Students Protest Ban on Transgender Athletes in Utah

Thousands of students at Salt Lake City’s East and West High Schools staged walkouts earlier this month to protest the Utah legislature’s ban on transgender girls in high school athletics. Other schools followed, with hundreds of middle school students the latest to join the fray last week.

Braving torrential rains, more than 200 Clayton Middle School students walked out Friday afternoon chanting “Let them play” and “Trans rights are human rights.” For Caroline Drake, 13, who helped organize the protest, the downpour highlighted the students’ sincerity in showing solidarity with their transgender peers.

“A lot of people got out and then got soaked and had to go back and try to dry off. But a lot of people hung on to it, she said, standing outside for over an hour. “I was really proud of all the people there. I think the rain shows how important (trans rights) are to us.

“A light bulb just went out in my head”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Drake described Clayton Middle School as “very friendly” to LGBTQ students, with regular after-school VIBE (everyone is validated, included and belong) group meetings for students. Clayton has a “really big trans community,” she said, and many of her friends are open about their gender identity.

So when she first heard about HB11, Drake said she was “shaken.”

“We couldn’t believe our legislature just couldn’t support so many children,” she said. “The stupid thing is that it only affects these four kids in the entire state because there are only four kids playing on their school sports teams who are trans. And so we were all kind of stunned at how crazy they must be to have to pass this bill that prohibits these kids from doing what they love.

Clayton Middle School students, including Caroline Drake, 13, second from left, participate in a walkout to protest HB11, the ban on transgender students from playing school sports, in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

In explaining his initial veto to HB11, Gov. Spencer Cox said there were only four transgender students who participated in high school athletics – only one of whom played women’s sports. Cox’s veto was later overridden by the legislature in a special session.

Caroline’s mother, Katie Drake, also spoke about how welcoming the school was, saying she felt “very safe for my daughter to come to school here”. She added, “We actually have quite a few trans kids here who are in Clayton, which I think is great.”

When her daughter approached her, frustrated that Clayton wasn’t following in the footsteps of West High and East High, Katie pointed out that the schools themselves hadn’t planned for the walkouts – it would take a student to make things happen.

“A light bulb just went on in my mind, and I was like, ‘I’m doing this,'” Drake said.

Drake immediately recruited a friend to help him. They emailed the school principal for permission, then got to work spreading the word via print flyers, Instagram and Discord. Although she was a little nervous about organizing the walkout, Drake said she felt it was important to show solidarity.

“It’s always scary to show up like that, because you never know who’s going to judge you by what you believe in — which shouldn’t even be a thing,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to judge people based on their beliefs, because that’s their own opinion. We were there to protest so everyone can do what they want and have their own thing. So even for people who disagree with us, we were always there fighting for them too. Because even if their opinion is different from ours, we still want them to be able to do what they love.


West High School students protest the Utah Legislature’s passage of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in women’s school sports, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What impact will the protests have?

As a student, Drake acknowledged she couldn’t change politics, but she said the Utah government had failed to lead by example when it came to inclusion.

“I feel embarrassed for the Legislative Assembly, because they are adults…and I think the fact that we are children is what makes it so much more powerful, because we show that we are more united than the people who are meant to be supporting us,” she said. “We are showing adults that even though we are young, we still have a voice, and that voice will not be silenced.”

Already, Drake is noticing changes in attitude at his school. In the days since the walkout, she has seen more posters around Clayton promoting women’s rights and anti-racism, and says more people are talking about civil rights causes that are important to them.

“I feel embarrassed for the Legislative Assembly, because they are adults…and I think the fact that we are children is what makes it so much more powerful, because we show that we are more united than people who are meant to be. support us.” — Caroline Drake, 13

Critics of the legislature’s ban say the law places unnecessary scrutiny on transgender children – who already face higher suicide rates than their straight and cisgender peers. Even if the protests don’t have an immediate impact on state policy, LGBTQ advocates say they send a strong message to trans children that they are not alone.

“One of the biggest issues in our community is the suicide rate and suicidal thoughts that are happening,” said Jessica Dummar, co-CEO of the Utah Pride Center. “I think a huge thing is to be accepted, to be loved and supported. When you’re told you’re supposed to fit in a cookie cutter shape, and you don’t really fit in there, it there is no real belonging, so it creates a real sense of belonging in the children.

“What gives me hope, in this time of unprecedented political attacks on transgender and non-binary youth, are young people themselves,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, in a statement. “Students come out of school, show up in front of state houses, testify in court hearings to defend themselves and the people they love. They’re learning civics in a way no young person should have to – and they’re reshaping it. Research from the Trevor Project found that trans and non-binary youth who report feeling accepted and affirmed by adults and their peers — as well as their school communities — report lower rates of suicide attempts. In addition to offering inspiration, courageous students speaking out offer a sense of validation and support that can save lives. »

Dummar argued that while the direct implications of the ban only affect a small number of individuals, the broader implications compound “the continued oppression and dehumanization of people”, saying “that this small group of people doesn’t matter”.

“When there are much bigger issues at play in our society, why is it important for (the legislature) to devote time and legislation to pressuring a relatively insignificant piece of legislation?” she says.

Noting that young people are more likely to oppose banning girls’ sports for transgender children, Dummar is optimistic that attitudes will change in the future.

“I think understanding the humanity of people without gender is something young people are always connected to. … We see people figuring out for themselves what to believe, and I think we’ll see kids doing that. a big difference in the future,” she said.

Does women’s sport need to be “protected”?

During the discussion of HB11, supporters said the bill was intended to protect women’s athletics, preventing biological men from trying to gain an advantage by competing as women.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said the bill was “purely” about “preserving women’s sport.” Senator Dan McCay, R-Riverton – who pushed for the outright ban in a last-minute version of the bill in the Senate – said: ‘I have to protect them’, referring to his four daughters who took part to sports.

Dummar is skeptical that male athletes would actually try to gain an advantage by playing women’s sports, and doesn’t think women’s sports need protecting. In Jim Crow times, she said, the protection of white women was often used to justify lynchings and segregation.

“You can see white women and white girls being used to increase the fear of black men. You have Emmett Till, who was murdered because a white woman falsely accused him,” Dummar said. “Now we see women and girls continuing to be pawns.”

Dummar said women’s sports are already affected by the misperception that “women’s bodies aren’t as capable as men’s bodies.” She argued that the separation of sports by gender diminishes the visibility and importance of women’s sport as a whole.

“Professional sport is played by showing us this microcosm of our social issues. White men usually own the team, black men usually play, and women are on the sidelines, getting next to nothing for cheerleading,” she said.

When Dummar was in the military, trainees weren’t divided by gender, but by ability, which she advocates in sports. Ability-based sports programs would be more inclusive for cisgender men and women, as well as transgender men and women, because “a lot of women can ride with men,” she said.

“Capacity groups make a lot of sense, in that we can create this fair space where we’re not removing girls from boys,” Dummar said. “Because we’re all one – we’re human – and we don’t sexualize one gender over another, and we don’t infantilize one gender over another.”