Several anti-LGBT bills are swiftly advancing through the South Dakota legislature, two of which directly target transgender people for discrimination. Though national conservative groups are certainly playing a significant part in promoting the legislation, there is apparently plenty of transphobia among lawmakers for them to work with.
That transphobia was on display Saturday morning during a “legislative coffee” where several lawmakers answered questions about various issues. Reps. Jim Stalzer (R), Mark Willadsen (R) Steven Haugaard (R), and Arch Beal (R) and Sen. David Omdahl (R) all defended their support for HB 1008, a bill that bans transgender students from using school bathrooms that match their gender, which passed the House 58–10. In doing so, they demonstrated various biases and misunderstandings about the transgender community.
Rep. Stalzer offered the familiar myth that “people with male anatomy going into female showers and locker rooms” is somehow a threat to other women. Defining individuals entirely by their anatomy, he suggested that transgender women are basically all male exhibitionists. “I think we’re protecting the young women in our South Dakota high schools,” he said. “It is already a crime for a male to expose themselves in front of females, and they can call it she, he, whatever, but as long as they have male anatomy, they’re in violation of that law if nothing else.”
Rep. Willadsen, similarly denying the existence of transgender kids, described the bill as “pretty simple.” He explained, “If you’re a boy, you go in the boys’ room; if you’re a girl, you go in the girls’ room.” He then proceeded to insist that if you’re “one of the of the unfortunate people who don’t really know,” you have to use a separate restroom. He didn’t explain what makes them “unfortunate,” nor did he address the transgender kids who do really know what they are.
In perhaps the most shocking (and most widely-reported) comments, Sen. Omdahl praised the bill because it’s about “protecting our children.” In a comment that elicited audible gasps from the audience, he 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.
Rep. Haugaard suggested the bill is only “highly sensitive” because it has been “pushed into the category of political correctness.” Claiming to have a lot of knowledge from working with LGBT people, he warned that “seeing the angst in their lives, for us to perpetuate confusion in the lives of anyone is a disservice to them.” He claimed that the suicide rate is “dramatically higher” among transgender people “because of the internal confusion and angst that exists.” Research shows that the high suicide rate exists because of anti-transgender stigma and discrimination, not from just being transgender. Haugaard worries that if the state endorsed a “reasonable alternative to your natural creation,” it would increase the number of problems among the population.
Haugaard added that he sees the increasing visibility of transgender people as an “epidemic,” but disregarded its significance. “The fact is: it’s just a choice of lifestyle, and I can expect there will be lots of pushback on that line, but that’s a fact.”
Rep. Beal rounded out the discussion by sharing a conversation he’d had with a concerned constituent. The caller was upset about Beal’s support for the bill, but when Beal explained his concerns about men in women’s locker rooms, he said the constituent understood.
Watch the full discussion (via the Argus Leader):
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Though many who attended the coffee were shocked by the comments, one of the sponsors of the bill defended the remarks that were made. According to Sen. Ernie Otten (R), the bill is about modesty, not targeting transgender kids. “How would you feel walking into any sort of facility that you want in the state of South Dakota and you had to use the bathroom and there is a guy in there?” he asked KSFY. Otten did not comment on his implication that transgender women were “guys.”