Transgender student: South Dakota bill doesn’t accept me

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — When Thomas Lewis told his South Dakota high school last year that he is transgender, teachers called him by his new name and used male pronouns when addressing him. But he says the accommodations stopped at being able to use the men’s bathroom.

Instead, the 18-year-old senior chooses to go home, where he feels safe to use the restroom, before returning from lunch to rejoin his classmates at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls.

Lewis has even spoken to his state’s Legislature against a bill that would require transgender students like him to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their sex at birth, telling them that such a law “makes me feel like I’m not a human being.”

It fell on mostly deaf ears: South Dakota is a governor’s signature away from being the first state in the U.S. to approve such a law.

Several states have looked at addressing gender and public facilities in the past several years. South Dakota’s bathroom bill is one of several measures introduced in its 2016 legislative session addressing transgender rights, including one that would void a South Dakota high school activities association policy that allows transgender student athletes to request playing on the team of their choice.

Advocates say the bathroom bill is meant to protect the privacy of students and not meant to be hurtful. Republican Sen. David Omdahl, a supporter, said it’s inappropriate for a young girl to be exposed to the anatomy of a boy.

Opponents say it’s discriminatory, and Lewis says it exposes a significant problem.

“The law means that no matter what people might think at school, how they might accept me at school, the state doesn’t,” he said.

Under the plan, schools would have to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for transgender students, such as a single-occupancy bathroom or the “controlled use” of a staff-designated restroom, locker room or shower room.

Federal officials have said that barring students from restrooms that match their gender identity is prohibited under the Title IX anti-discrimination law, and advocates of South Dakota’s bill say it’s a direct response to the Obama administration’s interpretation.

Though the measure puts schools’ federal funding at risk, said Democratic Sen. Angie Buhl O’Donnell, it also has “very real emotional impacts.”

“Maybe this bill is not intended to be disrespectful, but I would submit this: If a whole community of people tells us that we are hurting them, who are we to decide that we didn’t?” she said.

Lewis came out in March after an event in Sioux Falls where he read aloud a poem he’d written about a transgender man named Thomas. The reaction helped turn feelings of fear into “elation” and courage to be open about his gender identity, Lewis said.

His mother and close friends accepted him without question. But at school, the bathroom is still an issue.

Sioux Falls Superintendent Brian Maher said he couldn’t talk about specific accommodations for individual students because of privacy issues.

“We would always have an accommodation for a student to use a bathroom on campus,” he said. “We would not make a student leave campus to go to the bathroom. Whether or not it would be the bathroom of that student’s choice or not could be another issue.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota and Human Rights Campaign said it’s not clear how many transgender students there are in South Dakota.

Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard offered a positive reaction last week to the proposal “at first blush,” but said he’d need to research the issue and listen to testimony before deciding.

Another measure in the South Dakota Legislature this session would require government entities that accept information on a South Dakota birth certificate to recognize all information on the birth certificate as official — meaning transgender people would been seen in the eyes of the state as their sex at birth, not their current gender.

Republican Rep. Jim Bolin, the bill’s sponsor, said such claims of different gender are “profound” and challenge “many basic concepts as to the nature and character of life and society.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota called the bill out for being “an attack on the very existence of transgender people.”

“Frankly, I think we’ve seen enough of those attacks this year,” said Libby Skarin, the organization’s policy director.

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