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Battle over LGBTQ+ rights peaks in South Dakota legislature

PIERRE, S.D. — After weeks of buildup, the battle over LGBTQ+ rights in South Dakota’s Legislature peaked the week of Feb. 18, when lawmakers sparred over three bills that activists have called discriminatory.

Oliver Dickman, a 17-year-old transgender high school senior from Yankton, traveled over two hours to the Capitol amidst a blizzard on Friday, Feb. 22, to testify to lawmakers on two of the bills

“I would like to live as a normal high school student and not have to come to Pierre to fight against bills like this,” Dickman said after Friday’s hearings. “But it is worth fighting for.”

One of the bills, House Bill 1243, 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.

The House Judiciary committee ultimately killed the bill by a 8-5 vote, citing concerns that it would inhibit First Amendment rights to free speech and “free thought.” Rep. Isaac Latterell, R-Tea, said even South Dakota’s existing hate crime law should be “reevaluated.”

Chris Motz, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Catholic Conference, said, “all children of God are eminently lovable,” but that “all people should be equally protected under the law.”

“Why should the law value certain lives more than others?” Motz asked committee members. “Do hate crime laws imply that some people are more equal than others?”

Dickman and other proponents of the bill argued that the extra layer of protection for LGBTQ+ people is necessary because they face a disproportionate amount of violence.

According to the FBI’s 2017 data, hate crimes based on sexual orientation bias increased by 5 percent from the previous year, and made up nearly 16 percent of all hate crimes committed.

Dickman told committee members that since transitioning, he has felt intimidated and harassed, calling it a “constant battle.”

“Walking into a bathroom is as terrifying as walking off a cliff somedays,” he said, describing incidents where peers threatened that they would “set him straight." He said strangers have told him to kill himself, or that he shouldn’t exist. One time, Dickman said someone ziptied a port-a-potty shut while he was still inside.

Asked if he feels safe in South Dakota as a transgender person, Dickman said, “Honestly, no I don't.” He said in order to go to the mall or a football game — regular activities for teenagers — he feels that he needs to have friends with him, just in case.

Also on Friday, the Senate State Affairs committee voted a bill which would have prohibited public school teachers from instructing on gender dysphoria. The committee voted to send House Bill 1108 to the 41st legislative day — effectively killing it.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Tom Pischke, R-Dell Rapids, said that schools are confusing and scaring children, and making them “more susceptible to this dysphoria.”

Opponents of the bill, including representatives from schools in the state, said that this doesn’t happen in schools. They added that the bill could even prevent children from having private conversations with teachers or guidance counselors about their own gender identity — something advocates warned could be detrimental to students’ mental health, especially if they did not feel supported at home.

Earlier in the week, the House Health and Human Services committee revived from the dead a bill which would require transgender high school athletes to compete according to their “birth sex,” as proven by their birth certificate or a medical examination. The bill is nearly identical to one that was killed early in the legislative session on the Senate side.

If signed into law, House Bill 1225 would nullify the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s current policy on transgender athletes, which allows students to play according to their preferred gender identity after going through an application process. The policy has been in place since 2015.

Executive Director Dan Swartos has said that the SDHSAA has never received a formal complaint on their policy from schools, teachers or parents. He said in January that “less than a handful” of students in the state are currently playing under the policy.

After the bill was killed by the Senate Education committee in late January, it was reintroduced under a different name on the House side.

One of the proponents of the bill, Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, during Thursday’s hearing likened being transgender to body integrity disorder.

“If I walk into my doctor’s office today and say, ‘I’m Ronald Reagan,’ my physician will say I’m delusional and give me an antipsychotic,” Jensen said. “Yet, instead, if I walked in and said, ‘I’m a woman,’ he would say, ‘Congratulations, you’re transgender.’”

An initial motion to approve the bill failed with a 6-6 tie. One Democrat was absent from the vote. The committee ultimately voted 8-4 to send the bill to the House floor without a recommendation — a rarity in the Capitol.