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The Win in South Dakota Was Huge, but Transgender People Are Still Under Attack

LGBT youth with flag
LGBT youth with flag
Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
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March 3, 2016

Transgender people are used to be told that we are freaks, that we don’t belong, that others need to be protected from us. The constant discrimination can be emotionally draining and, for many, creates a climate of constant fear of physical violence.

So it was a really big deal when, on Tuesday, Republican South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed HB 1008 – a bill that would have forced transgender students into separate restrooms from their peers and invited invasive scrutiny into the medical information and bodily characteristics of all students.

In his veto message, Governor Daugaard recognized that the proposed law “d[id] not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota” and explained, “[a]s policymakers in South Dakota, we often recite that the best government is the government closest to the people. Local school districts can, and have, made necessary restroom and locker room accommodations that serve the best interests of all students, regardless of … gender identity.”

For a moment, it seemed that trans people were seen and heard in all our humanity.

This win on the side of justice for transgender people was hard fought, particularly by the brave students in South Dakota who told their stories.

As important as this victory is, though, the fight to protect transgender people has never been more urgent. Transgender people are still under attack in state legislatures across the country and in our daily lives. Particularly for transgender women of color, a walk down the street, or the process of checking into a hotel can lead to harassment, arrest or even violence. Meanwhile, instead of fighting back against that discrimination, lawmakers are contributing to it.

Next week, another bill targeting transgender students will head to committee in Tennessee. The bill forces students to use restrooms that match the gender listed on the student’s birth certificate and offers no accommodations for transgender students whatsoever. This means that transgender students could be forced into restrooms based on their assigned sex at birth despite living and presenting in another gender. The bill is particularly concerning given that Tennessee is the only jurisdiction in the United States that by statute prohibits a person from ever updating a birth certificate to match the person’s gender.

In Washington State, a ballot initiative was filed this week to undo the state Human Rights Commission’s rules protecting the use of restrooms and locker rooms in accordance with a person’s gender. The group supporting the ballot measure – the same group thought sought repeal of marriage equality at the ballot in 2012 – is stoking fear of transgender people in a way that could contribute to violence against the community in Washington and beyond. As Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League explained of the anti-trans bills heard before the legislature this session, “It is doing very real damage to the trans community, especially to trans youth, to hear this endless testimony that trans people are dangerous and associating us with pedophiles and perpetrators of sexual assault.”

And of course these measures come on the heels of a year of record-breaking violence against the transgender community. Last year, at least 22 transgender women were killed, almost all of them women of color. That trend is sadly continuing this year.

It is devastating and dangerous when fear of difference guides policy. My message to the transgender community in Tennessee and Washington and across the country is that: you are brave and beautiful. The world is better because you are in it and we will never stop fighting for you.

A few weeks ago, an amazing, young advocate for transgender people in Washington State died from cancer and he told me that he knew he would be leaving amazing people behind to pick up the fight for transgender justice. His partner of many years shared this, his favorite quote from Howard Zinn, after his death: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now, as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Today our marvelous victory is standing by each other to defeat South Dakota’s anti-trans measure. Tomorrow, it is bringing that fight and our voices to Tennessee, Washington and to support each other as we strive to live without the constant threat of interpersonal and state violence.

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