Power Must Concede: Thoughts on the Anti-Transgender Bill in South Dakota

Frederick Douglass once said: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Douglass spoke these words during a speech on the 23rd anniversary of the "West India Emancipation" in which the British abolished slavery in their colonies of the West Indies and Caribbean. It also took place in 1857, four years before the breakout of the American Civil War. Thus, not only did Douglass' speech become a reflection of West Indian slaves and their struggle for freedom, it also became a portent of things to come, the lightning before the deadly thunder that would sweep across America, leading to the greatest uprising our nation has ever endured.

These words haunt me for two reasons. The first is its timelessness: in every uprising, in every great change, in every great stride for freedom, equality and justice -- from civil rights, to women's rights, to the holocaust, the abolishment of slaves and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt -- Douglass' words ring true. Which leads me to the second reason: They are incredibly terrifying -- because in order for justice, freedom and equality to prevail, they require action and sacrifice that no one is truly prepared for. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Leonard Matlovich, and Dorothy Day are just some examples; these individuals have shown the world the incredible sacrifices that must be made in order for power to concede and for justice and equality to rise.

And today is no different.

Tamir Rice, Ferguson, Zaevion Dobson, the Syrian Refugees, San Bernandino, Sandy Hook and many others have been sacrificed in the battle for justice and peace across the world. All of it stemming from power. I hold the power because I have a gun. I hold the power because I am white. I hold the power because I am rich or heterosexual or male or in a position of authority. These powers will not concede without demand, without action or sacrifice. And so the fight continues.

In the state of South Dakota, right now, a bill has been passed that would discriminate against transgender students, forcing them to use bathrooms in accordance with their sex assigned at birth and not the gender that they identify with. The main push behind this bill, cited by South Dakota Legislature, is the protection and privacy of students. However, when one looks closely at the discrimination that this bill could potentially result in, one can see this is akin to forcing to African Americans to use different water fountains under the guise of "separate but equal."

A concern that has surfaced on social media outlines the persistent and irrational fear that some individuals would misuse the bathrooms if transgender students were allowed to use bathrooms based on the gender that they identify with (e.g., an ill intentioned individual could claim to identify as female in order to peep on the opposite sex). First, this perpetuates a myth that the construct of the transgender identity is not real or is merely a choice -- which certainly is not true: there is consistent and growing evidence that there is a biological basis for the transgender identity. Unfortunately, like many constructs in society, the construct of transgender identity can be misused and manipulated for the benefit of that ill-intentioned individual. However, it is extremely unfair to assume a majority of individuals who identify as transgender are going to misuse their identity.

Nevertheless, the South Dakota Legislature believes that the few individuals who would misuse and manipulate this situation -- including both non trans and trans individuals -- outweigh the majority individuals who would be discriminated against if this bill is implemented. This line of reasoning is blatantly hypocritical and unjust, because it does not -- and clearly should not -- apply anywhere else. We continue to hire coaches despite some of them being pedophiles. We continue to provide welfare programs for the poor and homeless, despite persistent misuse of the system by the few. And in the state of South Dakota, republicans continue to state: "don't take away our gun rights because of a few crazy people," and yet claim because of a few ill-intentioned individuals that they are unable to accommodate for the transgender community.

Is this not the power that Frederick Douglass was talking about in his famous speech? Is this not the power that must concede by demand? If there is anything that South Dakota Legislature has shown us with the passing of this bill is that the state is willing to discriminate against individuals who do not conform to the confines of traditional gender and sex. In short: if it's the majority opinion, then it must be right. The majority opinion once believed colored skin was inferior to white (and some still do). The majority opinion once believed that women did not have the right to vote. The majority opinion once believed that being gay was a disease. If the majority opinion is known for anything, it is known for being wrong, frequently, when it comes to prejudice and discrimination. And yet here we are.

At this moment, Governor Daugaard has the bill on his desk, with the possibility to sign or veto it. Regardless, South Dakota is drawing a line in the sand: they either will become the first state to openly support discrimination against the transgender students, or they will become the first state to say that the rights of transgender students are just as equal as the rights of everyone else. We will see. If Frederick Douglass tells us anything it's that if we don't protest, if we don't fight, then nothing will change. And it must change. It must.

Matthew Moffitt is a novelist, freelance writer, and social justice advocate. You can follow him on twitter @miso_matthew. Be warned: he is an active live-tweeter of the bachelor and dateline.