Wyatt Williams told his parents he was a boy as soon as he could talk.
“He would say things like, ‘I'm going to be a daddy someday, I can't wait to be a daddy,’” his mother, Susan Williams, recalls. “And I'm like, ‘Oh honey, you're going to be a mommy.’”
But the 13 year-old South Dakotan never wavered on who he was. Every Halloween, he chose male characters for his costume. He told Susan he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, not a policewoman.
Susan didn’t know at the time that Wyatt is transgender. Today, she advocates for kids like her son as the founder of Transformation Project South Dakota. That job has been agonizing over the last week, since the South Dakota House passed HB 1057, a bill that would criminalize affirming health care for trans youth like Wyatt.
“When the bill first came out, we talked about it a little bit, and then he broke down a few days later,” Susan tells NewNowNext. “I think he had kind of held it in, like, ‘I'm going to try to be strong.’ But a few days later, he was just so upset and crying, and saying, ‘Why, why do they do these things? Why, why doesn’t the legislature just leave trans kids alone?’”
Whereas the 2018 midterms brought a rainbow wave of out LGBTQ candidates winning across the nation, 2020 threatens an ominous flood of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Of the more than 600 bills the Human Rights Campaign is tracking, over 100 of them target queer people, the organization says.
January has seen the introduction of a startling number of anti-LGBTQ bills, a signal Republicans intend to use equality as a wedge issue in the 2020 elections. At last count, Freedom for All Americans is tracking 46 anti-transgender bills pending in state legislatures. In Florida, a bill similar to HB 1057 failed to move out of committee on Monday. But advocates in Tennessee are facing five anti-transgender bills, while Missouri is looking at seven. Four have been introduced in Arizona, and another three in Kentucky.
Over 25 HRC staff members have been dispatched to 12 different states. While the organization has historically employed field staffers in key states, 2020 marks an all-time high for organizing on state bills. Those efforts have increased every year since President Trump took office. While some HRC staffers are working to pass pro-equality measures like the Virginia Values Act, which would secure non-discrimination protections in the state, others are pounding the pavement in South Dakota to defeat HB 1057.
“In States like South Dakota and Tennessee, we're mobilizing our folks to show up at lobby days to talk with lawmakers, to show up at hearings,” Hope Jackson, Deputy Campaign Director at HRC tells NewNowNext. “We have 32 steering committees across the country.”
South Dakota is seen as a test cast for the nation when it comes to anti-LGBTQ legislation. That’s in part because the legislative session kicks-off early and wraps-up quickly. A Republican majority in both chambers and in the Governor’s seat make anti-queer bills an easier sell in the state.
Last week also saw the introduction of HB 1215, a bill that practically seeks to wipe LGBTQ people from public life by outlawing marriage equality, permanently legalizing conversion therapy, banning gender marker changes, and blocking non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. It’s the third in a trio of anti-LGBTQ bills to hit the legislature in the last month.
Another, Senate Bill 88, which would require mental health providers to out kids expressing gender dysphoria to their parents, was tabled in committee.
Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at HRC, points out the state is experiencing a kind of déjà vu. In 2016, South Dakota became the first state to introduce an anti-trans bathroom bill. The measure made it all the way to Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who vetoed the legislation. Media outlets reported the governor had a change of heart after hearing from transgender kids and their parents.
"[South Dakota] has been introducing novel kinds of anti-transgender legislation there over the course of the last few years,” Oakley tells NewNowNext. “And so it was not surprising at all that they were early into the fray with some of these anti-transgender pieces of legislation that we then saw.”
Susan Williams says the last five years of anti-trans legislation in South Dakota have taken a serious toll on transgender kids and their families. Many talk about the prospect of HB 1057, and picture themselves driving across state lines every month just to take their trans kids to the doctor.
“But for others who may not be able to get off work for an entire day to drive across South Dakota and go to another state to get medical care, or who might not have the financial resources, or their insurance might not cover something out of state, it really would impact them greatly,” Williams said.
Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU, says state bills aimed at transgender youth are a matter of life and death, because trans-affirming medical care has been shown to prevent suicide among trans youth.
“I think what people are failing to appreciate is that it's not just criminal bans on future care,” Strangio tells NewNowNext. “People who have been undergoing treatment for years would suddenly have their care cut-off and turned into a felony in some places.”
The field campaign has a daunting task before it in South Dakota: The 35-seat Senate is made up of 30 Republicans and just five Democrats.
LGBTQ advocates with the National Center for Transgender Equality, the ACLU, and HRC are mobilizing volunteers in Sioux Falls and Pierre, holding rallies and hosting phone banks throughout the state.
On Monday, they hope to assemble 1,000 LGBTQ people and allies before the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee hears HB 1057. Sources tell NewNowNext that organizers hope they can kill the measure in committee. That committee is headed by Republican Deb Soholt, who voted against the anti-trans bathroom bill in 2016. Soholt was not available for comment by press time.