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Utah official’s post suggesting a student is transgender causes a furor

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The Facebook post was not out of the norm for the member of the Utah State Board of Education, a woman known for her hard-right views: It showed a high school girls’ basketball team in the Salt Lake City area and falsely suggested one player was transgender.

But it ignited a firestorm.

While the post triggered a torrent of derogatory threats that prompted the student’s school district to provide her with security, it also prompted condemnation from across the spectrum in this deeply conservative state. The legislature censured board member Natalie Cline and blasted her for a “repugnant attack.” The governor called her action an “unconscionable” case of harassment. Others condemned her for bullying a child.

All of this month’s outrage has been cold comfort to transgender Utahns and their advocates, however. They view Cline’s post as the alarming yet predictable outcome of anti-trans state policies that they believe encourage vigilantism — including a law to bar transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams. The latest controversy, they say, has only buttressed the idea that being identified as transgender is a slur.

“If it really was a trans person, would we have gotten the same reaction?” asked Sue Robbins, a transgender activist in Salt Lake City. “Or would we have had an outcry against that trans person?”

Transgender rights advocates see a witch-hunt type atmosphere spreading as states enact a flurry of laws seeking to restrain trans people. Utah last year prohibited gender-affirming care for minors and in January passed a law requiring people to use bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools and government buildings that align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

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More than 20 states have passed bans on transgender girls’ participation on sports teams, with Ohio the latest after lawmakers in January overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. In Florida, which in 2021 passed one of the nation’s first “fairness in women’s sports” laws, state athletics officials last year fined a Broward County high school for allowing a trans athlete to compete in girls’ volleyball, outing the student in the process.

Proponents of such laws counter that public accusations, true or false, are the result of transgender activism itself.

“We live in strange times when it is normal to pause and wonder if people are what they say they are because of the push to normalize transgenderism in our society,” Cline wrote Feb. 7 as part of an apology on her Facebook page after she removed the offensive post. She did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

It was not the first time such questions about student athletes’ gender have become public in Utah. In January, the Canyons School District barred a “belligerent” parent from attending basketball games at one high school after he twice approached principals at a junior varsity game to question whether a girl on the opposing team was transgender, district spokesman Jeff Haney said.

And in 2022, after the sports ban passed, a representative of the Utah High School Activities Association told lawmakers it had received complaints when a student “doesn’t look feminine enough” and investigated an athlete who won first place at a state competition. Without notifying the parents or student, spokesman David Spatafore said, the association and schools scoured the athlete’s records back to kindergarten and determined “she’d always been a female.”

That ban was initially vetoed by Gov. Spencer Cox (R), who described it as overly punitive for the four trans students who were then among the 75,000 high school athletes in Utah. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote. He later expressed concern about parents questioning athletes’ genders. “We’ve become sore losers,” he said, “looking for any reason our kid lost.”

The governor’s veto was overridden by the legislature’s Republican majority. Cox, who will face several GOP challengers in the June primary, signed the laws on gender-affirming care and trans bathroom use with little explanation.

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Such restrictions not only raise the specter of more public challenges but also shrink spaces for trans people, said Nikki Smith, an outdoor adventure photographer and runner in Salt Lake City who is a transgender woman. Using the bathroom is already terrifying for her; she described showing up to distant jobs dehydrated because she avoided highway restrooms. Signing up for a marathon isn’t even a consideration now: “I don’t go too far out of my routine. But I’m worried that will all get smaller and smaller as time goes on.”

The school sports ban was stayed after three trans girls sued to compete on girls’ teams. The state says the ban covers an “emerging social challenge” best left to lawmakers and not courts. An attorney for the plaintiffs counters that the law harms more than just transgender girls.

“It’s very clear that when you have these kinds of policies, girls in general are being targeted and monitored in terms of their bodies and how well they conform to these outdated stereotypes,” said Amy Whelan of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

For now, trans girls must make their case to a state commission of political appointees who decide behind closed doors whether allowing them to play would confer an unfair advantage. Though its decisions are confidential, the ban’s sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland (R), commented on Cline’s Facebook post that at least four athletes had gone before the commission and all had been turned down. Birkeland did not respond to interview requests.

Al van der Beek, the father of the 16-year-old whom Cline targeted, said she had previously been brought to tears when other students — and once a parent — accused her of being a boy. She has short hair and has worked hard to be fit and strong, he said.

Still, the family was astonished that an official elected to represent the needs of children would make the same insinuation. It hurt his daughter deeply.

“She said, ‘It makes me feel I shouldn’t have the body that I have, and I shouldn’t look the way that I look,’” van der Beek recounted recently. “Nobody should feel like that, especially a child.”

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He and his wife have prayed for and forgiven Cline, he said — but they still want her to resign. Both are uninterested in debating the transgender and LGBTQ+ issues that she has seized on, choosing instead to focus on her social media post as a case of bullying.

“I don’t ever look at anyone and wonder who they are. It’s none of my business,” van der Beek said. “It would be unjustifiable even if it had a factual basis. But it didn’t.”

The denunciations of Cline have mostly framed her post as bullying. That doesn’t go far enough for another father in the Salt Lake City area, whose transgender daughter sought permission from the commission to compete on a girls’ team at her high school.

“They’re vilifying [Cline] without mentioning the context of why she feels like she can say this. ‘Oh, how dare you treat children this way,’ even though you legislators don’t seem to have a problem passing these bills,” said the father, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of his child.

His daughter came out as transgender in junior high and began taking puberty blockers and undergoing hormone therapy. The family was not opposed to the idea of the commission making decisions on a case-by-case basis, which he said seemed like a “middle ground.”

Yet it was unclear throughout the process, he said, what evidence the commission wanted or what criteria it would use to determine eligibility. The family provided medical records and growth charts for his daughter, whom he described as athletically “below average” and within the normal range of height and weight for girls her age.

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Last summer, the student faced the commission during two Zoom meetings. The group has seven members: Three do not live in Utah. One has publicly taken anti-LGBTQ+ positions and been deemed a “deeply biased advocate” by a Florida court, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Another has commented derisively on Facebook about transgender activism.

The commission asked questions about how competitive the student is and whether she had been denied participation on a boys’ team, her father recounted. After deliberating behind closed doors, the commission deemed her ineligible to compete. The reasons were not spelled out, he said. His daughter was crushed.

“It felt very much like shooting an arrow and drawing a target around it,” he said. “Like they already knew they had to deny this kid.”

These days she is fearful of how the bathroom law will be enforced once it takes effect in July, the father said. And he and his wife have stayed silent on the Cline saga, believing that speaking out would be dangerous.

They took special notice of Birkeland’s response, which to them seemed an attempt to reassure the public that no trans athletes would get past the commission.

The legislator, who represents a district east of Salt Lake City, has touted the ban as a way to preserve fairness and safety in girls’ sports. In a 2022 interview, she said safety considerations are behind such sports categories as lightweight and featherweight, and she noted that Utah’s statute allowed transgender girls to participate on teams — just not to compete.

“We want to have people accept our kids,” she told Public Square Magazine. “That doesn’t mean that our kids get to be accepted in anything and everything they want to do now.”

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Though Cline has been stripped of her committee assignments on the state education board, she defied the other members’ request that she resign. Instead, she announced last Monday that she would run for a second term.

Among her campaign pledges: to fight for children to be “FREE from divisive labels.”

Casey Parks contributed to this report.



Source: Washington Post

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