South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard today vetoed a bill that would have restricted transgender students’ use of restrooms, locker rooms, and other gender-specific facilities in public schools.
The bill "does not address any pressing issue," said the governor in his veto message, according to the Associated Press. Daugaard also insisted that such decisions were best left to local school officials and that the law posed grave risks for costly liability for schools and the state. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union had threatened legal action if the bill was signed.
"I am so happy right now. You have no idea," said Thomas Lewis, an 18-year-old Sioux Falls transgender high school student, in the Associated Press report. He noted that while his school supports him, the veto shows that "the government's not going to hold me back from who I really am."
The measure would have been the first law of its kind in the nation requiring trans young people to use the facilities designated for the gender they were assigned at birth, not the ones matching their gender identity. LGBT groups, businesses, and child advocacy organizations had all called on Daugaard to veto the bill, which they deemed stigmatizing and dangerous to transgender youth, in addition to being unnecessary.
If it had been signed into law, advocates say that the bill may have fueled escalating legislative attacks against transgender people that are unfolding in more than three dozen proposed new laws across 16 states. But advocates hope that the veto signals a critical turn in favor of trans equality that may bode well in the push to stop similar anti-trans bills pending in other states, including one that remains alive in South Dakota, which would restrict trans students' participation in sports.
“Governor Daugaard chose to do the right thing and veto this outrageous legislation attacking transgender kids,” said a statement issued by Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. “Today, the voices of fairness and equality prevailed, and these students' rights and dignity prevailed against overwhelming odds and vicious opponents in the state legislature.”
Added Kris Hayashi, executive director of Transgender Law Center:
“Governor Daugaard made the right call in vetoing this dangerous legislation, sparing South Dakota the risky and costly experiment of becoming the first state to mandate discrimination against transgender youth in violation of federal law and student privacy and well-being.”
Hayashi went on to emphasize the way in which the governor's veto helps make the state a welcoming place for gender-variant children:
"Every child, including transgender children, should feel welcome in their state and in their school, and should have the opportunity to succeed and be treated fairly as they work to get an education. Using state law to force schools to perform gender checks on students who need to use the bathroom — and then separate out transgender students from their peers — is not only dangerous and wrong, it is a violation of federal law."
Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, the bill's sponsor, told the AP that he would encourage his fellow lawmakers to concur with the veto because further attention would "detract from the other significant accomplishment of the Legislature this session."
After the bill passed in the legislature, Gov. Daugaard said that he had never met anyone he knew to be transgender and that he didn’t think it would be necessary to meet a trans person before considering the bill.
But he eventually reversed himself three times (through his spokeswoman) — agreeing, refusing, and then agreeing again to meet with representatives from the Center for Equality, an LGBT group in Sioux Falls, along with other transgender activists and allies.
“Thank you, Governor Daugaard, for meeting with transgender people to see through their eyes that they are our friends, family, and neighbors, worthy of the same fair treatment and dignity as everyone else,” said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation after the meeting, according to a statement from the organization. “The more people get to know about the real lives of transgender people, the more empathy prevails. All students, including transgender students, should be able to fully participate and have a fair opportunity to thrive in school.”
“Any time you’re hoping for someone to see the light or to make change, it’s so much easier if you can put a face to it,” said Ashley Joubert-Gaddis, director of operations for the Center for Equality, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader after the governor finally agreed to meet with trans advocates.
Many other activists lauded the governor's veto.
“We commend Governor Daugaard for vetoing this cruel legislation that would have mandated discrimination against transgender students by forcing them to use bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match who they are," said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in a statement. Silverman went on to note how the legislation violates federal protections under Title IX:
"The legislation also violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools, and would inevitably have prompted legal action against South Dakota. ... Transgender young people already face extraordinarily high rates of bullying in school, and this bill would have made them targets for further harassment. To his credit, the Governor listened to students’ concerns, took their words to heart and rejected this harmful bill."
The U.S. Department of Education has ruled that Title IX, in prohibiting sex discrimination, applies to discrimination based on gender identity. It covers all schools that receive federal funding, as almost all do, and therefore South Dakota schools could have lost federal monies if the governor hadn't vetoed the bill.
Organizations that advocate for LGBTQ youth, like PFLAG, were particularly jubilant after the governor's veto. PFLAG National interim executive director Elizabeth Kohm offered the following statement:
"PFLAG National and our 200,000 nationwide members and supporters thank South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard for vetoing a bill which would have been the first piece of legislation in our country that directly targets transgender students. It is clear that meeting with families and their trans kids opened the governor’s eyes, heart, and mind.
"However, more than a dozen pieces of similar legislation in other states are sending a clear and devastating message to transgender children and their families: that they should, and will, be treated differently. PFLAG calls for our members, supporters, and all fair-minded Americans to join us in holding legislators and leaders accountable and responsible when their actions do not uphold the American ideals of equality, opportunity, and fairness."
In its statement praising the governor's veto, the HRC explained that it worked "with seven national child welfare, medical, and education groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American School Counselor Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of Social Workers, and the National Education Association — to release an open letter to all of the nation’s governors expressing their grave concerns and objections to this type of legislation."
The letter sent to the governors joined with an outpouring of letters and statements against the bill sent to Gov. Daugaard by organizations and individuals like the South Dakota Association of School Psychologists, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Psychiatric Association, the Pediatric Endocrine Society, and such notable physicians as Dr. William Byne of the Department of Psychiatry at New York's Icahn School of Medicine.