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'How far are you willing to go?' Some South Dakotans decry bills aimed at trans kids

Grace better.jpg
Lee Strubinger
Cynthia Grace stands at the corner of Sixth and Main Street in Rapid City at the Protect Trans Kids Rally in January.

Cynthia Grace stands in downtown Rapid City with a sign that says, “Trans kids belong in South Dakota.”

Grace is a transgender woman. She and about three dozen others are showing their opposition to the bills in the Legislature focused on the state’s transgender kids.

“When you strip rights away from one group of individuals you strip rights away from everyone, in my opinion,” Grace says.

Two of the three bills would prevent transgender girls from playing girls sports. The other bill places restrictions on which school bathroom a transgender student can use. Grace says they all seem to have the same goal.

“If you’re part of group x, you do not have the same rights as we do. To me, that is wrong," Grace says. "That is sending a clear message of fascism. We are not that in South Dakota. We are about equality and respect.”

In recent years, South Dakota lawmakers have consistently introduced legislation aimed at transgender children.

Last year, a similar bill restricting transgender girls participation in sports reached Governor Kristi Noem’s desk. She vetoed the bill, over requirements for written waivers from athletes.

Nationally, Noem received heavy criticism from social conservatives. She’s now championing the issue. In her state of the state address, Noem called transgender girls' participation in girls sports “troubling.”

“Boys' and girls' bodies are biologically different,” Noem said. “In South Dakota, only girls can play in girls sports according to the executive orders I signed almost a year ago. But I am introducing — and hope you will support — a bill that will be the strongest law in the nation.”

Noem’s proposed bill requires that students compete for teams that are consistent with the sex listed on their original birth certificate. The bill would only affect girls sports.

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Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her 2022 State of the State speech.

A new clause in the proposal says the state will represent and cover the legal fees of any school district or university sued because of the law.

The bill has already made it out of the Senate.

Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, is the leader of the Senate. He says the state high school athletic association has done a good job of addressing the topic, but the NCAA has failed to act.

“When they’re busy train-wrecking women’s collegiate athletics you can say, ‘Well, that’s not a problem in South Dakota.’ Except, of course, South Dakota schools are members of the NCAA," Schoenbeck says. "The first time that happens at an event in South Dakota, people are going to say ‘How come you let that happen to the Jackrabbits or the Coyotes?’”

Schoenbeck says the Senate is fast-tracking the bill and sending it over to the House. He says if the bill passes, it will likely end up in the courts and before the U.S. Supreme Court. West Virginia and Idaho have passed similar laws, which have been challenged in court.

Critics say the legislation is rooted in something deeper than competitive sports and which bathroom folks use.

SD Legislative Research Council
SD Legislative Research Council
Lee Schoenbeck

Bree Oatman has lived in South Dakota for seven years. The Pierre resident is bisexual, and her daughter is a lesbian. Oatman says she gets anxious every time a legislative session comes around. She feels targeted by the bills aimed at transgender youth.

“If you don’t fit this mold of being heterosexual, or being cis-gendered, if you don’t follow these very, kind of, narrow ideas of what it means to be male or female, then you’re not welcome here.”

Oatman started a youth program at the United Church of Christ in Pierre to support LGBTQ teens and their friends.

Oatman says her daughter has often been misgendered. It happened when she played sports as a child.

“Every season I could count on a parent, a ref, another kid from the other team making some comments or asking questions about whether or not she was a boy or a girl and misgendering her with the implied message of, ‘well, should she be allowed on the field playing?’”

Oatman’s daughter stopped playing sports because she felt uncomfortable. She expects the same will happen to other girls that do not fit into neatly defined gender roles.

“To be put in a situation where you constantly have to be facing that is really not OK,” Oatman adds.

At the rally in downtown Rapid City, Cynthia Grace asks a question of state lawmakers who support bills targeting transgender youth.

“How far are you willing to go to steal the rights of law-abiding, taxpaying South Dakota citizens?”

Grace says transgender South Dakotans are being unfairly singled out.

“To start taking rights away from kids based on falsified information, delusional beliefs, and just general fear is not just insanity but also wrong, in my opinion.”

None of the three bills aimed at transgender kids, including the governor’s Senate bill, have been scheduled for a committee hearing in the House.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.