Opinion: Veto of South Dakota transgender bathroom bill shows boycotts work

Nathan Leonard, left, a transgender high school student from Watertown, S.D., and Scout Brown, also from Watertown, stand outside of the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Feb. 23.

Nathan Leonard, left, a transgender high school student from Watertown, S.D., and Scout Brown, also from Watertown, stand outside of the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre on Feb. 23.

(Jay Pickthorn / Associated Press)
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The LGBT movement secured a surprise victory Tuesday when South Dakota’s Republican governor, Dennis Daugaard, declined to sign into law a bill that would have restricted bathroom access for the state’s transgender student population.

Known as HB 1008, the legislation would have forced all students to use the restroom that corresponded with the gender they were assigned at birth. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Fred Deutsch, argued that the bill’s goal was to protect the “hearts, eyes and minds” of South Dakota’s children.

Somewhat shockingly — considering he only recently announced his intention to sign the legislation — Daugaard disagreed, noting that HB 1008 “does not address any pressing issue” that the state’s schools are facing. The governor is right: There’s never been a single recorded case of a trans student attacking a fellow classmate in a school bathroom. In truth, studies show that transgender people are more likely to face harassment or violence from a cisgender (or non-trans) person when using the restroom.


Daugaard’s veto, however, likely wasn’t about debunking the myth that trans teens pose a threat to other students’ safety. The real reason for his action was that money talked.

In recent weeks, critics of the bill from across the country have been furiously tweeting South Dakota’s tourism bureau, threatening to boycott the state if the legislation passed.

In an interview with South Dakota’s Argus Leader, Delaware resident Dave Woodside said that he would be canceling his family’s planned trip to Mount Rushmore should HB 1008 become law. “Anything I can do to apply a little bit of pressure on the situation, I will do,” Woodside said.

In a state with a $3.8-billion tourism industry, threats like these couldn’t have been taken lightly.

Although the governor’s chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen, publicly dismissed the boycott — “we’ve never seen a very tangible outcome from that kind of talk” — something helped change the governor’s mind. After the bill passed the state’s Congress, Daugaard claimed he had never met a trans person — and stated that HB 1008 was a good idea. “In concept, I don’t see any problem with that,” he said.

In reality, however, anti-LGBT bills carry a host of problems — not just for the dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but for everyone. Indiana lost $60 million in tourism revenue after its government passed a so-called “religious freedom” bill in March 2015 — one that would allow businesses to deny their services to LGBT clients. In response, everyone from Apple to Eli Lilly to the NCAA, NBA and WNBA announced their intention to boycott.


This pressure eventually succeeded in forcing Indiana’s bill to be amended to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people.

A year earlier, the threat of lost tourism revenue scared Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer into refusing to sign her state’s own “religious freedom” bill: one remarkably similar to the Indiana law. Brewer, now the former governor, has historically opposed gay rights and argued that such laws “could result in unintended and negative consequences.”

Other states are clearly taking notice of the power of these boycotts.

Business leaders in Georgia — which is considering its own version of religious freedom bill — have warned that the Peach State would face similar repercussions. And in Missouri, over 185 companies co-signed a letter to the state Legislature — which is considering a bill that would prohibit “penalizing churches, bakers, wedding planners, florists and others who decline to provide services for [gay] weddings or receptions.”

Sadly, these efforts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-gay measures. Local and state legislators across the country are considering over 100 bills that would specifically target LGBT Americans. This volume of bills may seem insurmountable, but Tuesday’s decision should offer a ray of hope for advocates. If Republican legislatures and state governors can’t recognize the humanity of trans people — who deserve the same rights to go to the bathroom in peace as everyone else — perhaps they will recognize a bad deal when they see one.

Boycotts work. Denying people basic human dignity does not.

Nico Lang is a writer and critic. You can read his work on Salon, Onion A.V. Club and the Guardian. Find him on Twitter @nico_lang.

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