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South Dakota could very soon become the first state to pass a bill requiring transgender youth to use any bathroom or locker room other than the correct one. This bill has passed both the state house and senate, and now is sitting on Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk waiting for his signature.
HB 1008 says that public school restrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms that are designated for student use “shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.” The bill doesn’t just extend to schools, though, adding “any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”
The bill crudely defines “biological sex” as “the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth.” There are a couple problems with this. First of all, this is a very limited and arbitrary definition of biological sex. It makes absolutely no sense that a trans girl should have to use the same bathroom as a boy. Second of all, the only way to check to see if students are breaking this rule would be to either keep track of every student’s chromosomes (that doesn’t sound very much like limited government) or to look at nude pictures of the students as infants.
The bill does throw trans students a bone, though, allowing a “reasonable accommodation” like a unisex restroom, single-occupancy restroom or faculty restroom, as long as it doesn’t cause the school district an “undue hardship.” Because nothing makes a student feel safer and more accepted than having to use a separate bathroom away from all the other students in order to protect those other students from them.
While there’s been a very understandable and justified uproar against the bathroom bill, the House State Affairs Committee also voted 8-4 to advance HB 1209, which states that “any public body of the state or its political subdivisions” (which includes school districts) that accepts any information on a South Dakota birth certificate as official (for instance, to establish a student’s age in order to determine eligibility for school sports and schools) shall now accept all information on that birth certificate as official. This means that trans kids who want to play sports or simply go to school in the state would no longer be able to play on the correct team or be officially recognized as the correct gender at school. Schools would have to look at the sex they were assigned at birth, as listed on their birth certificate, and take that as their official gender.
This disgusting, discriminatory and oppressive rabbit hole gets even deeper when we find out that the South Dakota legislature has also tried to pass two more bills, one (HB 1112) that expressly denies trans students from playing sports on the correct teams, and one (HB 1107) that allows those who receive taxpayer funds to discriminate against gay people, single mothers, and — you guessed it — trans people.
How did we get here? In my time writing about trans issues and anti-trans legislature, I’ve never noticed South Dakota as a particularly terrible place for trans people to live, so what changed? One notable thing about the support for these bills is that it’s mainly coming from several of the same people. If you look at who sponsored or introduced the bills, you’ll find the same names on two, three or even all four of the lists.
One of these names is former Evangelical Pastor, Rep. Craig Scott, who called LGBTQ people “sexual deviants” and “the perverse” in a 2010 sermon decrying government support for LGBTQ people, “abortionists” and other groups. In support of his HB 1107, the one that would let people and businesses discriminate against LGBTQ people and single mothers, he said “The real victims of intolerance and discrimination in our day are those who conduct their lives according to a belief regarding marriage and human sexuality. Our founding fathers never intended erotic freedom to trump religion’s freedom.”
Rep. Fred Deutsch is another person who appears more than once, and is the prime sponsor on HB 1008, the bathroom bill that’s in front of the governor right now. In a blog post called “Bicycles, Baby Parts and Bathroom Privacy,” he said that he sponsored the bill because he’s worried about what he sees happening in schools across America. According to Rep. Deutsch, “Federal bureaucrats, without the force of federal law, are threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that do not allow transgender students full, unrestricted access to facilities of the opposite biological sex.” Imagine that, allowing kids full access to the correct bathroom. He continues, “I especially don’t want our children to be required by the federal government to shower, change or use restrooms with other young people of the opposite biological sex.” Rep. Deutsch clearly has a very mistaken view of how sex and gender work and what transgender people are. A 12-year-old transgender girl is in no way the “opposite biological sex” to a 12-year-old cisgender girl.
Rep. Lynn DiSanto, who is a sponsor on three of these bills, said that she supports the bathroom bill because she sees it as a proactive measure against trans students who might stand up for their rights in the future. “I wouldn’t say that there’s already a big problem,” she said, adding later, “It’s coming no matter what. If we do nothing it’s coming, if we do something it’s coming.” At the same meeting, Rep. Mike Verchio, a sponsor on all four bills, said with a smug look on his face that he supports the bathroom bill because “I don’t want my 15-year-old neighbor boy claiming that he’s transgender, taking a shower with my 18-year-old daughter.” Neither of these two lawmakers say that they’re trying to address a problem that actually exists, but instead are supporting the bill in order to fight off transgender boogeymen that live only in their heads.
Another sponsor on all four bills, Sen. Brock Greenfield, claimed that the bathroom bill was not brought to the floor out of contempt, but then went on to say “Do you feel it appropriate for a 13-year-old girl to be exposed to the anatomy of a boy? Or for a boy to be exposed to the anatomy of a girl because of the decisions we make out here?” While it seems to me that he does have contempt for trans kids, it could simply be that he doesn’t care enough about them to try to understand them, listen to them or see them for who they are.
