislation, our legal analysis of HB257 has determined that the scope of the new law is, in fact, more limited than the news coverage of this bill would suggest,” the advocacy groups wrote. 

While limited and complex, the bill — which changed multiple times as it quickly progressed through the Utah Legislature during the first two weeks of the 2024 session — was among the most controversial, politicized and hotly debated issues. It also stoked fear and confusion among transgender people, advocates say.

‘Where does it end?’ Utahns pack hearing on bill to restrict transgender bathroom access

While the bill’s sponsors and its conservative supporters have argued it’s not meant to “target” transgender individuals but rather “protect” Utahns, especially women, from uncomfortable encounters, its critics (which included a handful of Republicans and all Democrats) argued it singles out transgender people, a small but vulnerable group, by forcing many of them to use facilities where they don’t feel safe or comfortable, while casting them in a criminal light. 

Examples of hoax complaints 

On Tuesday, the Utah Auditor’s Office released some examples of what Dougall called the “frivolous” reports that continue to bombard his office in protest of Utah’s transgender restrictions. 

Many of the online submissions contain vulgar and sexual language while criticizing the Utah law and questioning how it will be enforced. Dougall also released an audio recording of voicemails left with his office, several of which contain threatening profanity and sexual vulgarities.

Dougall again said Tuesday his office has yet to identify a “single legitimate complaint.” He also again emphasized that the law only requires his office to investigate allegations that a government entity has failed to comply with the law — and the auditor’s office won’t investigate “the actions of any private individual, nor will we investigate or determine anyone’s sex or gender.”

“While the overwhelming number of frivolous complaints appear to be from those opposed to various aspects of the bill, unfortunately individuals on both sides of the broader issues still fail to understand the Office’s extremely limited role in reviewing and investigating complaints regarding governmental entities, not individuals,” Dougall said in a prepared statement along with the examples of hoax complaints. “Sadly, some legislators who celebrate the bill as well as some legislators who condemn the bill also failed to understand the limited scope of the Office’s statutory mandate.”

It’s clear from the flood of fake complaints that people are angry with Utah’s new law, Dougall said. But he added when it comes to political discourse, using vulgar or threatening language tends to be ineffective. 

“It’s honey versus vinegar,” Dougall said. “I usually rely on honey to help drive change, and not vinegar. Oftentimes vinegar does not (work). The caustic nature of these calls will likely not result in the change that many of these folks want. It’s probably getting the opposite of what they’re actually wanting because of their antics.” 

Dougall encouraged the law’s critics to “step back and say, how can they engage better to have a more productive discussion, and how could they seek to better understand what they clearly don’t understand at this point? It would probably help them in their cause. But they’re not focused on that.” 

Dougall credited his office’s staff — who are having to bear the brunt of the flood of submissions — for “doing the best job they can,” especially when some reports contain threatening or obscene language. 

“Clearly I’m concerned for their safety. I’m concerned about the abuse that they’ve (experienced) through this process,” Dougall said. 

He added that when the law is “pitched as something that it’s not actually, then it adds a degree of irritants” within his office, “because you see that you’re wasting your time on something that doesn’t matter, that isn’t actually in the legislation.”