The last time Republicans in South Dakota made a serious push to bar transgender girls from school sports, in 2019, their bill was known only by its nondescript numerical title, Senate Bill 49. Its two main sponsors were men. And it died without ever getting out of committee, just 10 days after it was introduced.
But when Republicans decided to try again in January, they were far more strategic in their approach. The sponsors this time were two women who modeled their bill after a template provided by a conservative legal organization. They gave the bill a name that suggested noble intent: the “act to promote continued fairness in women’s sports.” Supporters from Minnesota and Idaho traveled to the Capitol in Pierre to testify that a new law was urgently needed to keep anyone with male biological characteristics out of female competitions, even though they acknowledged only a handful of examples of that happening in South Dakota.
“These efforts appear to be far more slick, and far more organized,” said Elizabeth A. Skarin of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, which opposes the bill. “Anytime they give a bill a name in South Dakota,” she added, “you know something’s up.”
Then things took an unexpected turn. Gov. Kristi Noem, who is seen as a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, demanded changes to the bill before she would sign it. The response was swift and harsh: Social conservative activists and Republican lawmakers accused Ms. Noem of being cowed by pressure from business and athletics organizations, which have been successful at stopping laws in other states that single out transgender people for exclusion and feed ugly stereotypes.
In Mississippi and Arkansas, they are set to become law this summer. And similar bills have been introduced by Republicans in two dozen other states, including North Carolina, where an unpopular “bathroom bill” enacted in 2016 prompted costly boycotts and led conservatives nationwide to pull back on efforts to restrict rights for transgender people.
“You make change in our society by making laws, and luckily we have some great states that have stepped up,” said Beth Stelzer, the founder of a new organization, Save Women’s Sports, that she said opposes “demolishing women’s sports for the sake of feelings.” Ms. Stelzer, an amateur power lifter who was in North Carolina this week for the bill introduction, has also testified in support of new laws in South Dakota, Montana and Arkansas.
“women’s sports as we know it will die’’ if transgender athletes were allowed to compete.