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South Dakota passes bill that would make it illegal for teachers to talk about trans people

Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario marched in the 2018 Toronto Pride parade. Photo: Shutterstock

In a 39-30 vote, South Dakota’s house passed a HB 1108, a gag rule that would prohibit even the acknowledgement of transgender people in classrooms across the state.

The bill itself is only a few short words, requiring an amendment to existing law to include the statement.

“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 ramifications of this simple sentence, however, are much larger.

With its overly broad language, the rule could, effectively, bar any discussion of gender differences at all, limiting even the discussions of any differences between girls and boys in the state’s school.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the bill is aimed primarily at transgender and gender non-conforming students.

“There is a spirit of this bill that is directly targeting transgender students,” said State Representative Erin Healy (D) in the discussions leading up to passage. 

Related: Transgender students just won a huge federal court case 

Due to “instruction” not being defined in HB 1108 or other existing South Dakota law, could likely bar any conversation about transgender issues on school campuses, including private discussions between students and faculty.

“By preventing any mention of gender identity or gender expression, this bill would thwart teachers, administrators and counselors from creating a safe and welcoming educational environment for all students in our public schools,” said policy director for the ACLU of South Dakota, Libby Skarin, via a press release.

Much of those who stood in support of HB 1108 feel that by acknowledging the existence of transgender or gender non-conforming people, they will be able to stop students from exploring their gender. 

“Our classrooms are for instruction not putting seeds in kids’ minds,” said State Representative Brock Greenfield (R) during the debate on HB 1108, a view shared by State Representative Tom Pischke (R), who says that the bill, “saves children from dysphoria.”

HB 1108, nevertheless, would also serve to further disenfranchise transgender and gender non-conforming students in South Dakota, whether they are out or not. 

“Everybody deserves to feel accepted and supported in school. When transgender young people are supported by their parents and communities their mental health outcomes are comparable to those of their non-transgender peers,” said Skarin. “When transgender students are shunned and rejected, however, this leads to high rates of suicide and other serious harms.”

According to the Williams Institute, there were 2,150 transgender people in South Dakota, with 300 of those aged 13-17 at the time of their January 2017 report on transgender people in the United States.

The passage of HB 1108 follows a pair of anti-transgender bills that were killed by legislators, including SB 49, which would have barred trans athletes from competing in school sports with others of their gender, and HB 1205, which would have allowed parents to refuse healthcare for transgender youth.

A fourth bill, HB 1225, is still pending. It is a second attempt to require transgender students to only engage in school athletic programs in their birth gender.

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