SALT LAKE CITY — Two embarrassed Utah lawmakers were apologetic after a spontaneous Twitter exchange that made light of changing genders instantly went viral on social media.
Among those seizing upon the exchange was an LGBT activist who decided to turn an insult into an opportunity for education.
Brandie Balken, the executive director of Equality Utah, a nonprofit group advocating on behalf of gay and transgender residents in this conservative state, arranged for an impromptu meeting of legislative staffers at the state house Monday night to discuss transgender issues.
“We have a long way to go, but this was a good start in clearing the air,” she said Tuesday. “It’s not just Utah; I think there are a lot of people across the country are confused about this issue.”
The issue exploded on social media early Monday after Rep. Jake Anderegg posted on his Twitter account that a private men’s room near his office was occupied. Then he added a kicker, saying he was “strongly considering a gender identifying change to use the open women’s.”
The post brought a quick response from the account of a fellow Republican, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, teasing him for a computer glitch last week that resulted in him mistakenly co-sponsoring a bill that would ban discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents here.
“Switching your gender identity?” the post read. “Just can’t keep up with you! You’re a new man. Er … woman.”
Issues of sexual orientation and identity have been center stage in Utah in recent weeks. Utah is appealing a federal judge’s ruling which overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Late Monday, state officials filed their opening argument with the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, contending that the federal government cannot interfere with its decision-making authority. Among other things, the state also said that limiting marriage to one man and one woman fulfills “a compelling governmental interest” rooted in tradition and religion.
State lawmakers have also sponsored a bill that would require transgender people to use the restroom of their gender at birth.
But on Monday, within an hour of the Twitter exchange between Anderegg and Niederhauser, Balken’s phone began ringing. Several were staff members of Utah lawmakers. “They said, ‘We’ve got a problem here,’” she said.
Hours later, Balken had arranged a meeting attended by scores of workers in the Senate majority caucus chambers. “It was well attended,” Balken said. “We told the staffers why this was no laughing matter, why it just wan’t funny to many people in this state and elsewhere.”
Several transgendered Utah residents also spoke at the 90-minute meeting.
Neither Neiderhauser nor Anderegg returned calls for comment Tuesday. On Monday, however, Niederhauser apologized and posted on his Twitter account that the message was sent by a female intern and that he erased the message. Anderegg also posted on his account an apology for the message and said he will learn to do better and be respectful in his tweets.
“I'm not active on Twitter, except during the session when I have an intern that can help me with that,” Niederhauser told reporters Monday. “Unfortunately, today my intern took some liberties to tweet on my account. It is an embarrassing situation for me and an embarrassing situation for her.”
Anderegg said that he did not mean to insult anyone.
“It was inappropriate,” he told reporters Monday. “It was an offhand stupid comment and I was trying to be funny.”
Balken, who runs the state’s largest LGBT rights group, said the Niederhausser intern who posted the tweet on her boss’s account was contrite. “She was very apologetic, disturbed that she had hurt so many people,” she said.
She said the fast-paced nature of political work often leads to offhand commends. “The envoirmment among interns is incredibly demanding,” Balken said. “Like most young people, many just want to fit in.”
She said several senators have called to request a repeat of the meeting.
“Let’s safely say there are thousands of transgender people in Utah,” Balken said. “This Twitter exchange turned out to to be a good way to get out the word out about the difficulty of their lives.”
Kai Medina-Martinez, a local transgender activist, also addressed the group. “I just talked to them about why it wasn’t OK to joke this way,” he said. “Not with everyone, but with the key players I sensed this shift. They seemed to get it.”
He said the issue of the bathroom was a sensitive one among the transgender community.
“We think about the bathroom every day,” he added. “Most of us wake up and think, ‘Where am I going to go today?’ Many don’t use public restrooms at all for fear of whom we’re going to meet there, being asked to leave, all sorts of complicated issues.”
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