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South Dakota considers legislating transgender access to restrooms

February 29, 2016 at 8:16 PM EDT
South Dakota would become the first state to restrict transgender students’ access to restrooms if Gov. Dennis Daugaard signs a controversial bill passed by the state Congress. The bill would require transgender students in public schools use only restrooms that match their gender at birth; LGBT activists have called on Daugaard to veto the law. April Brown of the American Graduate team reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a battle emerging in some states over schools and rights for transgender students.

South Dakota’s governor, Dennis Daugaard, must decide by tomorrow whether he will sign or veto a bill that would make his state the first in the country to restrict transgender students’ access to school restrooms and locker rooms. If he doesn’t act by tomorrow, the bill will become law.

The “NewsHour”‘s April Brown reports for our American Graduate team.

APRIL BROWN: Transgender rights advocates in South Dakota gathered at the state capitol building last week to draw attention to a bill they consider discriminatory.

Freshman Nathan Leonard was there.

NATHAN LEONARD, Freshman, Watertown High School: It directly affects me, because I am a transgender student, and I already get made fun of enough.

APRIL BROWN: The bill would require school restrooms and locker rooms are “used only by students of the same biological sex.” It would also allow students whose gender identity is different than their biological sex “to be provided with a reasonable accommodation.”

One of the bill’s primary sponsors, state Representative Fred Deutsch, says the goal is to protect children.

FRED DEUTSCH (R-S.D.), State Representative: The bill is not intended to hurt or harm. I’m protecting their hearts, their eyes and their minds. I don’t want our children to be exposed to the anatomy of other genders.

APRIL BROWN: But many in the LGBT community and their supporters believe the bill would not protect children, especially transgender students.

State Representative Paula Hawks opposes the bill and stood with protesters.

PAULA HAWKS (D-S.D.), State Representative: It is an unfriendly message. It’s hostile. It’s unacceptable in a state where we’re trying to progress forward.

APRIL BROWN: The battle comes as a number of cities have expanded nondiscrimination laws for transgender people. But there are many other bills many consider anti-transgender pending in 16 states, including Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, and Washington state. And some of them would restrict students’ access to restrooms and sports programs.

The South Dakota legislation is also at odds with guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. Federal officials have previously threatened to cut off funding to districts in California and Illinois that didn’t allow transgender students to use their preferred bathrooms and changing areas.

However, the Department of Education guidance is not legally binding. And if Governor Dennis Daugaard signs the bill, there could be another repercussion: lawsuits.

FRED DEUTSCH: This is a values issue. And if we protect our children and we get sued, well, then that’s the decision we make.

APRIL BROWN: The final decision-maker, Governor Daugaard, met with transgender students and their parents last week, which he says put a human face on the issue.

GOV. DENNIS DAUGAARD (R), South Dakota: I heard their personal stories. And so I saw things through their eyes, in that sense. It’s certainly of great concern to many people. Certainly, to the opponents of the bill, it’s of great concern. And so I don’t treat it lightly, by any means.

APRIL BROWN: LGBT advocates at the capitol were pleased the governor listened.

WOMAN: Any time you’re talking, the door’s open for change. When there’s no discussion, you’re not going forward.

APRIL BROWN: Governor Daugaard has also spoken to the bill’s sponsors and is reviewing testimony and court documents before he makes his final decision.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m April Brown.