South Dakota Trans Youth Reeling After Years of Fighting for Basic Rights

"I should be able to just be a kid who's in high school and focus on that."

Elliot James wishes he weren’t trans at all.

When State Sen. Wayne Steinhauer motions to kill South Dakota’s bellwether anti-trans bill, James will be credited with helping get him there. It is James who will talk to him over the weekend at a legislative breakfast and James who will shakily approach him on the Senate floor an hour before the hearing.

But sitting above the Senate chambers an hour before the hearing, James, 16, makes a difficult admission: He really wishes he didn't have to do this.

“It's so difficult being a teenager on its own, but when you throw in being trans and growing up in a pretty Red state, honestly, it gets hard to even be who you are,” the teen tells NewNowNext. “And it would really just be easier if I could be cisgender. But that's not really how it works. There's also the dysphoria. I wouldn't wish dysphoria upon anyone because it's just awful.”

Kate Sosin

Elliot James (R) with his lawmaker in the capital city of Pierre.

House Bill 1057 would have barred kids like James from accessing trans healthcare like puberty blockers. Even though it died in a Senate committee on February 10, South Dakota has seen a string of anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in its legislature over the last five years. In 2016, the state became the first to pass a law barring trans kids from using bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender. Then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed the measure.

But South Dakota, with its super-majority Republican legislature and early 40-day legislative session, is of often the testing ground for anti-LGBTQ legislation. Queer families in the Mount Rushmore State are already eying the next session, anticipating future battles.

That, they say, has taken a substantial toll on trans kids, their parents, and LGBTQ South Dakotans as a whole.

James en route to Pierre early in the morning on February 10.

James jokes with Quinncy Parke, a nonbinary 17-year-old who also testified against the bill, that the two look so much alike that James could testify in Parke’s place.

“I should be able to just be a kid who's in high school and focus on that—and not have to go and talk to grown adult lawmakers about why they shouldn't have a say in what I'm able to do with my body,” James adds.

Trans South Dakotans not directly fighting the bills say they too have been hard hit by the measures.

Samuel, a 28-year-old trans man, stays in South Dakota because he’s tied to a job as a software developer and is paying off student loans. His last name has been withheld because he says it’s not safe for him to be out in the state.

“Literally, every day that I’m here, I want to leave, but I can’t,” he tells NewNowNext, sitting in Club David, a gay bar downtown. “I was born and raised here, so obviously I love this place, but it’s so hard… It’s terrifying living here right now, especially in the environment that we’re in.”

Samuel doesn’t have any trans friends in South Dakota, and he’s mostly stealth, a term that refers to trans people who are not out in their daily lives. He says it’s just not safe to be out where he lives and works.

Kate Sosin

Eve Wieser.

Other trans residents, like 22-year-old Eve Wieser of Sioux Falls, have chosen to live openly as trans.

“For many people, I’m like the first trans people they’ve ever met,” Wieser tells NewNowNext. “It can be a little lonely at times.”

Wieser feels safe with her friends in Sioux Falls and at work at Coffea Roasterie where she’s a barista.

“I’ve had things yelled at me from calls, trans-negative things,” she says. “You sort of build a thick skin living in South Dakota as a trans person, but I’ve also had very heartwarming and surprising experiences as well.”

Bills like HB 1057 remind her that South Dakota isn’t entirely welcoming. Wieser worked to defeat the measure, making 80 calls to her neighbors, asking them to call their senators about the bill.

Parents of trans children have done substantial work in trying to create space in the state for their kids. Last year, Susan Williams, the mother of a transgender 13-year-old Wyatt Williams, founded The Transformation Project, an organization for trans kids and their families. Even though Williams is working to make the state better for her Wyatt, he wants to leave as soon as possible, she says.

“He doesn't see a future in South Dakota,” she tells NewNowNext. “For many of our trans kids and many LGBTQ kids, the day they are able to leave the state as an 18 year old, they do.”

The impact of anti-trans legislation is deeply felt by LGBTQ people, too. Angelica Mercado-Ford, 25, took a 3am bus from Sioux Falls to the state capital of Pierre on February 10 to protest HB 1057. She says, standing out in the cold, holding signs demanding equality, she feared for her life.

“People in South Dakota are more prone to defend their guns instead of defending basic human rights,” she tells NewNowNext.

Kate Sosin

Angelica Mercado-Ford.

Mercado-Ford is nervous about holding her partner’s hand in public, and she worries about being fired for being a lesbian in a state with no queer-inclusive nondiscrimination protections on the books. She says those fears are compounded by the fact that she is an immigrant and a person of color in a mostly white state.

LGBTQ South Dakotans face open hostility outside the legislature, too. Laura Ehlert says her neighbor in Sioux Falls recently knocked on her door and told her to take down her pride flag.

“I said, 'It’s not coming down,' because I worked for so long to be who I am,” she tells NewNowNext.

Rev. Dr. M. G. Martell Spagnolo at First Congregational Church in Sioux Falls is the only openly gay pastor in South Dakota. He tells NewNowNext that the heavily religious state can be a scary place for gay men. Even if people are not attending church every Sunday, it’s fashionable to do so. When South Dakotans write their lawmakers, they’re not just encouraged to say what district they live in; they’re told to say what church they belong to.

“I would just look at Middle America in the ‘30s, ‘40, and ‘50s to get the idea,” Spagnolo explains.

Rev. Dr. M. G. Martell Spagnolo (third from left).

Spagnolo’s church preaches equality and trans rights. On a Sunday in February, Rev. Ryan Otto encourages congregants to join a group going to Pierre to protest HB 1057. In the pews, parishioners fret over the hearing on the bill slated for the following day. Melanie Bliss apologizes in advance to an out-of-state reporter for the anti-trans rhetoric she anticipates will come from South Dakota lawmakers.

The climate in South Dakota has hit trans kids in states that aren’t facing such measures. The more than 50 anti-trans measures pending in legislatures across the country are troubling to Massachusetts resident Mimi Lemay, whose 9-year-old child Jacob is trans.

“When Jacob transitioned, I didn't understand that supporting my transgender son would also involve having to fight for his rights,” Lemay tells NewNowNext. “It was shocking, and it was disheartening to know that we would have to fight for his basic rights, his ability to enjoy the same public spaces as his best friend who isn't trans, gets to do without even worrying about being discriminated against.”

In November 2018, ostensibly progressive Massachusetts held the nation's first ballot referendum to repeal trans rights. The state voted to keep protections in place. Jacob recently made headlines because Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Jacob that he could approve her pick for Secretary of Education during the CNN's LGBTQ Town Hall in October. But it also made the preteen a target for conservative political pundits.

Jacob imagines a world in which vehemently anti-trans bills like those introduced in Idaho and Arizona were passed in his state.

“All these trans kids would be very sad and a lot of trans people's lives would be gone,” he says, a sobering allusion to the fact that puberty blockers have been proven to reduce suicide rates among trans kids.

“I them want to know that we're not that much different than everyone else,” adds Jacob. “We still have the same kind personalities, and we are still human.”

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