South Dakota’s Dangerous Plan to Abandon Transgender Kids

A new bill in South Dakota would stop teachers from responding to bullying or harassment faced by transgender students.

By Gillian Branstetter

Want to support the transgender youth of South Dakota? Learn more by visiting our State Action Center.

PHOTO: Former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, left, appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press to defend HB2 before losing re-election over his support of the anti-transgender law

After the fight over HB2 — the disastrous and discriminatory 2016 law passed in North Carolina — lawmakers across the country are proving wary of taking up extreme anti-transgender measures and proposals. The economic and political costs paid by that state and then-Governor Pat McCrory have sent a clear message that support for transgender rights is not only a moral choice but a popular one.

Now, South Dakota is on the cusp of becoming the first state since North Carolina to pass an explicit attempt to restrict and alienate transgender people. Known as a teacher gag rule, HB 1108 — which has passed the House and is now in the South Dakota state Senate — would prohibit teachers from “instruction in gender dysphoria,” a phrasing so vague and broad it could be applied to any discussion of transgender people, our rights, or the barriers many of us face.

Aimed at teachers, the bill would effectively tie the hands of those on the front lines of what could reasonably be called a national health crisis. Too many transgender youth are victimized by schools, targeted by their peers, and alienated by their families because of who they are. Teachers are uniquely situated to support transgender youth and serve as a model of acceptance and fairness to other students.

When given the tools they need, teachers can have a massive impact on the well-being and success of transgender students. In a national study by our friends at GLSEN, the vast majority of LGBTQ students could identify at least one teacher at their school who’s supportive of their identity, and those with more supportive environments

Educators willing to listen to transgender students when they face problems at school or home can often act as an oasis for students who often feel alone, friendless, and abandoned by the people they trust. Melissa Smith, a high school teacher from Oklahoma, spoke at the hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court about the impact she saw first-hand after listening to and accepting a transgender student:

The South Dakotan gag rule, by prohibiting any discussion of gender dysphoria, would penalize teachers like Ms. Smith or make them wary of addressing issues like bullying or an unstable home life at all with students. In fact, given its vague language, the bill would encourage teachers to turn a blind eye to bullying against a transgender student, lest their defense or support of the student somehow cross the bill’s arbitrary and ill-defined restrictions.

While a growing number of schools across the country are seeking solutions that honor the rights of transgender students and ensure a safe and effective learning environment, many transgender students still struggle to feel safe in school. Teachers, when properly supported by their schools and their governments, can be an effective safety net for a demographic too frequently failed by the very adults who should be allowing them to thrive.

GRAPH: A Chart from GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey shows a strong correlation between the number of visibly supportive staff at a school and attendance and feelings of safety among LGBTQ youth

According to that same GLSEN survey, those students who could identify 11 or more supportive staff at their school experienced profound academic and personal benefits. While a majority of transgender students feel unsafe at their school, two thirds of those with supportive teachers nearby feel safe. That increased feeling of safety translates into higher attendance at school, with one in five transgender students missing school out of fear for their safety compared to nearly half of those without supportive staff.

The teacher gag rule proposed in South Dakota would not only freeze those teachers and undermine those benefits — it would send a damaging and insulting message to the youth of South Dakota. To students who aren’t trans, the bill frames transgender people and our lives as indecent. To the students who are, HB 1108 treats their identities like an illness of the mind, an obscenity that must be censored.

As any parent or teacher can tell you, kids absorb the world around them in ways that affect their values and their character. How adults treat a trans child not only shapes how other children will see them, but how that child sees themselves. Transgender children — sidelined, mocked, harassed, and assaulted — are bombarded with false messages about who they are and the value they bring to society.

South Dakota’s teacher gag rule is a dangerous attempt to write those false ideas into law, as well as a sad attempt to strip transgender youth of the supportive and safe learning environment deserved by every student.

You can help protect transgender students in South Dakota! Visit our State Action Center to learn more.