In the past decade, many states have taken steps to address discrimination by protecting sexual and gender minorities through legislation. However, some states still ban protections for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) individuals, while others simply lack any discrete protections (MAP, 2020). Our research focuses on the impact of Utah’s state laws on queer youth (an umbrella term for youth who identify as sexual and gender minorities). This study examines a selection of Utah laws utilizing queer critical analysis, to explore the impact of state policy on queer youth experience in the state.
Key findings indicate that Utah has few explicit protections for LGBTQ individuals, resulting in a patchwork of local education policies and an overall lack of resources and support for queer youth. Using existing literature, we connect this policy environment to the higher victimization and suicide rates of queer youth in Utah. The linkage indicates with reasonable certainty a need for greater protections at the state level through explicit anti-bullying policy and more inclusive standards in education policy and curricula.
This literature review discusses relationships between state-level policy and queer experiences based on current research. It then discusses Utah’s political and cultural climate to provide context about influences on the policy-making process within the state, including the conservative opinions and values of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Policy and Queer Youth Experience
Public policy directly impacts the LGBTQ community. Research shows that discriminatory policies have negative health and social consequences for LGBTQ individuals (McCabe and Kinney, 2019). In contrast, laws put in place to protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, such as marriage equality and anti-discrimination legislation, are associated with positive mental health outcomes (Raifman et al., 2015). Inclusive education policies are similarly correlated with improved mental health and lower suicide risk among LGBTQ youth (Hatzenbuehler & Keyes, 2013; Kosciw et al., 2020) and a more supportive and safe environment (Day et al., 2019; McCabe & Kinney, 2019).
Queer youth living in states with LGBTQ equity laws are less likely to experience bullying (Watson et al., 2021) and have higher perceived classmate and teacher support (Day et al., 2019). This, in turn, helps LGBTQ youth attain higher levels of academic achievement and school community involvement (Kosciw et al., 2020). Enumeration in anti-bullying policies (or specifically listing sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics) is connected with lower LGBTQ student victimization, increased rates of teacher intervention, and a greater sense of belonging (Kosciw et al., 2020). A study by UCLA Williams Institute found that anti-bullying laws explicitly protecting youth based on sexual orientation are associated with fewer suicide attempts among all youth (Meyer et al., 2019). Districts in states with enumerated state-level anti-bullying policy guidance are more likely to include these elements in their local policies (Kull et al., 2015).
Additionally, inclusive curriculum policies positively impact LGBTQ youth. Inclusive curriculum is defined as a curriculum that “gives attention to LGBTQ people and issues,” particularly if that inclusion is supportive and affirming (Snapp et al., 2015, p. 581). Inclusive curricula help promote greater feelings of student safety, health, and well-being (Burdge et al., 2012), reduce minority stress (Glazzard & Stone, 2021), reduce bullying (Snapp et al., 2015), and create a safer perceived school environment for LGBTQ individuals (Snapp et al., 2015; Ioverno et al., 2021).
Research has shown that the lack of federal policy on LGBTQ-related issues leads to a fragmented policy landscape on the state level (Taylor et al., 2021). This fragmentation creates a patchwork of policies that differ significantly from state to state. More liberal, Democratic governments are more likely to enact LGBTQ inclusive policies, while more restrictive policies are typically found in areas with higher concentrations of Republican or conservative populations (Taylor et al., 2021). Thus, individual rights vary by geography, and “political geography is a critical and determinative factor in how LGBTQ people live their lives” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 262).
Utah Cultural and Political Climate
Utah’s political and religious climate makes it a unique place for LGBTQ youth. Utah ranks as the ninth most conservative state (Jones, 2019). Distinct from other conservative states, Utah’s culture is heavily influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), also referred to as the Mormon Church. LDS influence on policy-making is powerful in Utah (Arburn, 2014). Eighty-nine of the 103 lawmakers, or 86%, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Davidson, 2021). However, Utah’s population is only 60% LDS, highlighting the overrepresentation in Utah’s legislature (Davidson, 2021).
LDS political dominance plays a role in Utah policy outcomes, though this is seldom acknowledged publicly (Davidson, 2021). While the LDS Church has slowly shifted views on LGBTQ rights, many of its statements have been outwardly discriminatory and damaging. For example, the current stance by the LDS church is (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016, para. 3):
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.
This statement places moral judgment on queer people acting on their attractions, perpetuating an exclusive view of relationships. In that light, the LDS Church has defined marriage to be between a man and a woman and states that this doctrine “will not change” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d). The Church opposes the federal ruling of marriage equality. It does not perform same-sex marriages, stating “changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established” (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2014, para. 2).
