South Dakota could soon become the first state in the country to ban transgender students from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. On Tuesday, the South Dakota state Senate passed a measure mandating that restrooms and locker rooms used by public school students "shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex." The bill defines "biological sex" as "the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and identified at birth by a person’s anatomy." The bill’s proponents say it’s about protecting students, but opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the measure ostracizes transgender children who already face a high risk of harassment. We speak to Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the ACLU. Chase recently wrote a letter to South Dakota lawmakers, which reads, in part, "If I were a student in South Dakota right now, chances are I would not survive into adulthood."
AMY GOODMAN: South Dakota could soon become the first state in the country to ban transgender students from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. On Tuesday, the South Dakota state Senate passed a measure mandating that restrooms and locker rooms used by public school students, quote, "shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex," unquote. The bill defines "biological sex" as, quote, "the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and identified at birth by a person’s anatomy," unquote.
Under the measure, transgender students could seek a, quote, "reasonable accommodation," such as the use of a single-occupancy restroom or controlled use of a faculty bathroom. The bill’s proponents say it’s about protecting students, but opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the measure ostracizes transgender children who already face a high risk of harassment. South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard has signaled support for the measure but has not said for sure if he’s going to sign it. The bill is just one of many anti-LGBTQ measures that have been making their way through state legislatures around the country.
To talk more about it, we’re joined by Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the ACLU. Chase recently wrote a letter to South Dakota lawmakers, which reads, in part, quote, "If I were a student in South Dakota right now, chances are I would not survive into adulthood."
Chase Strangio, welcome back to Democracy Now!
CHASE STRANGIO: Good morning, and thank you so much for having me. I think what we’re seeing in South Dakota and across the country are really unprecedented measures to target the transgender community and, obviously, harm an incredibly vulnerable population. But we’re also seeing, you know, legislation and proposed legislation that could really open the door to also unprecedented privacy intrusions into our students that I think we should all be concerned about.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you write to legislators that you don’t think you, yourself, would make it to adulthood, if you were in South Dakota right now, with a law like this in place?
CHASE STRANGIO: I was sitting there listening to legislators talking, saying horrible things about trans students, and imagining what it would be like for me, myself, as a young transgender person, growing up and getting the messages that you are so disgusting, you are so freakish, that others have to be protected from you. And so, for me, with someone with a platform and who has survived into adulthood and am proud of who I am, it felt absolutely imperative to share my own story and say, "Listen, lawmakers, if you’re going to be out there talking about this group of people, you should know the consequences of your actions." But I also wanted to speak directly to the trans young people, who are inevitably going to be so harmed by what they’re hearing from the people in power, to say we need you, and we will keep fighting for you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own story.
CHASE STRANGIO: So, you know, I’m a lawyer at the ACLU, and I identify as a transgender man. And I grew up, like many people, not being comfortable with who I was. But the reality is that so many people go through high school and middle school feeling uncomfortable, and if we’re going to start legislating around access to private spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms, where students are already uncomfortable, where people already feel shame around their body, and say to some people, "You are so shameful that you should not be around your peers," we’re going to contribute to the already epidemic violence that the trans community faces, where you have rates of suicide of 41 percent of attempted suicide among trans people, you have unprecedented murder of trans women in the last year. So this is the culture that we’re contributing to.
And we’re also, you know, saying—I have a daughter, for example, who is almost four years old. She has short hair. Everyone thinks that she’s a boy. What does it mean if she goes to school in South Dakota? Are they going to check her genitals to make sure she goes into the right restroom? You know, the reality is that the human condition is diverse, and we are going to have very little certainty about someone’s genitals, about someone’s chromosomes. And if we’re going to open the door to state lawmakers trying to sort out people based on private medical information and their bodies, we’re going to authorize intrusions into deeply personal information with our kids.
AMY GOODMAN: During his weekly legislative press briefing last week, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard fielded questions from reporters about the bill on transgender accommodations. One reporter asked the governor if he had ever met a transgender person and what affect that may have had on his decision.
GOV. DENNIS DAUGAARD: I have not met a transgender person, that I’m aware of. My thoughts on the bill, I’ve just looked at—briefly at it. It is, as I mentioned at another press conference, a very highly personal thing. And I don’t pretend to understand the emotions and the motivations of those who choose to change their gender identify—identifier or their self-identification with one gender or another. At first blush, it seems this bill accommodates both the transgender person, gives them an opportunity to have facilities. It also accommodates those who are—whose privacy concerns are also appropriate to consider.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the governor of South Dakota, Governor Daugaard. Chase Strangio?
