transsexual sports bigotry south dakota
Reading Time: 5 minutes Caster Semenya, shown here competing in Paris in 2018, won 800-meter gold in the 2009 Olympics but was criticized for her “masculine look” and incredible speed. Leaked test results showed she has no ovaries or a uterus. (Yann Caradec, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
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What a South Dakota state legislative committee did today (Jan. 24) was an emphatic victory for reason over superstitious bigotry.

In a decisive 5-2 morning vote after an hour of testimony, the state Senate Education Committee effectively killed SB 49, a bill that would have required that transgender students’ birth sex, not the gender identity they personally choose, be the “sole determinant” on whether they would play on girls or boys teams in South Dakota high school athletics.

The bill sought to kill a law passed in the 2015 Legislature allowing students to participate in sports activities “in line with their self-identified gender.”

In God’s image?

Rejection of SB 49 was also an implied rejection of conservative Christian beliefs that God creates each individual exactly as he wishes them to be, and that human beings are divinely bound to acknowledge and not try to change that.

Of course, as we have learned from biological science, human beings are hardly a homogenous lot in their sexuality. Indeed, people are most commonly born as undeniably male or female, but sometimes (though exceedingly rarely) as both (hermaphroditism), and always somewhere randomly along the wide possible continuum of sexual identity. Beyond external physical genitalia, each of us also has a wide range of natural hormonal configurations and emotional sexual tendencies, which is why some people are heterosexual, some homosexual and some bi, etc.

It’s not actually as black and white as the Bible demands. When the Bible says homosexuality is “an abomination,” it only reveals the ignorance and narrow bigotry of its all-too-human author and of the time he lived. Even today’s medical and psychiatric professions agree that homosexuality — and other inherent human gender qualities — are natural and nonpathological. In other words, it’s just the way we are, a mixed bag.

SB 49 was merely a modern-day reflection of the ancient and by now constantly scientifically debunked ideologies found in Christian scripture, but to which many Americans still subscribe.

Sponsored and co-sponsored by two conservative Republicans, respectively — state Sen. Jim Bolin and Rep. Thomas Brunner — the bill was disingenuously couched as a means of ensuring fairness in high school sports competitions.

“We have sports that are set up—boys go over 39-inch hurdles in 110 meters and girls have to clear 33-inch hurdles in 100-meter hurdles. We have a smaller ball for girls’ basketball than we do for boys’ basketball,” Rep. Bolin once said, according to an article in the progressive news outlet The Nation. “If we’re going to have these modifications, then my point is that the birth certificate should be the determining factor in which team you play on. It’s all about fair competition.”

Proof, please

However, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing information available to support their contention that transgender athletes unfairly skew fair competitive balance. But the downsides to shoehorning kids into arbitrary gender lanes are crystal clear. Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in South Dakota, sees SB 49 as a vehicle for targeting and discriminating against trans teens.

“I think in reality what is going to happen is we are going to see transgender kids who are effectively barred from participating in athletics,” she told South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDBP) in a recent interview. “That’s really dangerous, because for transgender kids, being treated in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity is really critical to their short and long-term physical and mental health.”

The Olympic solution

Which is not to say the issue is entirely cut and dried. After wrestling with this issue, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in 2016 to allow trans athletes to compete in the sex they chose but, for fairness, required women to “verify” their gender status with chromosomal tests.

A 2016 opinion piece by Katharina Lindner in The Conversation, reprinted in Newsweek magazine — “Do transgender athletes have an unfair advantage” — notes that in determining the athlete’s sex for Olympic competitions, the earlier practice of asking athletes to “drop their underwear” was discarded.

“The move away from using reproductive organs or chromosomes was linked to scientific evidence which showed that ‘nature’ is a lot messier than we think. There is no neat and clear distinction between “male” and “female”—and no way of ‘measuring’ or ‘testing’ sex based on reproductive organs or chromosomes alone. There are much greater variations of sex chromosomes than simply XX and XY, including XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, XXYY, XXXYY. And chromosomes themselves also don’t have a direct impact on the body’s physical characteristics—they only do so when combined with certain hormones. Then add intersex people, discrepancies between internal and external sex organs and mismatches between genitals and chromosomal sex into the mix—and you’ve got a whole lot of complication.”

Perhaps if the South Dakota Senate had considered a bill with IOC-type gender testing, it would have been more evidence-based and justifiable and less blatantly ignorant and discriminatory. But, also, there was a history, which reflects on the bill sponsors’ true intent.

A ‘transparent lie’

Cory Allen Heidelberger, publisher of the Dakota Free Press, was leery of the Bolin-Brunner bill from the get-go, according to The Nation article noted above. He said:

“That athletic fairness is Bolin’s motivation is an obvious and transparent lie. SB 49 is actually best understood as only the latest effort by Bolin’s crew in the legislature to target trans students at the state level. In 2016 they passed a law, vetoed by Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard, that would have forced trans students to use bathrooms for the sex assigned to them at birth. However, the state’s new governor, Kristi Noem, campaigned on the promise of signing any anti-trans legislation that the legislature sends her way.”

So similar LGBT battles may still be forthcoming in my state, and elsewhere.

But the good news is the Legislature in our very-red state emphatically just shot down an attempt to discriminate against high school trans athletes based on prejudicial, ancient, religious assumptions that make their proponents think narrowly.

That’s grounds for hope that Americans, red and blue — and “none of the above” — may actually be growing more rational.


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Image from “3,001 Arabian Days” — Son of an Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) employee learns to ride a camel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1955. (Photo courtesy Saudi Aramco)

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...