PIERRE, S.D. — A South Dakota bill that would ban transgender students from using school restrooms that match their gender identity cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature on Monday, receiving approval from a House committee.
As the Republican-controlled Legislature has taken up a spate of bills aimed at transgender youth this year, LGBTQ advocates and organizations representing school districts have been trying to fend off proposals they say will only increase the bullying and alienation trans students face.
But many Republican lawmakers, especially in the House, have shown a refusal to accept trans students’ gender identity, instead insisting that they should be assessed based on the biological sex on their birth certificate.
“Boys should use boys’ bathroom and girls should use girls’ bathrooms,” said Republican Rep. Jon Hansen before voting to advance the bill. “This is obvious and should be non-controversial.”
The hearing in the Legislature on trans students’ access to bathrooms was a continuation of a school board debate in Vermillion after the district in November established a policy that allows students to use restrooms that correspond with their “consistently asserted gender.”
For parents of trans students, such as Mike Phelan, the Vermillion policy came as a relief. He said it allowed his daughter to regularly use the bathroom at school. Under the previous arrangement, she had to find excuses to tell her friends why she was going to the school nurse’s office, where she could use a single-occupancy restroom.
She tried to avoid using the restroom at all, eating and drinking little during the school day. By the time Phelan picked her up at school his daughter was angry, dehydrated and suffering from headaches, he told the committee.
“In early December our school board changed their policy and my daughter’s school experience turned on a dime,” Phelan said. “She is now excited to go to school in the morning. She eats and drinks normally and she is happy every day when I pick her up. In her words, ‘It made me feel like I really belonged at school.'”
However, several students and parents from the Vermillion school district traveled to the Capitol to testify in support of the ban, saying they felt the new policy violated their privacy.
The Vermillion School District’s final policy does not apply to locker rooms or overnight accommodations, but both lawmakers and students claimed they were worried about those situations. The bill would apply to locker rooms and sleeping accommodations.
“This is not an issue that affects their kids,” Phelan said. “All of the actual data says that it is trans kids who suffer.”
Organizations representing school boards also warned that the schools would run afoul of federal law if lawmakers enact the legislation. It would put them at risk of lawsuits and losing federal funds.
After former President Donald Trump scrapped a policy that allowed transgender students to choose their school bathrooms, President Joe Biden’s administration has expanded its interpretation of federal sex protections to include transgender and gay students.