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Noem welcomes transgender people, declines to discuss bills

February 4, 2021 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said Thursday that she hopes transgender people feel welcome to visit the state, while declining to discuss bills making their way through the Legislature that have been decried by LGBTQ advocates.

The Republican-dominated Legislature is considering two bills that would place limitations on transgender people’s ability to live as the gender with which they identify. One would ban people from changing the sex designation on their birth certificates; the other would prohibit transgender females from participating in school sports leagues for girls.

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Among some conservative lawmakers, the bills are seen as stands against shifting attitudes to gender and sex in American society. But opponents say they are discriminatory and send a message that transgender people are not welcome in the state. They have argued that such legislation also threatens the state’s ability to attract businesses and events, which has been a focus of Noem’s administration.

States like North Carolina that have passed laws targeting transgender people have lost out on billions of dollars after sporting events and businesses shied away.

“Everybody understands that South Dakota is a welcoming place, especially after this last year that we went through in 2020,” Noem said when asked what message she wanted to send to transgender people. “So if they would like to be a part of our communities, our way of life, if they value their freedoms, I would encourage them to come visit.”

But the Republican governor declined to discuss her views on the bills, saying she would weigh them if the Legislature passes them.

Meanwhile, Republicans are divided on the legislation. The birth certificate proposal passed by eight votes in the House last week. The vote was carried by Republicans who argued that a birth certificate is an objective record of someone’s sex at birth and should not be changed. The bill is now being evaluated in the Senate, where it is expected to receive greater scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the proposal regarding school sports leagues has yet to receive a committee hearing — the first hurdle in the Legislature.

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The state’s high school athletics association currently allows transgender athletes to get an exemption to compete as the gender that is different from that on their birth certificate, though no transgender girls are currently competing in girls leagues.

The debate over transgender athletes has played out in statehouses across the country, with Idaho last year becoming the first to pass a ban. The Department of Education under former President Donald Trump ruled that allowing transgender girls to compete as girls in high school sports violates the civil rights of girls who are not transgender under Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal opportunities in education.

But transgender athletes and their advocates expect that President Joe Biden will become an ally as they seek to participate as their identified gender. However, some policy experts have said that it may ultimately fall on Congress to clarify once and for all whether Title IX protects or bars the participation of transgender females in women’s sports.

Meanwhile, Democrats in South Dakota’s Legislature, where they hold just 11 seats, urged Republicans to drop the battle and turn to more pressing issues.

“Bills that aim to divide us are not what we’re here for,” said House Minority Leader Jamie Smith. “We’re here to work for the people of South Dakota.”

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This story has been updated to correct the number of votes the bill to ban changes to the sex on birth certificates based by. It passed by eight votes, not nine.