This bill would prohibit South Dakota teachers from acknowledging transgender kids exist

So what happens to transgender students?

The South Dakota State Capitol. CREDIT: Joseph Sohm-Visions of America via Getty Images
The South Dakota State Capitol. CREDIT: Joseph Sohm-Visions of America via Getty Images

For the second year in a row, South Dakota could be the first state legislature to push through an anti-LGBTQ bill in 2018, and it’s a brand new kind of attack. The proposed bill would censor schools from discussing transgender issues until students are in eighth grade.

S.B. 160 is short. It adds the following to the state education code:

No instruction in gender identity or gender expression may be provided to any student in kindergarten through grade seven in any public school in the state.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Phil Jensen (R), believes the issues aren’t age-appropriate and actually argues that they could get in the way of learning other skills. “I think we need to be focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic,” he said.

The bill is a new spin on a series of “no promo homo” laws that are on the books in seven other states. These laws vary from state to state in the way they either prohibit discussing homosexuality in schools or dictate teaching that homosexuality is harmful or even against the law — even though sodomy laws have been unenforceable since the Supreme Court overturned them in 2003. South Dakota’s bill would be the first to extend such censorship to gender identity issues.

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As GLSEN points out, several states have taken steps in the opposite direction, ensuring that schools respect transgender students. For example, when the Massachusetts Department of Education issued guidance in 2013 for protecting trans students, it included the recommendation that schools “incorporate education and training about trans and gender non-conforming into anti-bullying curriculum, students leadership trainings, and staff professional development.” Studies have repeatedly found that schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum have far lower rates of anti-LGBTQ bullying.

It thus stands to reason that under Jensen’s bill, a transgender student would receive no institutional support. Educating students about the trans student’s identity and why it’s inappropriate to bully them would be prohibited under law. The many books that help explain these issues to young children, like I Am Jazz and My Princess Boy, would be barred from classrooms.

And that’s not Jensen’s only anti-transgender bill this session. He’s also introduced S.B. 202, which would require posting warning signs on public restrooms “that a person of the opposite sex may be in the restroom the user is about to enter.”

Jensen has been called South Dakota’s “most conservative lawmaker.” He previously introduced a bill to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and he defended it by arguing that a Ku Klux Klan-run bakery should be allowed to turn away African-American customers.

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South Dakota was the first state to pass an anti-LGBTQ law in 2017, one that ensured religiously affiliated adoption agencies could discriminate against same-sex couples without consequence. Jensen defended that bill by comparing LGBTQ people to pedophiles.

In 2016, South Dakota lawmakers advanced a bill that would have blocked schools from accommodating trans students’ gender identities, but Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) ultimately vetoed the bill. A similar bill was introduced last year, but didn’t advance. Daugaard has likewise expressed concern with Jensen’s new bill, saying that he doesn’t “know that our standards of education are properly the subject of legislative enactments.”