CHASE STRANGIO: You know, and the thing that’s remarkable is there are so many brave South Dakotans who are transgender, who—you know, young people and older people who are speaking out against this bill. And it’s clear that the governor, you know, at least a week ago, wasn’t interested in meeting with those individuals. And I think what we need to be doing is continuing to foreground the experiences of trans people and make people aware that there are actual people who are going to be targeted by this action.
AMY GOODMAN: The bill’s sponsor, South Dakota state Senator Brock Greenfield, said, quote, "We’re talking about our youths commingling in bathrooms and locker rooms, biological males and biological females. Do you feel it appropriate for a 13-year-old girl to be exposed to the anatomy of a boy? Or for a boy to be exposed to the anatomy of a girl because of the decisions we make out here?" he said.
In response to the bill, Democratic state Representative Troy Heinert said, quote, "When does the discrimination stop? Is it just transgender? Or next year is it, 'I don't like blonde hair, blue eyes,’ or 'I don't like Natives’? We’re going to tread down a very serious path ... this is exactly how it starts," the representative said. Chase?
CHASE STRANGIO: Absolutely. I think, you know, we should all—we should all be concerned when our lawmakers are encouraging state-sanctioned discrimination. I mean, we live in a country and in a historical moment when we’re seeing unprecedented violence against communities, we’re seeing unprecedented efforts to marginalize our young people. And so, what this bill does and what the senator’s comments really say to us all is, are we really willing to accept the government intruding upon the privacy and the rights of our most vulnerable? And when is it going to stop? Who’s going to be harmed? How many young people have to die before we’re really sparked into action to say no to this type of harmful legislation?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where else this kind of legislation is being considered? And how likely do you think it is the governor will sign it?
CHASE STRANGIO: So, the South Dakota bill is one of—this morning, I counted at least 26 bills targeting transgender individuals that have been introduced across the country. And then there are a host of other bills, you know, at least another 20, targeting the LGBT community as a whole, in states ranging from Washington to Tennessee to South Dakota. And I think what we’re seeing is an effort to say publicly and make public statements that, you know, in many places, the LGBT community is not welcome. And I think it’s important that we continue to fight back against those messages.
With this bill in South Dakota, unfortunately, it’s just one of four anti-trans bills. And this one is heading to the governor’s desk. And we are continuing to fight to make sure that he does veto this bill. But if it does pass this, I think we have—you know, we need a national outcry. We need people to be concerned about what message we’re sending to vulnerable young people.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to South Dakota state Senator David Omdahl, a Republican, who said, "I’m sorry if you’re so twisted you don’t know who you are. A lot of people are. And I’m telling you right now, it’s about protecting the kids." Implying that transgender people are mentally ill, he then said, "They’re treating the wrong part of the anatomy. They ought to be treating it up here," gesturing to his head. By the way, we did invite state Senator Omdahl to join us on the program, but he declined, saying, "Thanks for the offer. However, I will be in an appropriations committee at that time." Chase?
CHASE STRANGIO: I think Senator Omdahl’s remarks throughout this process have been very telling and very disturbing on a lot of levels. He sent the message to the trans people of South Dakota that they are not welcome and they are not represented by their government. But he’s also contributed, like I said, to unprecedented intrusions into the privacy of all students. So, if we are concerned about protecting students, we should be very concerned about legislation that authorizes genital checks and chromosomal checks and really has no method of enforcement without intruding upon the privacy of many young people. And the idea of accommodation is just a way of sending the signal to the entire community, encouraging bullying and telling transgender students that you are so freakish, you are so abnormal, that you have to use a bathroom separate from your peers. And I don’t think that’s the message we want to be sending to our young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a group that’s behind introducing this legislation around the country?
CHASE STRANGIO: There are many groups who are standing by this legislation and pushing it out, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, who are telling lawmakers that they are willing to defend school districts against lawsuits and take on the legal representation of school districts who are sued by transgender students. And I think that’s obviously a part of the national narrative, and it’s encouraging this type of legislation.
But more so even than the Alliance Defending Freedom is the reality that we live in a time where we continue to feel it appropriate to target and discriminate against the transgender community. And so we’re all really complicit in a culture that tells trans women they’re not real women, that tells trans men they’re not real men. And that is the paradigm that allows this to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Chase Strangio, I want to thank you for being with us, being back with us. He recently wrote a letter to the South Dakota lawmakers, which reads, in part, quote, "If I were a student in South Dakota ... chances are I would not survive into adulthood." We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.
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