ST. GEORGE — Jamee Mitchell, a conservative Republican who founded a St. George accounting firm, is a mom to four children and married. She is also a transgender woman.

Jamee Mitchell works at the accounting firm she founded, The Tax Company, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of The Tax Company, St. George News

Patricia Kent is a conservative and chairperson of the National Independent Party who founded a St. George emergency preparedness kit provider and family history research firm and was a recent candidate for Washington County Clerk and a former teacher in Hurricane.

And she is an advocate for two bills currently in the state Legislature that would establish a standard for when and whether transgender individuals can access public restrooms while mandating more gender-neutral bathrooms. 

Both are Southern Utah residents on opposite sides of the debate over bills concerning the use of public restrooms and locker room facilities. Both find agreement on some aspects of the bills, including the increase of gender-neutral, or “family,” bathrooms, as well as codifying Title IX – the U.S. law meant to achieve equity between men and women in most facets of education – into Utah state law.

On Wednesday afternoon, having already passed the Utah House in a 52-17 vote with six not voting, the Senate initially passed the sex-based designations for privacy, anti-bullying and women’s opportunities bill, designated HB 257 in the 2024 Utah legislation, 20-7 with two not voting.

But that was after the Senate made changes that removed the language that defined a man and a woman and restrictions on the bathrooms transgender people could use as well as language on domestic violence shelters. 

In this file photo, Patricia Kent fills out paperwork to become a write-in candidate for Washington County Clerk/Auditor, St. George, Utah, September 2022 | Photo courtesy of Patricia Kent, St. George News

All of Southern Utah’s representatives and senators voted for the gender-based bill, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

Kent, who heads the local Liberty Action Coalition, says even if a person has had the surgery to change their sexual organs, they should still only go into the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth or a gender-neutral bathroom.

“There are men and there are women. If you’re born a man, then you belong where men are. I don’t care if you have a zillion sex changes. If you’re a woman, I don’t care if you’ve had sex changes, you belong where women are, period,” Kent said. “People can do what they want. They can be what they think they want to be. I have no problem with that, but don’t try and force it on the rest of us to accept that way of life. And that’s what they are doing.”

In another part of St. George, Mitchell says she is a “typical Republican” and agrees with what has been said about people like Lia Thomas, who Mitchell says shouldn’t have been able to swim so soon for the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team last year after hormone-replacement therapy.

“If you’re a bad actor and you start pulling stuff like that, you are not a trans woman. You’re out,” Mitchell said. “You’re at that point, you’re a predator and you’re not part of this conversation.”

But while many similar bills directed at transgender individuals in state legislatures began after the Thomas debate, Mitchell said the bills in Utah sprung out of fear.  

Stock photo of a transexual woman in a woman’s bathroom, location and date not specified | Photo by ASphotostudio/Envato Elements, St. George News

“It’s a fear of the minority. I think it’s the fear of the otherness that drives a lot of people to do things they probably wouldn’t otherwise do,” Mitchell, the treasurer of Pride of Southern Utah, said. “I love when people meet me for the first time. There’s so many times like this that people walk away and go, ‘Wow, I expected you to be weird.’”

Initially, along with codifying Title IX and mandating more gender-neutral bathrooms, the bill as passed by the House said a person could only use a bathroom based on either the gender they were born with or if they had surgery to change their sex characteristics. A person would only be charged with a misdemeanor crime if they engaged in “unreasonable” behavior and did not have their gender changed on their birth certificate or proof they had undergone gender-affirmation surgery.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, Senate amendments created by Sen. Daniel Mccay, R-Salt Lake/Utah counties, removed the language on gender at birth and surgery. Instead, the bill now says that people need to go to the bathroom they identify with, regardless of whether they have had surgery or changed their birth certificate and now puts the emphasis on criminal offenses committed in bathrooms and locker room facilities. 

The Senate also removed language on domestic violence shelters. 

The bill will be voted for a third reading in the Senate on Thursday and if passed, heads to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said in support of the previous version of the bill before the Senate changes that the needs of transgender people should be respected, but those should be balanced with those who are uncomfortable.

