South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Tuesday vetoed a proposed law that would have been the first in the country to require transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificates.
The veto represents an important victory for LGBT rights activists who have seen their push for stronger civil rights protections countered over the last year by conservative lawmakers who have introduced legislation in various states to place limits on transgender bathroom use.
South Dakota became an early testing ground last month after the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill that said if students were born boys, they were required by law to use boys’ bathrooms and locker rooms at school. The same applied to girls.
Daugaard, under pressure from such celebrity LGBT activists as Caitlyn Jenner, cited a core tenet of conservative philosophy – preserving local control – in siding with transgender advocates.
“As policymakers in South Dakota, we often recite that the best government is the government closest to the people,” Daugaard wrote in his veto notice Tuesday. “Local school districts can, and have, made necessary restroom and locker room accommodations that serve the best interests of all students, regardless of biological sex or gender identity.”
Daugaard’s decision was hailed by transgender advocacy groups Tuesday.
“Today, the voices of fairness and equality prevailed, and these students' rights and dignity prevailed against overwhelming odds and vicious opponents in the state Legislature,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
Over the last year, conservatives have made bathrooms the fiercest point of resistance as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates have pushed to expand housing, employment and public-accommodation protections for transgender Americans across the country.
But discussion about those wide-ranging protections has been eclipsed by passionate fights over “bathroom bills,” as conservative opponents argue that transgender people would make them uncomfortable in restrooms; alternatively, they claim that predators would rape children in bathrooms not limited to single, defined sexes.
This narrowed discussion has frustrated transgender advocates who say transgender women are being inaccurately painted as pedophiles, when in fact they are people in need of protection.
“In reality, all people, including people who are transgender, are concerned about privacy and safety in public restrooms,” LGBT advocacy group GLAAD said in a recent media guide titled “Debunking the 'Bathroom Bill' Myth.”
“Unfortunately, multiple studies show that transgender people often report experiencing denial of access to facilities, verbal harassment, and physical assault when attempting to use public restrooms,” the GLAAD guide said.
Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch sponsored the bill in South Dakota to limit bathroom and locker room use, saying, “It’s only a matter of time before a transgender student says, 'I want to shower with the opposite sex,' and we start a firestorm,” the Argus Leader reported.
American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota opposed the bill, but the House voted 58 to 10 in approval. On Feb. 16, the Senate also approved it, 20 to 15.
The governor expressed sympathy after meeting with three transgender people on Feb. 23, telling the Argus Leader, “It helped me see things through their eyes a little better and see more of their perspective.”
In Daugaard's veto Tuesday, he wrote that the bill passed by the Legislature “does not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.” He said the bill “broadly regulates in a manner that invites conflict and litigation.”
Deutsch, in a statement given to local media, urged fellow lawmakers not to try to override the governor’s veto, hinting that perhaps outside pressure had grown too great.
The bill “was intended to be a practical solution to our evolving social values on gender issues,” Deutsch wrote. “Unfortunately emotions on both sides of this issue have dominated the news coverage and the recent debate. ... Further focus on this issue will detract from the other significant accomplishments of the Legislature this session.”
Follow @MattDPearce for national news