South Dakota Is Launching a Full-Scale Attack on Transgender Kids

The governor’s chief of staff compared anti-transgender bills to anti-terrorism measures.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to attendees at the North Carolina GOP convention on June 5, 2021 in Greenville, North Carolina. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to attendees at the North Carolina GOP convention on June 5, 2021 in Greenville, North Carolina. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

South Dakota’s conservative House spent their Tuesday targeting transgender kids, who they’re trying to ban not only from playing high school sports but also from using school bathrooms and locker rooms.

The lower chamber of South Dakota’s legislature passed a bill that would ban trans girls from competing in girls’ sports, then sent it to the desk of a governor whose chief of staff has compared the bill to anti-terrorism. Then, the House passed a similar bill regarding public accommodations in schools, and sent it to the state Senate, which will take it up soon. 

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The bills focused on trans kids come as conservative politicians and media, emboldened by the culture wars, have renewed their focus on trans identity as a wedge political issue. 

LGBTQ civil rights groups slammed the bills Tuesday. “The votes today by House lawmakers are shameful,” Jett Jonelis, the advocacy manager for the ACLU of South Dakota, said in a statement. “Senate Bill 46 and House Bill 1005 reinforce the incorrect notion that transgender students are not entitled to the same dignity and respect as all students.”

If Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, signs the sports bill as is expected, South Dakota would be the 11th state to restrict trans kids from sports. “Only female athletes, based on their biological sex, shall participate in any team, sport, or athletic event designated as being for females, women, or girls,” the legislation says. 

Last week, Noem chief of staff and general counsel Mark Miller likened passing the legislation to containing terrorism. 

“By putting it in law, we’re ensuring that what we’re seeing all over the country does not happen in South Dakota,” Miller said during a hearing on the bill. “It’s sort of like terrorism—you want to keep it over there, not let it get to here.” Noem later told the Argus Leader that she didn’t know Miller had made the comments, and claimed that “we just want to make sure that we're having fairness for girls, and girls sports.” 

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Last year Noem came under intense right-wing criticism for vetoing similar legislation, citing potential boycotts the likes of which North Carolina saw after its anti-trans public accommodations bill HB 2 passed in 2016. She submitted the new sports bill at the start of the legislative session, saying in December that “common sense tells us that males have an unfair physical advantage over females in athletic competition.” Last month Noem, who has been a rumored future presidential candidate, released a national television ad—not just in South Dakota—touting her record of “protecting girls’ sports.” 

The bill targeting bathrooms and locker rooms passed the House Tuesday by a closer margin than the sports bill. Though several conservative states have considered similar legislation over the last few years, most have shied away from going as far as to enact those in the law after HB 2 boycotts cost North Carolina an estimated nearly $4 billion in a single year (the Republican legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper repealed the legislation in 2017). 

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But the bathroom bills are coming back, as well as other anti-LGBTQ legislation; a dozen states passed anti-LGBTQ legislation in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Last May, Tennessee became the first state in more than five years to pass a “bathroom” bill.

Rep. Fred Deutsch—the GOP sponsor of the bathroom and locker room bill, who once claimed gender confirmation treatment for minors was “mutilation” and a “crime against humanity,” and compared the procedures to Nazi experiments during the Holocaust—claimed that the legislation was common sense. 

“I had no intention of inflaming folks on this,” Deutsch said Tuesday. “This is not about transgender children. This is about privacy, that we respect each other. That’s it.”

Civil rights advocates say the bills are a solution in search of a problem. “Transgender people, whether people know it or not, are already using the bathrooms and communal facilities they have a right to—and doing so without incident,” Jonelis said in a statement. 

“If House Bill 1005 is enacted, transgender people will have to make the impossible decision of breaking the law or revealing their private medical information—not to mention the obvious risk of harassment and violence that comes with forcing transgender people into the facilities that do not match their gender identity,” Jonelis said. 

“Efforts to attack South Dakota’s transgender kids with bills like these date back more than six years, and they are nothing more than an attempt to shrink the space in which transgender kids can exist as their authentic selves,” HRC state legislative director Cathryn Oakley said in a statement Tuesday. “South Dakotans deserve better from their Governor and legislators.”

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