BISMARCK — North Dakota's transgender athlete bill cleared a final legislative hurdle with the approval of Senate lawmakers on Thursday, April 15, sending the proposal to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk.
If signed into law, House Bill 1298 would restrict transgender athletes in K-12 sports in North Dakota from competing alongside competitors of their identifying gender. The Senate approved the bill in a 27-20 vote on Thursday after the House endorsed it by a wide margin the day before.
Burgum, a second-term Republican, has not indicated how he will act on the bill, and a spokesperson for the governor's office declined to comment after Thursday's vote.
The bill has been one of the most contentious proposals of this legislative session, and it drew opposition from both Republicans and Democrats on Thursday.
"It would be much easier for me if I did not know somebody who is transgender," said Bismarck Republican Sen. Dick Dever, who told colleagues about the steep mental health challenges that have confronted one of his longtime acquaintances who has been 30 years in transition from female to male. Dever invoked Christian tenets of love and kindness to explain a pivot in his thinking on the bill.
"When I was first elected, I told myself that on matters of conscience I will vote my conscience, and that's what I'm about to do," he said.
But while debates around the proposal this session have centered on its impacts for the state's transgender community, proponents have argued for the bill as needed legislation to protect fair competition in girls' sports.
"This is about Title IX and women's rights — girls' rights to have an even playing field. This is about feminism," said Edinburg Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal, a sponsor of the bill. "Please, put your emotions aside, and please don't accuse anyone on this floor (of not being) loving or to be hateful because of this legislation. It has nothing to do with that."
Earlier this month, the lightning-rod proposal was gutted on the Senate floor in an eleventh-hour amendment introduced by opponents, but a narrower version of the transgender athlete restriction was revived in a bicameral committee that workshopped the bill earlier this week. The House approved that version of the bill in a 69-25 vote on Wednesday, setting up Thursday's final hurdle in the Senate.
Lawmakers opposed to the bill have argued that it would have dangerous mental health repercussions for members of the transgender and LGBTQ community in North Dakota, and critics have also warned that the proposal would deter corporations from North Dakota and create expensive lawsuits for the state.
Bismarck Democrat Sen. Erin Oban appealed to her Republican colleagues not to support a bill against their consciences in order to protect their legislative seats in socially conservative districts. "I don't care one bit if I am ever elected again if it means that I have to discriminate against specific children in law, because that's what this bill does," she said.
The bill has gone through several iterations over the course of the session, and the version passed on Thursday is narrower than original language that would have also applied to public universities and state-sponsored venues. Those provisions were removed to gird against lawsuits.
And though the bill bars schools from allowing a student to join a sports team for the opposite "biological sex," it includes an exception for girls hoping to join teams that don't have both male and female squads, a provision which Sen. Michael Dwyer, R-Bismarck, noted would allow for girls to play sports like football.
North Dakota's transgender athlete bill is part of a national flood of legislation that would restrict or bar the participation of transgender athletes. More than 25 states have taken up legislation this year that would restrict the participation of transgender youth in state-sponsored sports leagues, according to the ACLU, and governors in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas have signed their states' versions of the legislation in recent weeks.
“Nobody wins when politicians start meddling in people’s lives like this. Nobody wins when we codify discrimination like this. Inclusive teams that support all athletes and encourage participation should be the standard for all school sports," said ACLU of North Dakota campaign director Libby Skarin, in a statement.
Although Burgum has not taken a position on the transgender athlete proposal this session, he was quick to renounce anti-LGBT rhetoric that appeared in a GOP platform last summer.
"As I've long said, all North Dakotans deserve to be treated equally and live free of discrimination," Burgum said at the time. "We can respect one another's freedoms without disrespecting or discriminating against the LGBT members of our state and our party, whom we support."
The bill would need a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate chambers to override a governor's veto, if Burgum chooses to act against it. The House approved the bill by a veto-proof margin earlier this week, but the bill did not reach the two-thirds threshold in Thursday's Senate vote.
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.