South Dakota governor meets transgender people for the first time

Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard is currently weighing the potential merits of a bill awaiting his approval that would affect which bathroom transgender students are able to use.

Jay Pickthorn /The Argus Leader/AP
Representatives from the Center for Equality, American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, LGBT supporters and members of the Human Rights Campaign stand on the front steps of the State Capitol to honor Trans Kids Support Visibility Day in Pierre, S.D. on Tuesday. Gov. Dennis Daugaard heard from several transgender people during a meeting Tuesday at the Capitol, where advocates gathered to urge the governor to veto a bill that would require students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their sex at birth.

On Tuesday, transgender activists spoke with the governor of South Dakota as he weighs whether to sign or veto a bill that would determine which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students are allowed to use.

The conversation was prompted by a Sioux Falls nonprofit that requested the time to talk with Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) after he said he had never met a transgender person. Several of the activists shared personal anecdotes and stories aiming to persuade the governor to veto the bill.

Did the conversation help? Yes, according to Governor Daugaard.

“It helped me see things through their eyes a little bit and understand their perspective,” Daugaard said after the meeting to The Associated Press.

Advocates for the transgender community said they were pleased with how the meetings were conducted. Kendra Heathscott, one of the attendees and a board member of the Center for Equality in Sioux Falls, told the AP the governor appeared genuine and responsive.

"I really think he got from our stories that we're human beings and we want to be treated like every human being deserves to be treated – with respect," Transgender Sioux Falls high school student Thomas Lewis told the AP.

The bill in question would prohibit transgender students from using public restrooms or locker rooms for their identified gender. A student born female, but who identified as male, would not be allowed to use the men’s bathroom if Daugaard signs the proposal into law. South Dakota would be the first state in the country to enact such a law. To some, the measure is a step forward for transgender rights.

"If the governor were to sign this, we'd be the only state in the nation that has laws for accommodating the needs of transgender students," Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, the main sponsor of the measure, told the AP. "The only one."

Proponents of the bill say it will not force transgender students to the restroom for the gender they were born as, but would have provisions to allow transgender students to either use single-stall restrooms or locker rooms to change or have supervised access to a bathroom for faculty, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

Opponents of the bill, however, say it would force students to label themselves during a deeply confusing time.

“We’re talking about the age when kids are just understanding [their gender identity],” Bill Mawhiney, treasurer for the Center for Equality, an LGBT-rights advocacy group in Sioux Falls, S.D, told the Monitor last week. “When you see these teenagers go through that struggle, the last thing they need to be told is, ‘We’re going to label you, we’re going to identify you.’ You’re forcing them to stand out.”

The governor is weighing both sides of the issue before deciding whether to veto the bill or sign it.

He also met with Representative Deutsch, who provided documents and explained why he helped bring the bill to a vote.

The governor’s final decision will have to be reached by March 1.

"Of course, I have my own set of values," Daugaard said. "They're going to, in the end, drive the decision with the information I have."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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