Others, including Sen. David Omdahl were less coy about their hatred of trans students. Sen. Omdahl said, “I’m sorry if you’re so twisted you don’t know who you are,” “it’s about protection for our kids” and “they’re treating the wrong part of the anatomy, they ought to be treating it up here” pointing to his head. Rep. Steve Haugaard added that being transgender is a “choice of lifestyle” and that “for us to perpetuate confusion in the lives of anyone is a disservice to them.”
If we examine Gov. Daugaard’s record, things aren’t exactly looking good for South Dakota’s trans residents. Gov. Daugaard, a Republican, has been consistently far right on issues throughout his political career, and especially on social issues. In 2010, on his campaign website, he wrote “I supported and voted for the constitutional amendment in 2006 that defined marriage in South Dakota as being between one man and one woman. The traditional family is the foundation of our society, and it should be protected. Although I do not support discrimination against any class of people, I also do not think that individual groups should be given special privileges or be allowed to redefine the centuries-old institution of marriage.” Additionally, as recently as 2014, he said that he agrees that “Judeo-Christian values established a framework of morality which permitted our system of limited government.”
There is some hope though. Gov. Daugaard had originally said about the bathroom bill that “as far as he was aware, he hadn’t met a transgender person and likely wouldn’t do so before deciding on the measure so as to ensure objectivity in his decision,” but recently changed his mind and agreed to meet with a group of transgender students. Hopefully when he sees that they’re human beings and real children, he’ll see just how damaging this law would be. There are also a few days when people can contact Gov. Daugaard to let him know that South Dakota residents are not in favor of any of these laws. Furthermore, based on what the US Department of Education announced last year, South Dakota schools would be in violation of Title IX if they don’t allow transgender kids to use the correct bathrooms. So, even if these bills are signed into law by Gov. Daugaard, they’ll likely be challenged and eventually defeated (although they can still harm trans kids in the meantime).
It’s pretty clear that one of the main reasons South Dakota lawmakers are sponsoring and voting in favor of these bills is because of the increased visibility, but not increased humanization, of trans people and especially trans women. A few years ago, most of these lawmakers probably thought that trans people only existed as sex workers and perverts in Leftist cities like New York and San Francisco. It wasn’t until trans characters started appearing in more movies and TV shows, and trans people started publicly speaking out for their rights that they realized that there had been trans people in their very own state this whole time.
It gets worse, as much of this increase in visibility comes in the form of misinformation and harmful tropes. Portrayals of trans women as men pretending to be women, deceitful perverts, confused and mentally ill victims in need of a cure and, perhaps worst of all, aggressive sexual predators, lead lawmakers who are ignorant of the truth about trans people to believe that they need to pass laws in order to protect the “good, normal” citizens from these dangerous trans ones.
Trans people in the media are often treated as though they are acceptable targets of discrimination, violence and oppression. They’re treated as though they deserve to be hated and mistrusted by everyone around them. After all, if they’re lying about who they are and trying to trick people into sleeping with them, they can’t be good people, right? All of these dangerous and harmful tropes becoming more visible in the last couple years has led to an increase in vigilance on the part of anti-trans activists. These senators and representatives in South Dakota are themselves representatives of a bigger trend that’s expanding across the country. Last year was the most violent year for victims of anti-trans murder, we’re seeing more anti-trans bills than ever before, and even while we’re talking about how trans people are “so hot right now,” things seem to be constantly getting worse for us.
While many of these hypervisible trans women are doing great things for trans people, the unfortunate truth is that many trans women characters are still portrayed by men and written by cis writers who just don’t get it. While people like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Hari Nef are advocating for trans rights and better treatment of trans women of color, shows like Pretty Little Liars, Law & Order, The Bold and The Beautiful and American Horror Story are putting trans women in the spotlight without offering any education on who trans people really are or what kinds of obstacles they face.
While South Dakota is currently looking at four different bills, and actually has one in front of the governor waiting to be signed, many other states are trying to pass similar laws that would oppress and attack trans people. The National Center for Transgender Equality has put together a list of contact information for states where anti-trans bills are being introduced. This list gives a brief overview of the bills in each state, who it would be most effective to contact and how you can contact them. I’d definitely recommend taking a look at this list and seeing if there’s anything you can do in your state. Actually, I’m not just recommending it, I’m begging you, especially if you live in South Dakota, to take some of the actions listed on this page. Please.
I’d like to close with a message to those who would be affected by these horrible laws, especially the transgender kids who live in South Dakota. You are beautiful and powerful, and I want to thank you for being yourself. These lawmakers are afraid of you not because there’s anything wrong with you, but because they fear and hate anything that is outside of their very narrow worldview.
I know that it can seem like there’s no hope for you, that it seems like there isn’t a possibility of a future where you can be yourself and be happy, I felt that way for a long time. I want you to know that we are working hard to make sure that’s not true. There are thousands of people, many trans people and many cis allies, who are fighting for you and who are going to use every resource we have to make sure that you’re safe and able to be yourself without your government treating you like a criminal or second-class citizen. You’re not alone, we’re here for you, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that you have the long, safe and happy life that you deserve.