How anti-transgender legislation impacts transgender students


Wren Murphy, Reporter (They/Them)

Felix Busk has lived in South Dakota his whole life, and anti-transgender legislation is pushing him out.

Busk, a sophomore wildlife and fisheries major from Dell Rapids, South Dakota, has been publicly out as transgender since his junior year of high school. Despite his life-long residency in the state, he still doesn’t feel entirely safe.

He isn’t alone. Other current and former South Dakota State University students have said the anti-trans rhetoric that circulates through the legislature each year harms their mental health and pushes them out of the state.

“It makes you feel like your own state hates you,” Busk said. “You’re very slow to let that part of you come out because with things like that going through [the legislature] constantly, it makes you feel unwelcome.”

Several bills, considered anti-transgender by advocacy groups, have appeared in the South Dakota Legislature since 2016. Most bills die before reaching the governor’s desk, and none have become law.

Gov. Kristi Noem refused to sign the most recent one, House Bill 1217 Monday, March 29. The bill would have stopped transgender women and girls from joining sports teams that align with their gender identity. It would have also required each student-athlete to provide a written statement verifying the student’s sex every year.

Noem did write two executive orders, even though she didn’t sign the bill.

The first forbids transgender girls from playing on women’s teams in primary or secondary school. The other recommends the South Dakota Board of Regents do the same at the university level.

Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who represents District 09 in Minnehaha County, was one of the bill’s prime sponsors.

She called Noem’s veto “disappointing.”

“There’s no teeth in [the executive orders],” Milstead said. “No consequences.”

Milstead disagrees with transgender advocates who say this bill targets transgender people.

“I didn’t talk to a trans person, no, because this wasn’t about trans people,” Milstead said about gathering feedback about the bill. “This was about males competing in female sports. The fact is that they have a place to compete. That they can compete in the male bodies category means that nobody is discriminated against.”

A federal judge and a feminist advocacy group disagree.

Judge David Nye stopped a similar bill from taking effect in Idaho in 2020 and argued future court cases would likely show the law was unconstitutional. In his 87-page ruling, Nye said the law targeted transgender women.

“The state has not identified a legitimate interest served by the Act that the preexisting rules in Idaho did not already address, other than an invalid interest of excluding transgender women and girls from women’s sports entirely, regardless of their physiological characteristics,” Nye wrote.

The National Women’s Law Center, a non-profit advocating for women’s rights, also opposes bills banning transgender women from women’s sports.

The organization published an article in February stating these bills target transgender people, don’t fix the problems within school athletics and only add to transgender students’ current problems, including physical and sexual violence, mental health crises and familial rejection.

“I am honestly quite offended that somebody would take something like this and turn it around and make it about something that it is not,” Milstead said. “It is strictly about fairness.”

Even if the bills don’t pass, Felix Busk believes they create an unwelcoming atmosphere that discourages young transgender people from staying in or coming to the state.

“I know every trans kid that was in my high school said, ‘The second we’re out of college, we’re leaving the state,’” Busk said.

Chris Hartzler, a transgender advocate who graduated from SDSU in 2019, is one student who left after completing his degree.

“For a long time, to me, it was you leave or you end up in the ground,” Hartzler said. “You have to be very strong to be a trans individual and stay in South Dakota.” 

Hartzler spent many of his years in Brookings advocating for trans rights, including by testifying at the legislature, speaking to SDSU classes and conducting Safe Zone training. This advocacy eventually took a toll on his mental health, and he moved to Minneapolis soon after graduation.  

“I hit the burnout and left the state. Some folks hit the burnout and don’t wake up the next day,” Hartzler said. “It really is chasing people out of the state.” 

Milstead said she thinks South Dakota is an accepting place and feeling unwelcome is often unavoidable.  

“There are lots of kids at SDSU that are welcoming to everybody, so it’s finding that group of people and being encouraged by them,” Milstead said. “You walk away from the ugliness and you go to the people that care.” 

When asked what she thinks about transgender people feeling unwelcome and scared because of this legislation, she said people could “say that about anything.” 

“You could take something and draw it inward and make something out of it that it is not. This bill is not about a personal attack to anyone. The bathroom bill was not an attack on anyone,” Milstead said. “You know, the skinny kid at school gets bullied, the kid that’s kind of geeky gets bullied. They just need to find different friends.” 

Many transgender advocates, including Hartzler, believe anti-trans bills can make trans adolescents feel unsafe and unwelcome, increasing their risk of suicide.  

About 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide in their lifetime, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. The attempted suicide rate is significantly lower for trans individuals who have their families and communities affirm their identities.  

Other studies have found the attempted suicide rate is even higher in certain groups, with one out of two adolescent transgender men attempting suicide, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It also found between 30 and 51% of transgender and questioning adolescents attempt suicide. In comparison, less than 10% of cisgender adolescents, or adolescents who are not transgender, reported attempting suicide in the same study.  

Katherine Telkamp, a junior theater major from Britton, South Dakota, is another student whose mental health is affected by this type of legislation. They avoid news about these bills to protect their mental health. 

“I remember calling my parents just crying because I was so stressed about it because I didn’t know what to do,” Telkamp said. “The knowledge that if it had passed that there would have been even more reason for me to be excluded or for me to be, you know, hate crime-d, I was terrified, and knowing I had friends that were in danger scared me. It legit scared me.” 

Although Telkamp has not decided where to move after graduation, anti-trans legislation makes them warier of living in an area “so openly against” their existence.  

“People are terrified of realizing who they are because of the discrimination that is prevalent in our state, especially in South Dakota,” Telkamp said. “People of all ages could be scared of saying something so trivial, as I’ve had to lie to myself my entire life, because they are afraid that the institutions that are supposed to be protecting them are harming them irreparably.” 

Even if these bills affect the mental health of many transgender students, not all trans people leave the state, Hartzler said. South Dakota has several welcoming communities and job opportunities, and others want to advocate for trans rights.  

“Staying in the state, that’s tenacity and determination,” Hartzler said. “All the props.”