Metro Weekly

South Dakota GOP criticized for ‘petty, obnoxious’ debate over trans student athletes

Republicans want high schools to reconsider allowing trans athletes to compete according to their gender identity

trans, transgender, student athlete, track, running
Photo: Nicolas Hoizey / Unsplash

The national debate over the inclusion of transgender athletes in competitive high school sports has been reignited in South Dakota after a group of Republican lawmakers objected to the state’s policy of permitting students to compete according to their gender identity.

South Dakota’s Government Operations and Audit Committee assembled last week to urge the head of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, Dan Swartos, to investigate the legality of their trans-inclusive policy, the Associated Press reports.

Republican State Rep. Sue Peterson spent her time during the committee meeting questioning the policy — time which could have instead been spent dealing with South Dakota’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, or grappling with the $370 million in lost exports that Trump’s trade war with China has cost the state.

Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Republican from Sioux Falls, similarly insisted the state should look into the possible legal liability that the schools risk if they continue to uphold the policy of supporting trans athletes.

However, despite his and other Republican leaders’ opposition, a poll of school administrators over the summer of 2019 found that 80% support the activities association’s trans student athlete policy.

Backlash against the policy was confined to members of the Republican party, with Democratic state Sen. Susan Wismer — one of two Democrats on the committee — dismissing the GOP lawmakers’ concerns as “petty” and “obnoxious.”

Wismer criticized Republican “obsession” what she perceived to be an absurd expectation for transgender students to be held accountable for different policies based on the school district they reside in.

Republican attacks on South Dakota’s trans-inclusive policy come as the U.S. Department of Education is targeting a similar policy in Connecticut.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has even gone so far as to threaten Connecticut school districts with withholding funds from those schools that abide by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s policy of allowing athletes to compete for teams that align with their current gender identity.

Read more: Betsy DeVos threatens to withhold money over transgender athletes

Despite accusations of extortion, a Department of Education spokesperson said earlier this month that it is “not extortion to require school districts to follow federal law. In fact, it’s the opposite. Congress requires the department to withhold funds from schools that aren’t in compliance with the law.”

DeVos claims that any policy allowing transgender students to play in sports teams matching their gender breaks Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.

The department has maintained this stance, despite a Supreme Court ruling that Title IX protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment. Under the Trump administration, the Education Department contends that Title IX was originally only intended to protect students whose assigned gender at birth is female.

The Human Rights Campaign previously denounced the Education Department’s threat to withhold money from school districts, and noted that the department previously rescinded Obama-era guidance advising schools to treat transgender students according to their gender identity shortly after President Trump took office.

“From day one of her tenure, Betsy DeVos has sought to undermine the safety, dignity and civil rights of students of color, LGBTQ students — especially transgender students — students with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault,” HRC President Alphonso David said at the time. “DeVos’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in desegregation aid from Connecticut schools will have national implications resulting in harm to transgender athletes and students of color.

“Transgender athletes have every right to play sports and participate in athletic activities in accordance with their gender identity. Any suggestion otherwise is a blatant attempt to discriminate,” David added. “This is offensive and unacceptable. We will fight this decision and hold DeVos and the Trump-Pence administration accountable this November.”

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