South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is trying to use transgender kids’ rights and health to further her own political ambitions.
On Thursday, the Republican put out an ad to promote a bill that would block trans girls from playing in sports that correspond with their gender identity. Under the bill, schools would have to use an “athlete's official birth certificate issued at or near the time of the athlete’s birth” in order to determine which team that athlete is allowed to play on.
The ad doesn’t actually use the word “trans” or “transgender.” Instead, Noem, like countless other politicians across the country, tried to say that she was just protecting “female sports.”
The bill is something of a backtrack for Noem, who just last year vetoed a very similar bill. The veto, which arrived as a cascade of states sought to target trans kids by blocking their access to sports and gender-affirming health care, sparked enormous criticism among Republicans just as Noem sought to carve out a space on the national stage.
Ultimately, Noem issued executive orders that aimed to limit trans athletes’ ability to participate in sports that match their gender identity.
“Noem has been protecting girls’ sports for years, and never backed down,” Noem’s new ad states. “Noem’s steady, conservative leadership doesn’t win headlines—it wins results.”
State lawmakers, and particularly Republicans, have seized on trans people as a white-hot “culture war” issue: Last year, legislators in 34 states introduced 147 anti-trans bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 10 states ended up enacting bills that target trans athletes, despite the fact that even lawmakers frequently couldn’t find local examples of trans girls, a particular target of these bills, even playing sports. There are relatively few trans kids participating in sports, according to multiple analyses—and even if there were, there’s no evidence to back up anti-trans advocates’ claims that trans athletes threaten cisgender athletes or the integrity of women’s sports.
Studies have found, however, that trans people’s mental health is in danger due to these controversies. A recent poll by the Trevor Project, which aims to prevent suicides among LGBTQ youth, found that two thirds of LGBTQ youth overall say that the recent legislative debates about trans people’s rights has negatively impacted their mental health. Among trans and non-binary youth, that number rises to 85 percent.
Trans people also face a staggering level of physical violence. At least 51 trans or gender non-conforming people were violently killed last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2020, 44 trans or gender non-conforming people were killed.
“I am certain that Gov. Noem would much rather talk about this issue than her pandemic response,” Gillian Branstetter, press secretary for the National Women’s Law Center, told NBC News. “We have significantly larger problems, for example, problems that exist! Those would be good problems to solve as opposed to conjuring fictional ghosts of a changing society and attempting to exploit people's ignorance.”