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Amid 'Terrorism' Rhetoric, South Dakota Advances Anti-Trans Bills

softball practice
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The votes on sports and restroom bills came a few days after the governor's chief of staff likened trans students to terrorists.

South Dakota lawmakers have sent an anti-transgender sports bill to the governor and have advanced a bill to limit trans students' access to restrooms and changing rooms. The action comes a few days after Gov. Kristi Noem's chief of staff likened trans students to terrorists.

The House of Representatives Tuesday approved Senate Bill 46, which would require students in K-12 schools and public colleges and universities to compete under their sex assigned at birth or on coed teams, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports. The Senate has already passed the bill, so it now goes to Noem, who is expected to sign it, making it the first anti-trans law enacted in 2022. Nine other states put anti-trans sports laws in place in 2020 and 2021.

The House also OK'd House Bill 1005, which would make students use the school restrooms and locker rooms designated for their sex assigned at birth, therefore preventing trans students from using the facilities that comport with their gender identity. The Senate will now consider the bill.

Noem, a Republican, last year refused to sign a trans-exclusionary sports bill because she feared reprisal by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which allows trans student athletes to compete under their gender identity if they meet certain standards. Instead she issued executive orders limiting trans students' participation in sports, one for K-12 schools, one for colleges and universities. But she has backed this session's legislation.

Last week, during a House committee hearing on the sports bill, Noem's chief of staff, Mark Miller, commented, "By putting it in law we are ensuring that what we're seeing all over the country does not happen in South Dakota. It's sort of like terrorism. You want to keep it over there, not let it get to here."

Some Democratic legislators immediately denounced Miller's remark. "It is absolutely dumbfounding that somebody would use that analogy for something," House Minority Leader Jamie Smith told South Dakota Public Broadcasting. "It's absolutely insensitive to the topic. I believe he was way out of line."

LGBTQ+ rights groups are condemning the legislature's actions. "The eagerness with which Gov. Kristi Noem and South Dakota legislators have worked to pass Senate Bill 46, legislation attacking transgender kids, reveals their backwards priorities and that Noem's national political aspirations override any sense of responsibility she has to fulfill her oath to protect South Dakotans," Human Rights Campaign State Legislative Director and Senior Counsel Cathryn Oakley said in a press release. "This was made clear when Noem's chief of staff likened transgender kids who want to play sports with their friends to 'terrorists.' Imagine your governor or her staff comparing you to a terrorist. This inflammatory rhetoric shows just how untethered Noem and legislators are from the realm of science, evidence, or reality."

The HRC release noted that Miller's "obscene statement ... unwittingly conceded what many proponents of the [sports] bill avoid mentioning, which is that legislators are unable to point to any instances of what they're legislating against -- a theme across the country."

Indeed, most proponents of such legislation can't cite a single instance of trans athletes causing a problem in their state, and the South Dakota High School Activities Association has approved only one trans youth to compete in interscholastic sports over the past decade. While supporters of bills like this claim trans girls and women have an inherent and unfair advantage over cisgender females, there is no widespread dominance of female sports by trans participants, as there are many factors that can affect an athlete's performance.

Oakley also commented on the restroom bill, saying both it and the sports bill "will harm transgender kids, adding to a dangerous wave of violence against transgender and gender-nonbinary people across the country that is being fueled by misinformation, discriminatory laws, and divisive political talking points."

The Trevor Project likewise criticized the South Dakota lawmakers' moves. "This early on in 2022, a year when we as a nation are facing unprecedented obstacles, it's as heartbreaking as it is infuriating to see South Dakota lawmakers put such effort into attacking transgender youth. Bills like these are unnecessary and cruel, and we know the ugly rhetoric surrounding them is having a real impact on the mental health and well-being of one of our most marginalized groups of young people," Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs, said in a press release. "The Trevor Project's research has found that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity over something as basic as using the bathroom had nearly double the odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not. Lawmakers should be focusing on the real issues facing these young people and fostering spaces where everyone can be safe, not making life harder than it already is for the transgender and nonbinary youth of South Dakota."

"The votes [Tuesday] by House lawmakers are shameful," added Jett Jonelis, advocacy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. "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." The sports bill, Jonelis said, "perpetuates harmful myths about transgender people and reduces trans students to political pawns," while the restroom bill will force trans people "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."

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