The Church’s actions and policies have also opposed LGBTQ rights. In 2008, the Church provided volunteer and monetary support for the Proposition 8 initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2008). In 2015, the Church implemented a new policy that classified people in same-sex marriages as apostates (Wamsley, 2019). This meant children of same-sex couples could not be baptized or blessed until they turned 18 years old, and to do so, they needed to disavow same-sex marriage. This policy was reversed in 2019 but alienated many LGBTQ Mormons in the process (Wamsley, 2019).
Our microstudy applied queer critical analysis methodology to select Utah laws to discuss the impact of these laws on LGBTQ youth. Queer critical theory, related to feminist theory, is a lens to interrogate power structures and dominant culture that reinforce the oppression of sexual minorities (Gedro & Mizzi, 2014). Queer theory introduces the concept of heteronormativity, which is a larger ideological structure defined as: “the suite of cultural, legal, and institutional practices that maintain normative assumptions that there are two and only two genders, that gender reflects biological sex, and that only sexual attraction between these ‘opposite’ genders is natural or acceptable” (Schilt & Westbrook, 2009, p. 441). Heteronormativity helps explain the root cause of violence for LGBTQ youth (Toomey et al., 2012). When someone does not conform and fit into this established “norm” (cisgender, straight) they may encounter confusion or fear from others which leads to bullying and harassment (Toomey et al., 2012). By centering LGBTQ experiences in education, we can assess the impacts of heteronormative education systems on queer youth (Toomey et al., 2012).
To identify key Utah state laws that directly impact LGBTQ youth, we began by looking at data compiled by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). MAP is an “independent, nonprofit think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and communications that help speed equality and opportunity for all” (MAP, 2021, para. 2). We selected two policy areas identified by MAP that specifically impact the school climate for LGBTQ youth: “State Curricular Standards Required to Be LGBTQ- Inclusive” and “Anti-Bullying Laws and Policies Covering LGBTQ Students.” With these policy categorizations as our guide, we analyzed state-level policies, school board regulations, and local school district guidelines, looking for the presence or absence of LGBTQ-inclusive language.
Many other laws impact LGBTQ youth, including protections for LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system, health care policy for transgender people, and conversion therapy bans. However, schools are important places for understanding the enactment and implications of heteronormativity on the lives of young people (Toomey et al., 2012). Our selection of curriculum standards, anti-bullying laws, and educational policy allowed us to narrow our focus on experiences in the Utah school system.
Our research focuses on understanding the connections between Utah state laws and policies and the experience of LGBTQ students in Utah schools. We reviewed state-level policies and data about LGBTQ students’ perception of Utah schools to investigate this relationship. Our policy review is broken down into three sections: LGBTQ-related curriculum standards, anti-bullying policies, and general educational policies pertaining to LGBTQ students. This is followed by a presentation of survey data about Utah queer student experience collected by the non-profit GLSEN and the State of Utah Department of Human Services.
State Curricular Standards
Utah Code’s Academic Standards, Assessments, and Materials policy (53E-4) provides guidelines to the Utah State School board to create and implement curricula and education standards. The Curriculum Participation and Requirements policy (Utah Code 53G-10) provides specific regulations about health education, which the Utah State School Board has adopted in their Health Education Core Standards. There is no use of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender within the health or any other curriculum created by the state School Board. The sex education portion of the health curriculum focuses on puberty, abstinence, and pregnancy, with no mention of any LGBTQ-related topics. While Health Education standard HII.HD.8a centers around how to “recognize and respect differences in attraction” (Utah State Board of Education, 2019, p. 48), the guidelines for teaching this standard focus on differences in attraction to personality and physical characteristics and about distinguishing between different types of social relationships (Utah State Board of Education, 2021). There is no reference to differences in sexual orientation or attraction.
Utah Code’s Bullying and Hazing (53G-9-6) provides definitions of bullying but does not enumerate sexual orientation or gender identity as a basis. Under the State Bullying Cyber-bullying, Hazing, Abusive Conduct, and Retaliation Policy (53G-9-605), the law directs Local Education Agency (LEA) boards to monitor LEA development and implementation of bullying and hazing policies. The Utah State Board of Education’s Policies and Training Regarding Bullying, Cyber-bullying, Hazing, Retaliation, and Abusive Conduct (Rule 277-613), does not mention gender and sexual orientation as required components of LEA bullying policies. However, the Rule does specify that an LEA should provide training for students and staff on bullying that includes “bullying, cyber-bullying, hazing, and retaliation based upon the students’ or employees’ actual or perceived characteristics, including race,….gender identity and sexual orientation” (R277-613-4(5)(b)(i)(D)). The Rule states that it is within the Superintendent’s responsibilities to provide a model policy but that an LEA is not required to use the model policy or model training developed by the Superintendent.
