Activists say fending off transgender bills raised awareness

Ashley Joubert-Gaddis, director of operations at the Center for Equality. Time spent fighting bills targeting trans people in SD forged a stronger community. Photo by James Nord, AP.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Transgender-rights advocates say a legislative session spent successfully fending off several bills that targeted transgender people in South Dakota forged a more-visible community better prepared for future clashes at the Capitol.

A bill vetoed this week that thrust South Dakota into the national spotlight would have required transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match sex at birth. The House failed Thursday to override the veto, though the measure's sponsor suggested supporters come back with a "better, stronger bill."

A group of transgender people is establishing a new organization that would work with other LGBT-rights groups as a result of the legislative onslaught this session. The group would help give transgender people a platform to share their stories to raise their profile with other South Dakota residents, said Tamara Jeanne Urban, a 62-year-old transgender woman from Sioux Falls who is helping organize the effort.

A "powerful" strategy for transgender advocates has been putting a human face on an abstract concept that people don't understand, said Terri Bruce, a transgender man expected to be part of the new organization.

Bruce, 52, took that approach this year when he opposed the measures, working to build relationships with lawmakers, including Republicans who ultimately supported the bathroom bill. He now considers some them "unlikely friends."

"All of these people I met recently who didn't know transgender people can say they know a transgender person, and that ripples out," Bruce said.

Advocates for transgender rights rallied in February and talked to state lawmakers at the Capitol before a meeting with Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

The Sioux Falls-based Center for Equality asked for the time with Daugaard because he said he hadn't knowingly met a transgender person. The Republican governor heard the personal stories of three young transgender people and one of their mothers during the private meeting, which was also meant to personalize the issue.

Though the governor ultimately cited different reasoning when he vetoed the bill, Daugaard said shortly afterward that the meeting helped him "see things through their eyes a little bit."

Advocates "can't deny" that they had something to do with the veto, said Ashley Joubert-Gaddis, director of operations at the nonprofit.

Transgender rights have become a new flashpoint in the nation's cultural clashes following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage last year. South Dakota became a focal point after its Republican-controlled Legislature last month approved the legislation.

A GOP lawmaker's comments referring to transgender people as "twisted" in February served as a catalyst that brought people from all over together, said Bruce, who lives in Custer County.

The furor this session has put the Center for Equality on the map, filled up phone contact lists with national LGBT-rights organizations that can help in future fights and increased new memberships that help fund advocacy and other work, Joubert-Gaddis said.

"What they really did is give us a voice," she said.

Supporters said the bill was aimed at protecting student privacy, but opponents criticized it as discriminatory, saying it would further marginalize transgender students. It was one of several measures lawmakers proposed this session related to transgender people, none of which have passed.

Dale Bartscher, who lobbies for the conservative group Family Heritage Alliance Action, said supporters will regroup and move forward. Bartscher said new legislation would be proposed out of concern for children's safety and privacy.

"Whether the opposition to this legislative concept is stronger or more focused, that doesn't play into our decision to do what is right for the children and the parents of the state of South Dakota," he said.

LGBT advocates credit the struggle to defeat the legislation this year with strengthening them and bringing their community together. Bruce said transgender people won't be shamed, bullied or "legislated out of existence" by lawmakers.

"Now I am engaged," he said. "When this happens again, because it will, they will see my face."


By James Nord. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

The Gayly- 3/5/2016 @ 9:57 AM CST