By Libby Skarin, Policy Director & Lobbyist

This piece originally appeard in the Argus Leader

For the past few years South Dakotans have been talking a lot about transgender people. Understanding what it is like to be transgender can be hard, especially if you’ve never met a transgender person. And as is often true, we don’t know what it is like for others until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. When listening to the stories of transgender students one thing becomes abundantly clear: they just want to live their lives like everyone else and be treated respectfully. That’s why creating a law that treats these students differently from their peers and further stigmatizes them isn’t sensitive as Representative Deutsch stated in his letter – it’s hurtful.

It’s a simple truth that transgender kids are living and going to school in South Dakota today, and they want what any kid wants – to be loved and treated fairly by their teachers, their friends, and their communities. Schoolyard bullying is harmful in all of its forms, and we can all agree that we must do everything we can to end it. The way we can do that is to create school environments that respect all kids and empower all students – rather than limit them.  Our schools have a duty to ensure that every student can learn in a harassment-free environment, including transgender students, who studies show are especially vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. 
The importance of a welcoming school environment spans through the entire day, and lately we’ve seen a focus on a small but significant part of that day – trips to the bathroom. Restrooms or locker rooms can be a source of discomfort for many students, not just those who are transgender, and of course schools have an obligation to protect the privacy of all students. But doing so doesn’t need to involve the state government stepping in to tell schools which student can use which restroom.
Hundreds of school districts across the country – including those right here in the Midwest – have resolved these issues in a way that both protects student privacy and allows students to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity. These policies avoid further stigmatizing transgender kids and enhance school safety by ensuring that schools aren’t sending the message that it’s ok to target or single out transgender students. 
Further, we already have state laws and school policies against disruptive and criminal behavior, including in school restrooms. That won’t change just because transgender students are allowed to use facilities that match they gender they live every single day. 
Policies that prevent transgender students from using appropriate facilities would open up our schools to liability because they conflict with federal non-discrimination requirements. This places schools in a terrible position in which they are subject to conflicting local policies and federal laws. To knowingly put schools in this web of contradictory laws and in danger of losing federal funding does a disservice to local educators who are trying every day to do right by their students and make their lives better.
The ACLU has long stood in support of vulnerable people who are discriminated against and treated differently from their peers, and we will continue to stand up for transgender kids. The real-life impact of these issues are no more evident than in one of our affiliate’s cases from Virginia. There, the ACLU represents a young transgender boy named Gavin, who wants nothing more than to live his life. Recently, he spoke at a school board meeting despite being berated by adults in his community – called a freak, and compared to a dog urinating on a fire hydrant. He bravely stood up to a room full of grown adults to say this: “All I want to do is be a normal child and use the restroom in peace. This could be your child. I’m just a human. I’m just a boy.”
Here in South Dakota we value our citizens and our communities, and we strive to treat others how we wish to be treated. We can’t let fears or misunderstandings about people who may be different guide our laws – especially when those laws would hurt already vulnerable kids who are just trying to go about their school day in peace.