The current Superintendent model policy mentions gender and sexual orientation. It states, “XYZ School has in place policies, procedures, and practices designed to reduce and eliminate bullying, cyber-bullying, and hazing—including civil rights violations or actions based on a student’s or employee’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, religious clothing, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other physical or mental attributes—as well as processes and procedures to deal with such incidents” (Utah State Board of Education, 2018, para. 1). The training section of the model policy provides the same limited statement as Rule 227-613 (mentioned above) (Utah State Board of Education, 2018). This model policy does enumerate traits, which is an inclusive step beyond the language of the state law and the Board of Education policy. However, because using the model policy is not required, there is little consistency regarding its implementation.
The delegation of responsibility from the state to the school board to Local Education Authorities means that most of the creation and implementation of policy and training is left up to individual districts. For example, Jordan School District’s Policy on Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Hazing (AS98) does not mention sexual orientation and gender identity (Policy Manual Jordan School District, 2019). In contrast, Salt Lake City School District’s Administrative Procedures, Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Prohibited (Policy G-19A) defines gender identity as “one’s internal sense of gender which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to a person at birth and may or may not be made visible to others” (Salt Lake City School District, 2021, p. 1). It further enumerates sexual orientation and gender identity in defining harassment. Salt Lake City School District’s website also states a commitment to anti-LGBTQ discrimination. It designates one administrator and one counselor at each school as advocates trained in LGBTQ support (Salt Lake City School District, n.d.).
Educational Policy Covering LGBTQ Students
Utah Code contains very little guidance or regulation regarding other LGBTQ-related topics in primary schools. Curriculum Participation and Requirements (Utah Code 53G-10) includes a broad ban on the expression of political and religious beliefs by staff and teachers. It also protects a student’s right to express their personal beliefs insofar as they do not threaten the well-being of others or violate “concepts of civility or propriety appropriate to a school setting” (Utah Code 53G-10-203). However, political, religious, and personal beliefs are terms left undefined. This is important to note, considering the political and religious nature of LGBTQ-related issues in the context of Utah’s conservative culture. Regarding a student’s right to assert their preferred name or pronouns in school, Child Welfare Services (Utah Code 62A-4a) states that parental rights come first. Under this policy, a student may not be able to use their preferred name or pronouns without parental consent.
In the absence of any further state-level guidance, local school districts in Utah have created a patchwork of different LGBTQ-related policies across the state. For example, Salt Lake City School District (2020) allows transgender students to change their name and gender on school records, use the restroom aligned with their gender, and participate in school sports. The Provo School District (2020) adopted the definition of gender discrimination outlined in the 2020 ruling by the Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County. In contrast to these more inclusive policies, the Davis School District bans all politically-oriented flags, which through recent clarification, includes pride flags (Woodruff, 2021).
Queer Experience in Utah
Data from the 2019 GLSEN National School Climate Study (GLSEN, 2021) provide important information about how queer youth experience school environments in Utah. The vast majority of LGBTQ students in Utah schools regularly hear anti-LGBTQ comments. Most LGBTQ students have experienced victimization at school. Many report discriminatory practices or policies at school, including being unable to use the restroom of their choice, being prevented from using their preferred names or pronouns, and being disciplined for public displays of affection that would not result in similar action for non-LGBTQ students. Only 8% of LGBTQ students reported attending a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that included specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression; 5% reported a policy or official guidelines to support transgender and nonbinary students.
Additionally, the 2021 Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey, conducted by the State of Utah Department of Human Services, reports that LGBTQ students in Utah are more likely to experience a hostile school environment than their peers. They are more likely to be bullied or feel concerned about being bullied, feel unsafe in various school environments (such as the classroom, bathroom, parking lot, etc.), and feel so unsafe that they choose to skip school. LGBTQ students are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and substance abuse. They are also more likely to experience high mental health treatment needs, increased depressive symptoms and social isolation, and are more likely to engage in self-harm and suicidal ideation. Data from the 2019 SHARP survey indicate that LGBTQ youth in Utah experience suicidal ideation at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. Utah ranks consistently in the top 10 states for suicide rates (Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, n.d.), and suicide has been identified as the leading cause of death for Utah youth. This is not the case nationally (Utah Department of Health, 2021).
