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South Dakota Rejects Restrictions on Trans Athletes

US Lawmakers Should Focus on Enhancing Acceptance of Transgender Youth

Rainbow flags for sale are photographed on June 24, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

South Dakota lawmakers have rejected a bill which would have barred transgender students from participating in athletics consistent with their gender identity.

The ACLU and other organizations spoke out against the bill, with the South Dakota High School Activities Association, the Association of School Boards in South Dakota, the South Dakota Education Association, the Sioux Falls School District, the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, school personnel, parents, and the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary testifying against it.

In a bipartisan 5-2 vote, committee members voted to postpone the bill past the point it could be introduced to the senate – effectively killing it.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the Senate Education Committee opposing the bill. The letter outlined how the bill would deprive transgender students of the benefits that students get from extracurricular activities, would put them at heightened risk of bullying and harassment, and would invade their privacy by exposing their transgender status to their peers.

Like bills attempting to ban transgender youth from bathrooms and locker rooms, bills restricting athletic participation amount to a solution in search of a problem. Only seven US states impose rigid restrictions requiring transgender students to participate in athletics according to the sex on their birth certificate, while 36 – including South Dakota – allow them to participate according to their gender identity or undertake a case-by-case review.

Supporters of the bill claimed that requiring transgender students to play as their sex assigned at birth will preserve fairness in sport, but transgender athletes do not necessarily have a competitive advantage over their peers. Making kids compete as their sex assigned at birth can also leave both trans students and their peers disillusioned by athletic competition. In practice, such policies are likely to deter many transgender kids from participating in sports at all.

The South Dakota legislature has considered bills targeting transgender youth for the past five years – and each year, they have failed to pass.

In Thursday’s vote, lawmakers showed empathy and understanding, reflecting the enormous amount of public education that transgender youth and their allies have undertaken to illustrate why these kinds of laws are so harmful. Instead of targeting transgender youth, lawmakers across the US should focus on ways to make them feel accepted and part of the school community.  

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