PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Thursday said she is still weighing whether to sign a bill that would ban transgender girls and women from female sports leagues, as transgender advocates rallied at the Capitol and college athletes pressured the NCAA to punish states that pass such laws.
Shortly after the Legislature passed the bill on Monday, the Republican governor said she was “excited to sign” the bill. But at a Thursday news conference, she struck a more cautious tone while defending the proposed ban.
“We are still examining the bill, getting ready to make decisions on it,” Noem said, adding that was a process her office takes with every piece of legislation.
While Noem argued the bill is about “protecting women’s sports,” and does not single out transgender people, her decision to sign it into law could have far-reaching effects. More than 500 college athletes are asking the NCAA Board of Governors to refuse to schedule championships in states that have banned transgender participation in sports. Opponents have warned the law could drag the state into costly litigation and would saddle schools with having to gather proof of every athlete’s sex at birth.
The NCAA has said it is monitoring similar legislation in about two dozen states. The organization has had policies in place since 2011 that allow for transgender people to participate in sports.
Dave Zimbeck, a lawyer for the organization that hosts NCAA tournaments in Sioux Falls, warned lawmakers that the ban would jeopardize the city’s chances of hosting future competitions. He said NCAA tournaments rake in millions of dollars for the city and that losing them could lead to the departure of up to 100 full- and part-time jobs.
North Carolina, which passed a bill discriminating against transgender people in 2016, lost out on billions of dollars after sporting events and businesses shied away from the state.
That same year, the South Dakota legislature passed a similar bill, which would have banned transgender people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity. But former Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, vetoed the bill after meeting with transgender people, who he said helped him see the issue “through their eyes.”
Transgender advocates who demonstrated outside the governor’s mansion in Pierre on Thursday said they have been trying to get Noem’s attention, but so far have been unsuccessful. A group of about a dozen people marched from the governor’s mansion to the Capitol, chanting “Transphobia has got to go,” and “Let kids play.” Several people driving by honked and waved in support, but slurs and insults were hurled from another car.
“We tried virtually every day to get something on her desk,” said Stephanie Marty, a transgender woman from Sioux Falls who works with the Transformation Project. “She hasn’t responded at all.”
While the bill would specifically target transgender women and girl athletes, Marty worried that it would affect the mental health of many transgender people, not just those who want to play in sports leagues that match their gender identity. She also said the debate has been filled with misinformation on transgender children, pointing out that they undergo a range of hormone treatments that ensure they do not have a competitive advantage in sports.
Advocates for the ban have often pointed to a lawsuit in Connecticut in which high school track athletes sued the state high school athletic association, arguing they lost out on championships and scholarship opportunities after transgender girl athletes beat them. But the South Dakota High School Activities Association, which evaluates applications from transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis, says only one transgender girl has competed in a girls’ league, and she did not have a competitive advantage. She has since graduated.
The governor said she didn’t have any meetings with transgender people scheduled as she considers the bill, but she was also not aware of requests for a meeting.
“We certainly are open to listening to everybody,” she said.
Louise Snodgrass, a nonbinary transgender person who helped organize the demonstration, hoped Noem would change her mind and veto the bill, describing that as “the dream.” They hoped Noem would at least talk with them before signing it, noting they both hearken from the same area of the state and worked in agriculture.
Snodgrass said, “We probably have a lot in common and she just doesn’t know it.”
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