The discussion of our findings focuses on connecting LGBTQ-related policies in Utah with queer youth experiences using sources from our literature review. An important aspect of this political landscape is the general lack of state-level policy, so we examine this point further. We then suggest improvements to Utah state-level policies based on our findings and the existing literature.
State-Level Policies and Queer Youth Experience
Through a queer critical lens, we can better understand how Utah’s absence of state-level LGBTQ anti-bullying and inclusive curriculum policy impacts the queer youth experience. The laws and curricula reviewed through this study create an educational climate where the LGBTQ experience is minimally represented. There is no mention in any state-level educational guidance regarding LGBTQ-related topics. The state health education curricula contain nothing about same-sex attraction or relationships, gender identity, or any other experience unique to LGBTQ students. State-level anti-bullying laws do not enumerate traits such as sexual orientation or gender identity.
Aligning with previous research, the lack of LGBTQ-focused policies and inclusive curricula creates an environment where queer students find it difficult to thrive (Burdge et al., 2012; Snapp et al., 2015; Day et al., 2019; McCabe & Kinney, 2019; Watson et al., 2021; Glazzard & Stones, 2021). The GLSEN and SHARP survey data show that LGBTQ students in Utah report feeling less safe at school, which is negatively correlated with inclusive curricula (Snapp et al., 2015). They feel disconnected from their peers and exhibit antisocial behavior, which is negatively correlated with LGBTQ-focused policies and LGBTQ-inclusive lessons (Burdge et al., 2012; Day et al., 2019). They experience lower levels of mental health well-being and are more prone to depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, all negatively correlated with teaching LGBTQ-related content and legal protections for LGBTQ individuals (Hatzenbuehler & Keyes, 2013; Burdge et al., 2012; Raifman et al., 2015; Glazzard & Stones, 2021). The literature on the intersection of LGBTQ-related educational policies and queer student experience is manifest in Utah.
While anti-bullying policy is only one of many factors contributing to the queer experience in schools, these policies set a precedent for school climate. The literature indicates that enumeration of sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-bullying policy is negatively correlated with student victimization (Kosciw et al., 2020) and suicide rates (Meyer et al., 2019) in queer youth. This is in part because enumeration removes ambiguity surrounding the harassment of LGBTQ youth and holds students, teachers, and administrators responsible for addressing harassment, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. As a result, they are more likely to intervene (Kosciw et al., 2020). It is reasonable to conclude Utah’s absence of enumerated state-level anti-bullying policy and inclusive curriculum plays a role in the low levels of LGBTQ support in Utah schools and the prevalence of negative experiences for queer youth.
Patchwork Policy in the Absence of State-Level Policy
The lack of LGBTQ-related state educational policy has led to a fragmented landscape, aligning with the research of Taylor et al. (2021). Some school districts, such as Salt Lake City and Provo, have adopted more inclusive policies, while others, like Davis County, have more exclusive policies. Many, including Jordan School District, have little to no LGBTQ-related policies. Utah has no statewide law enumerating LGBTQ specific-language surrounding bullying, so “current bullying prevention efforts within the state [Utah] vary greatly depending on the district or the school in question” (Arburn, 2014, p. 28). Some districts emphasize LGBTQ experiences during anti-bullying training and enforcement, whereas others do the bare minimum to implement the school board’s model policy.
Recent news reports add further evidence to this trend of fragmentation. An Alpine School District teacher (who also served as the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor) was fired in August 2021 for expressing political views in the classroom, including pro-LGBTQ statements (Tanner, 2021a). Also in August 2021, a State School Board member posted on social media in opposition to a call for LGBTQ inclusion in a religious education setting but was subsequently reprimanded by the rest of the board (Cortez, 2021). In September 2021, the attorney for the Utah State School Board expressed that Utah law “implied/suggested” that a student should be reported to their parents if they choose to use names or pronouns that differ from the student’s file (Tanner, 2021b, paras. 7-9). This could result in adverse effects, including “being kicked out of their house for being LGBTQ” in the most extreme circumstances (Tanner, 2021b, para. 10). Reflective of Utah’s conservative political setting, this fragmented environment of policy and policy execution is correlated with poorer outcomes for LGBTQ students (Taylor et al., 2021).
