South Dakota governor's ban on transgender athletes at center of emerging GOP culture war

Gov. Noem faces criticism over orders aimed at transgender girls in sports

March 31, 2021, 3:29 PM

A series of culture wars that are likely to resurface on future campaign trails appear to be emerging in several Republican-led states over the issue of transgender rights, despite the next two cycles of elections being several political lifetimes away.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem -- who is widely considered to be a possible 2024 presidential aspirant -- is the latest official to be at the center of debates surrounding a groundswell of bills that aim to ban transgender students from playing on school sports teams according to the gender with which they identify. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, similar types of bills have made their way through more than a dozen states, including two recently passed laws in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Noem's attempt to take on the highly sensitive topic had a rocky start, despite her having expressed initial excitement at the prospect of "defending women's sports" in signing HB 1217 -- her state's version of a bill that sought to ban transgender women and girls from playing on female sport teams. This week, Noem killed that bill after failing to come to a compromise with state lawmakers regarding revisions to what she called "serious drafting errors" which she believes made the bill "significantly different from any other state legislation pending across the country."

In a letter addressed to the state's legislative leaders on Monday, Noem expressed her concerns over the bill's language having consequences beyond protecting "fairness in women's sports." The concerns included worries that the bill would have "turned any failure to make a sports team into a litigation hazard," while also implementing the need for parents to complete a yearly "onerous paperwork requirement" to identify school-aged children's genders and whether their child had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

PHOTO: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on Feb. 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on Feb. 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

Noem also pointed to the bill's likely impact on collegiate athletics, which could have put state athletes at odds with the oversight implemented by national athletic organizations.

"South Dakota has shown that our student athletes can compete with anyone in the country, but competing on the national stage means compliance with the national governing bodies that oversee collegiate athletics," Noem wrote in a series of recent tweets. "While I certainly do not always agree with the actions these sanctioning bodies take, I understand that collegiate athletics requires such a system -- a fifty-state patchwork is not workable."

Although the South Dakota governor's two executive orders do not explicitly include references to transgender athletes, they do refer to "current policies that allow males to participate in women's athletics." Noem said the orders "temporarily address the problem" and that she wants to see a special legislative session come together in the coming months to further address these issues through legislation.

While Noem and other supporters of similar efforts see these policies as vehicles for protecting their notions of fairness in women's sports, the political push in South Dakota appears to be at odds with the current number of trans athletes it would presumably impact. According to data provided by the Transformation Project, a transgender youth advocacy group in South Dakota, there are only a handful of trans athletes across the state -- among them are five trans male athletes and no trans girl athletes.

The evolution of Noem's stance on her state legislature's initial bill opened the door for intraparty criticism. Some social conservatives like the Family Policy Alliance seized on her perceived presidential aspirations by implying that her decision to oppose the bill could have larger political repercussions.

"It's no secret that Gov. Noem has national aspirations, so it's time she hears from a national audience," the group wrote in a press release to supporters.

PHOTO: Protesters march with signs in support of transgender and transgender youth rights march around the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., March 2, 2021.
Protesters march with signs in support of transgender and transgender youth rights march around the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., March 2, 2021.
Jake Crandall/ The Montgomery Advertiser via USA Today Networks, FILE

Editors at The National Review, a conservative news magazine, called Noem's moves a "disappointing capitulation" and alleged the governor engaged in "a flagrant violation of her powers" for making "sweeping substantive changes rather than small stylistic ones" in her executive orders.

The editors went on to call it a "classic case of a politician motivated by immediate financial incentives (in this case, avoiding expensive lawsuits and potential boycotts) acting rashly on an issue she knows and cares little about, only to quickly realize that this was drastically out of step with her party and her base, and then frantically set about justifying her decision."

Noem stood her ground in a subsequent op-ed published by the magazine.

As LGBTQ advocates laud the outcome of the political back and forth, they indicate more work needs to be done to address trans rights.

"Nobody wins when politicians try to meddle in people's lives like this. Nobody wins when we try to codify discrimination like this. We're thrilled with the decision by South Dakota lawmakers to kill this bill," said Jett Jonelis, an ACLU of South Dakota advocacy manager in a statement following the termination of HB-1217 earlier this week.

Following Noem's announced executive orders, Jonelis pushed back on the governor's notion of protecting "fairness in women's sports" in a statement to ABC News.

"If Gov. Noem really wanted to protect fairness in women's sports, she would tackle the actual threats to women's sports such as severe underfunding, lack of media coverage, sexist ideologies that suggest that women and girls are weak, and pay equity for coaches," Jonelis said.

For now, it appears that at least one factor in the legislative saga could offer room for common ground -- according to Jonelis, the South Dakota ACLU is also currently examining whether the governor "exceeded her authority by issuing these executive orders."

ABC's Stephanie Fasano, Jake Lefferman and Karin Weinberg contributed to this report.

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