In this file photo, Utah Rep. Walt Brooks talks with Kane County Commissioners Celeste Meyeres and Patty Kubeja, Hurricane, Utah, Aug. 22, 2023 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“Just because people think or act differently does not justify being cruel or unkind in any shape or form. Their feelings and their opinions need to be valued. The thing we’re forgetting is the people on the other side need to have their feelings valued and respected as well,” Brooks said. “My daughters would be mortified to have a man come into the bathroom.”

A second bill, the use of sex-designated facilities in public and higher education, officially designated HB 253, introduced by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, has nearly identical wording with a focus on schools and colleges.

Legislators have said in hearings it is unlikely to come to a vote because of its similarity to Birkeland’s bill, and language from Lyman’s bill on how the state attorney general’s office would enforce the bills was folded into the sex-based designations bill in Wednesday’s Senate amendment.

Locker room exposures and choices

Birkeland – who also sponsored last year’s passed bill banning transgender girls from girls sports but is on hold while in federal court – has cited safety and the rights of women as reasons for bringing up this year’s bill. In hearings, she noted a constituent who said she was mortified by her 8-year-old daughter being exposed to the penis of a person who identified as a transgender woman who had not had gender-reassignment surgery. 

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice say there have been little to no recorded assaults of women in women’s bathrooms by transgender women. They do say that transgender individuals have been more likely to be the victims of assault themselves than other groups. 

In a video screenshot, Utah Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, addresses the Utah House Business and Labor Committee, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 17, 2024 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Mitchell said the safety issue cited by Birkeland is another case of fear overriding facts and that people in her community who haven’t undergone surgery aren’t likely to flaunt it.

“Most trans women I know are ashamed of their male genitalia. And they would do anything to try to hide it,” said Mitchell, adding that she has had gender-affirmation surgery. “They would never walk around a women’s bathroom showing off their junk.

“I think what’s happening here is, is an inordinate amount of time is being spent on something that is a non-issue. When pressed to cite an example of abuse that has occurred or been perpetrated by a trans person in a restroom, Ms. Birkeland had nothing. There has not been a documented case in the state of Utah that she can show as evidence as to why this bill is needed.” 

But Kent said, transgender women can be predators. She said she heard about incidents “not necessarily in our area” and also said she heard from a friend about a “transgender gentleman going into a girl’s room” at Lagoon. She said in her view, being transgender is a choice and a “mental illness.”

These people are making a conscious effort to push the issue that men have a right to be in a women’s restroom. Just because a man has a sex change, he’s still masculine,” Mitchell said. “I don’t understand this whole issue to begin with. I never have. If “M*A*S*H” were a regular show today, they would have to totally change it because Klinger dressed as a woman. Why did he do it? So that they would think he was, was crazy. Today, men dress like women, and we’re supposed to accept that as normal. It’s not.”

Mitchell said she is not crazy and did not make a choice.

“I had a conversation earlier with my doctor I happened to run into. He said to make sure to mention conditions such as androgen sensitivity or Klinefelter syndrome, which are legitimate medical conditions” Mitchell said, noting that she herself tried to live in shame of the person she was before she transitioned.

Birth certificate and identification identify Jamee Mitchell as female, undisclosed date and location | Photo courtesy of Jamee Mitchell, St. George News

“I was divorced in 2010 and was outed by my ex,” she said. “So everyone knew I was trans, but I was not trans. I was kind of making it like, ‘No, I’m not going to transition. I’m going to try to stay male for as long as I can.’ Which in hindsight was kind of dumb.”

Concerning the bathroom and locker room issue, Mitchell said it ultimately comes down to etiquette, rather than legislation. 

“When I’m presenting female, I would use the female, the women’s restroom. But back then I would come back and the next day I would go to work presenting male and use the men’s restroom,” Mitchell said. “So there is that awkward stage where somebody’s early on in transition where that might happen.

“And in those cases, I feel like it should just be common sense. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be legislated, use the restroom that corresponds to how you present.”

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

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