PIERRE, S.D. -- Failing to get a majority vote, the South Dakota House has killed a controversial bill that would have required transgender high school athletes to compete according to their birth sex, as proven by a birth certificate or a physical exam.
The House on Monday, Feb. 25, voted down House Bill 1225 with a 34-34 vote.
The bill would nullify current policy in the state, which allows students to compete according to their preferred gender identity, following an application process. The South Dakota High School Activities Association, a nonprofit independent from the state, has had the rule in place since 2015.
The bill’s prime sponsor House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said HB 1225 wasn’t about gender: “HB 1225 is about sex. The male sex and the female sex and their ability in athletics.”
“There are differences and that’s plain fact,” Qualm said. “You can’t get away from that. In high school athletics, it’s unfair for girls to be subjected to competition against boys. They just can’t compete.”
Qualm added that allowing transgender athletes to compete on sports teams based on their preferred gender identity could be harmful to their cisgender peers.
“Quite frankly, it’s confusing and harmful for those who are already in a tough time developing to be told it is somehow possible to change your sex from what it’s been from the moment of conception.”
Legislators opposing the bill said that the issue should be left to the SDHSAA. House Minority Leader Rep. Jamie Smith, D-Sioux Falls noted that the SDHSAA has been making rules on high school athletics in the state for over a century, and the job should be left to them.
Rep. Nancy York, R-Watertown, agreed that the legislature has to “put (its) trust in the SDHSAA on this one.”
“It’s going to bring a lot of disgrace to our state,” she said. “It’s probably going to bring a lawsuit. We’re going to be accused of being unloving and unwilling to cooperate with all the kids in the state.”
Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, also voiced her dissent, saying that the bill was attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
“We are so concerned with winning in this body that we’ve forgotten that our children go out for athletics (...) because they like to participate,” Duba said. “We’ve lost our minds in giving anecdotal information about somehow some six-foot-three, 240-pound person is going to be one that court or on that field.
“I can assure you that’s not happening. We’re just not hearing this from coaches, administrators, schools, parents or athletes.”
According to Executive Director Dan Swartos, the SDHSAA has never received a formal complaint on the current policy from a school, parent or student. He said “less than a handful” of students compete under the policy.
HB 1225 may look familiar: It was introduced after a nearly identical bill was already killed on the Senate side in January, early in the legislative session.
Local control wasn’t the only reason for opposition. Opponents have said the bill is discriminatory and targets an already vulnerable population.
A September 2018 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that transgender adolescents attempt suicide at higher rates than their cisgender peers. Nearly 30 percent of adolescents aged 11-19 surveyed who transitioned from male to female had attempted suicide in their lifetimes. For those who transitioned female to male, that rate increased to more than 50 percent.
Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota (ACLU-SD) has said that the bill would make South Dakota vulnerable to a lawsuit. ACLU-SD Policy Director Libby Skarin said the bill would violate the Title IX and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
In a Monday written statement, Skarin said ACLU-SD is "thrilled" that the bill was voted down, "sending a clear message of inclusion and acceptance for our transgender friends and neighbors.”
"All young people should have the opportunity to play high school sports and have their personal dignity respected," Skarin said. "Transgender students are no different. No one is harmed by allowing transgender people to compete consistent with who they are."
The bill is one of several introduced this legislative session revolving around transgender children. In addition to the Senate version of HB 1225, lawmakers have killed a bill that would prohibit public schools from teaching on gender dysphoria, and one that would allowed parents to refuse transitional health care treatment for their transgender children.
A legislative committee also on Friday, Feb. 22, killed a bill that would have added sexual orientation or gender identity to the state’s hate crime laws. South Dakota’s current hate crime statute already includes religion, race, ethnicity, ancestry or national origin.
Oliver Dickman, a 17-year-old transgender high school senior from Yankton, used to play soccer in elementary and middle school. But when he expressed to his female teammates that he may be transgender, he said their reactions led him to quit sport -- a decision he said he'd make differently if he had the chance to do it over.
If he could go back, Dickman said he would stick to the sport and fight to be able to compete on the males team, in line with his gender identity. And if he had been forced to compete as a girl would have been a "huge detriment" to his mental health, he said.
"I surely would have quit soccer soon after had I been forced to stay on (the girls) team," Dickman said. "I believe that I should be allowed to be who I am.... We should be able to participate in the correct sport and on the correct team."