Dalila Ali Rajah
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South Dakota Gov. Spearheading National Effort Against Trans Athletes

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem wants changes to an anti-transgender sports bill to narrow its scope, but she’s also creating what she calls a “Defend Title IX Now” coalition.

“This issue matters to me on a very personal level,” Noem said in announcing the coalition at a press conference Monday morning, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is the federal law banning sex discrimination in educational programs, including sports.

The Republican governor said the coalition will be a national one and that when enough states join, the National Collegiate Athletic Association “cannot possibly punish us all,” according to TV station KELO. More than 500 college athletes have signed a letter calling on the NCAA to keep championship games and other events out of states with trans-exclusionary laws, which is what the South Dakota bill, which has been passed by both houses of the legislature, would create, keeping trans girls out of girls’ interscholastic sports.

She said the coalition would consist of government officials, athletes, and “everyone who cares about defending women’s sports.” She denied that this was a transgender issue.

Two former National Football League players, Herschel Walker and Jack Brewer, joined her at the press conference, along with a few other supporters. Walker theorized that under certain circumstances, he could claim to be a trans woman and compete in the Olympics as female. The International Olympic Committee allows trans women to compete in women’s sports, but only if they have suppressed their testosterone below a certain level. Very few trans women have ever competed, and not one out trans athlete has won a medal.

The NCAA also allows trans women to compete as women, but only if they have completed a year of testosterone suppression treatment. Noem wants legislators to rewrite the bill before her to exclude college athletics but still keep trans girls off girls’ high school teams. Noem released a statement to this effect Friday, saying she wouldn’t sign the bill into law unless this and other changes were made, and it satisfied neither the bill’s supporters nor its opponents.

“Legislators are the ones who make the laws and the governor signs them,” Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who sponsored the bill in the South Dakota House, told the Argus Leader. “She’s gutting the bill and writing a new law and that’s not her job.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and its South Dakota affiliate said the bill, which Noem had previously committed to signing, remains discriminatory. “House Bill 1217 was never about protecting fairness in women’s sports. It was about discrimination and the erasure of trans girls, pure and simple,” Jett Jonelis, ACLU of South Dakota advocacy manager, said in a press release. “Gov. Noem’s decision not to issue a full veto of this anti-transgender bill … is disappointing. We are relieved, however, that the organizing by trans youth and pressure from business leaders, educators, and parents has given us the chance to fight to block this bill from passing. Codifying discrimination like this does nothing but hurt some of the most vulnerable people in our state. South Dakota should be better than this. The South Dakota legislature should take this moment to altogether abandon this bill that will hurt trans youth, all girls and women who want to play school sports, and South Dakota’s economy.”

The South Dakota ACLU issued another release Monday, this one responding to Noem's announcement of the coalition, which it said "is simply an attempt to erase transgender people from society and violates the United States Constitution and federal civil rights laws."

“Title IX protects all students — including those who are transgender — from discrimination based on sex,” Jonelis said in the Monday release. “If Gov. Noem really wanted to protect fairness in women’s sports, she would tackle the actual threats to women’s sports such as severe underfunding, lack of media coverage, sexist ideologies that suggest that women and girls are weak, and pay equity for coaches. This coalition is clearly fueled by a fear and misunderstanding of transgender people.”

“It doesn’t matter what House Bill 1217 ends up looking like,” Jonelis continued. “House Bill 1217 has never been about leveling the playing field for student athletes. It’s been obvious from the beginning that this discriminatory legislation is about creating problems that don’t exist and, in the process, harming some of the most vulnerable people in our state. ... These attacks on trans women and girls are rooted in the same kind of gender discrimination and stereotyping that has held back cisgender women athletes for centuries. Transgender girls are often told that they are not girls based on inaccurate stereotypes about biology, athleticism and gender. Trans girls are girls — period. This is an attempt to erase transgender people from society.”

The South Dakota bill is part of a rash of anti-transgender legislation introduced around the nation in 2021 — more than 80 bills, the most in any year, with about half seeking to keep trans females out of girls’ and women’s sports, and many others aimed at denying gender-affirming medical care to trans minors. Only one has been signed into law this year, a sports bill in Mississippi, and it takes effect July 1. Idaho adopted an anti-trans sports law last year, and it has been blocked by a federal judge while a court challenge to it proceeds.

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