Suggestions for Utah
There is a clear need to adopt explicit state-level educational policies in Utah that enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics. State-level monitoring will help ensure appropriate implementation of these policies across all school districts, increasing inclusion rates at the local level (Kull et al., 2015). Many states in the United States (21 states) have Safe School Laws that aim to protect LGBTQ students from bullying and discrimination (MAP, 2021b). For example, California’s Safe Place to Learn Act (Cal. Edc. Code § 234) prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This law lays out specific processes for monitoring local educational agencies to ensure they have adopted policy and procedures for receiving and investigating complaints. By adopting more robust policies like Safe School Laws, Utah can better recognize heteronormative structures as a root cause of bullying and protect marginalized groups. Utah should also adopt state-level curriculum standards that are inclusive of LGBTQ experiences and relationships. These policies can work in a proactive instead of a reactive way by creating more accepting school cultures. This will help foster safer school environments and combat the high suicide rate among LGBTQ youth in Utah.
One consistent problem has been the lack of data on queer youth in Utah. 2019 was the first year that Utah’s statewide Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey included gender identity and sexual orientation categories. This provided vital insight on queer youth experiences, including illuminating LGBTQ bullying and suicidal ideation rates. Continuous data collection on LGBTQ youth in Utah is needed to help assess potential gaps in the educational system. Utah is making an effort to address this problem, including releasing an LGBTQ-specific suicide prevention plan. This includes goals of expanding data collection and increasing the availability of data (Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, n.d.). Increased monitoring of the LGBTQ student experience is critical in improving Utah’s school environment.
While our research does not seek to find a correlation between the LDS Church and queer oppression, the conservative politics of Utah and the dominant religious culture serve as potential reinforcers of a heteronormative structure. LDS families often look to church leaders for guidance and support, and their current rhetoric reinforces family rejection (Barker et al., 2016). Family rejection leads to an eight-fold risk of suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens (Barker et al., 2016). LDS values permeate culture in Utah, and while the Church continues to slowly become more accepting of LGBTQ people, their message is one of conditional support. We hope that the LDS Church will reconsider its doctrine on banning same-sex marriage to match federal law on marriage equality and take a firmer stance on supporting queer people.
One of the most apparent limitations of our research was time. This project was completed within a semester, which limited our ability to find all relevant literature on this topic. Both researchers also are balancing work and graduate school. To help mitigate this time limitation, we narrowed our scope by using a case selection strategy to analyze only a few Utah laws. This provided a window into a wider topic and created space for suggestions for future research. Our lack of law degrees and experience reading technical documents also potentially limited our ability to analyze and interpret state laws. Another limitation was our method of study. While we used data from GLSEN and SHARP surveys to obtain data on the queer youth experience, this information does not provide quotes, stories, or personal accounts. A more comprehensive study could organize interviews and focus groups to understand the unique and personal experiences of Utah LGBTQ youth.
We acknowledge our positionality toward the advancement of LGBTQ protections and rights. Samuel works in affirming therapy for LGBTQ people, and recipients of his work are impacted by the Utah policies examined. Alissa identifies as queer and is personally invested in policy impacts. LGBTQ people should have equal benefits and protections with cisgender straight people. We noted these influences in our research, and we strived to set aside personal and political preferences to better understand Utah policies. We explored all angles to provide a well-rounded perspective of these topics.
In this study, we set out to analyze Utah education policies through a queer critical lens to assess their impact on LGBTQ youth experiences in Utah. To do so, we reviewed a selection of laws guided by categorizations from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). We noted the presence or absence of LGBTQ-inclusive language and enumeration of LGBTQ protections. We also reviewed survey data about Utah queer student experience in school. Our findings indicate that Utah’s state-level policies do not enumerate LGBTQ protections or provide curriculum guidance on LGBTQ topics. Instead, policy creation and implementation are left to individual school districts and administrators. As a result, Utah has a patchwork of education policies that vary depending on geography and school climate.
Aligning with existing literature, Utah’s lack of enumeration or state-level guidance creates an environment where queer youth are more likely to experience discrimination and victimization. This leads to higher rates of mental health challenges and suicidal ideation, reflected in Utah’s high rates of queer youth suicide. Along with the overall lack of support in schools, Utah’s conservative political and religious cultural climate reinforces heteronormative values. Our research begins a discussion about the unique intersection of complex issues surrounding LGBTQ-related policy in Utah, including LGBTQ inclusion, youth suicide, state-level protections, and religious influence. We encourage researchers to continue examining Utah laws through a queer critical lens and challenge heteronormative structures so Utah’s education system can better protect vulnerable populations. Changing policy language at the state level is a crucial step moving forward. We hope for progress and a brighter future for all queer youth in Utah.
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