A Utah state school board member is facing widespread condemnation and calls to resign after she shared a post on social media that appeared to suggest a 16-year-old girl on her school’s basketball team is transgender.
Natalie Cline, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, posted earlier this week on Facebook a flier for a high school girls’ basketball team in Salt Lake County, suggestively writing: “Girls’ basketball...” The post has since been deleted.
The teenager’s parents said the post invited a swarm of cyberbullying directed toward their daughter, whom they said is not trans and described as a “tomboy,” and are calling for Cline’s resignation.
“Here’s a person that is supposed to be in a position of leadership that advocates for our children’s safety, well-being, their privacy, and she’s the one who has instigated this post that has led to all this hate,” Al van der Beek, the girl’s father, told NBC affiliate KSL of Salt Lake City.
Cline apologized on Facebook on Wednesday, acknowledging that her post created a “firestorm” around the teenager and that “derogatory comments about the player were made.”
She also defended her intent saying that the girl “does have a larger build, like her parents,” and did not suggest she would resign.
“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,” she wrote on Facebook. “But that is definitely not the case with this student, and I apologize again that the conversation around the post turned personal, that was never the intention, and again, I removed the post as soon as I realized what had transpired.”
“In a world that sometimes uses children as human shields to push radical agendas, it has become increasingly difficult to trust and to know how to protect children without hurting children when children are the targets and victims in so much of the chaos and confusion swirling around us,” Cline’s post said.
Cline did not immediately return a request for further comment.
The online uproar and ensuing backlash come as the debate over whether trans people should be allowed to participate in competitive sports leagues that match their gender identities continues to be a politically explosive issue in schools, elite sport and legislatures nationwide.
It is also the latest example of how the issue of gender roles and norms has roiled the country, even outside of the trans community.
“She cut her hair short because that’s how she feels comfortable, she wears clothes that are a little baggy, she goes to the gym all the time so she’s got muscles,” Al van der Beek told KSL.
Rachel van der Beek, the girl’s mother, also defended her daughter’s appearance.
“I would try to kind of maybe guide her into being what was more normal or what the world sometimes pictured a girl should look like, and that’s when we would butt heads and we would totally disagree,” she said. “As I encouraged her, then she started to blossom and her personality started coming out.”
Cline’s lengthy written apology did little to quell her critics.
Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, both Republicans, denounced Cline on Wednesday, saying she had “embarrassed the state of Utah and State Board of Education.”
“We were stunned to learn of the unconscionable behavior of board member Cline and others toward a high school student today,” they said in a joint statement. “The last thing our children need is an elected official harassing them on social media.”
“We urge the State Board of Education to hold her accountable and we commend Granite School District for taking swift action to protect this student’s safety and well-being,” they added.
Local reports have alleged that Cline — who was elected to her first term on Utah’s state school board in 2020 — has made controversial remarks regarding LGBTQ people in the past and has previously faced calls to resign.
Equality Utah, a state LGBTQ advocacy group, called Cline’s post “callous and cruel” and also called for her resignation.
“America has a tragic history of moral panics leading to the humiliation and expulsion of minorities from public life,” the group’s leadership said in a statement posted on X. “Hysteria often leads to violence.”
The controversy comes as trans athletes’ participation in sports has become a political lightning rod in recent years.
In the last handful of years, it has prompted 25 states to pass laws that restrict trans athletes’ participation in sports, including 11 that enacted the limitations last year, according to LGBTQ think tank the Movement Advancement Project.
Elite sporting bodies around the world, including USA Swimming, the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA, have also struggled to grapple with the issue, creating new guidelines around trans athletes that have often spurred backlash. Last month, a lawyer for trans swimmer Lia Thomas — who has become the de facto face of the debate — confirmed that Thomas is asking the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland to overturn the new World Aquatics rules that effectively ban trans competitors.
The debacle over Cline’s social media post also comes after Utah made national headlines last week, when Cox signed a bill into law that limits transgender people’s access to bathrooms in public schools and government-operated buildings.
Cline isn’t the first to face backlash for appearing to falsely suggest someone is trans.
In June, a woman sued a local movie theater in New Jersey after her son was kicked out of the theater. The lawsuit alleges that the movie theater manager yelled “this is not a transgender bathroom” while kicking the mother and her son out of the theater.
On Wednesday, the van der Beeks said Cline’s apology did not go far enough.
“What if our daughter didn’t have that strong character and have our support, and community support to where she internalized this?” Al van der Beek told KSL. “Worst case scenario, she could’ve ended her own life.”
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