by Sabrina Holcomb. Photo above: Protestors call on governor to veto bill. Credit: Joe Ahlquist/Argus Leader via AP
Putting a human face on a piece of legislation helped South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard see the light say transgender students and educator allies.
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After meeting with trans students and a parent, Governor Daugaard vetoed a bill that, had it passed, would have been the first in the nation to require public school students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender assigned at birth.
As the bill moved through the state legislature, Governor Daugaard stated that he had never knowingly met a transgender person, prompting transgender youth advocates to arrange a face-to-face meeting between the governor and transgender students who shared their personal stories.
“Anytime you’re hoping for someone to see the light or make a change, it’s so much easier if you can put a face to it,” says Ashley Joubert-Gaddis, director of operations for the Center for Equality, the group that arranged the meeting.
“This decision tells trans students they are valued and will be treated with dignity because they are human beings before anything,” says Joubert-Gaddis, who praised the governor for his decision.
Advocates encouraged by the defeat of South Dakota’s House Bill 1008 are nevertheless braced for an onslaught of transgender “bathroom bills” pending in other states across the country, including one still alive in South Dakota that would restrict trans students’ participation in school sports.
What stands out about these bills, say advocates, is similarity of language. A conservative organization out of Scottsdale, Arizona, has shared model language with state legislatures nationwide hoping to turn back the clock on the federal Title IX policy that prohibits discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming students.
A current ballot initiative filed by another conservative group in Washington state would fine transgender students who use the “wrong” bathroom $2,500, and the money would be awarded to the students who turned them in.
A similar failed “bounty bill” in Arizona, nicknamed the “show your papers to pee” bill, required bathroom-bound students to produce their birth certificates when challenged.
Proponents of bathroom bills argue that they protect students’ privacy and that most, including HB 1008, allow for transgender students to be given “reasonable accommodations,” such as the use of a single-occupancy, unisex, or staff restroom. However, the bills also dictate that school districts can’t be forced into the “undue hardship” of building and paying for separate bathrooms.
To some people, the option of “reasonable accommodations” sounds like a reasonable compromise. What’s wrong with offering alternatives? “Nothing’s wrong with offering alternatives,” says school psychologist and NEA member Dr. Jill Davidson. “The problem comes with requiring transgender students to use them.”
Davidson explains why segregating transgender students into separate bathrooms has a severe impact on their health, physical safety, and ability to learn:
“Many transgender students are indistinguishable from members of their affirmed gender, and requiring them to use bathrooms that are set aside for them, or that match their birth gender, often forces them to out themselves, putting them at high risk of physical assault and harassment.”
Alternative restrooms may also be located far from the student’s classroom, forcing them to miss class time or be marked tardy. To avoid being outed or missing class, some students will “hold it” or stop drinking any kind of liquids, leading to long-term health problems.
Some school districts have even suspended and expelled trans students for using the “regular” bathroom in an emergency.
The grim consequences of not being able to perform a basic human function most students take for granted explains why transgender students and their allies were jubilant over the defeat of HB 1008 and hopeful that the decision augurs the defeat of similar bills waiting in the wings, including the next legislative battle in Tennessee.
“You have no idea how happy I am right now,” confided a transgender teenager who attends high school in Sioux Falls and who said that HB 1008 made him feel like a second-class citizen. “It gives me hope for equality and the legislative process,” affirmed his cisgender classmate.