A New American Apartheid?

This week, lawmakers in South Dakota voted to enact the twenty-first century's version of "whites only" legislation, passing the first anti-transgender bathroom bill in American history. Now, there should be nationwide pressure upon that state's governor Dennis Daugaard to reject this disgraceful law, with its roots in racially segregated bathrooms and water fountains, and to resist the tide of transphobic hate that is demeaning our nation's politics and harming our most vulnerable citizens.

The measure would mandate that pupils use facilities corresponding to their "physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person's chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth," making criminals of children who use bathrooms corresponding to their actual internal gender rather than their external biological traits, just as the "one drop rule" was once used to sort children along racial bloodlines and keep black boys as far as possible from white girls. This cruel and senseless measure raises several questions.

In its assumption that people can be neatly classified along gender lines, as they once were along racial lines, this law criminalizes intersex children -- America's beautiful, wonderful children -- who are born with genital anatomies that lie on a spectrum between male or female sex. They will break the law no matter which facility they use. Must they leave the state to use the bathroom? Or must they don yellow stars and be marched to showers designated for the racially unfit?

Consider how this law will be enforced. Will children be subject to genital inspections as they enter the bathroom? Will there be guards at the door to collect body fluids and test chromosomes? Or will the state instead rely on self-appointed sex vigilantes among the children, to bully and assault peers who don't conform to their ideas of masculinity or femininity?

Like the racial laws that inspire it, this measure deploys medical and scientific terminology while ignoring actual medicine and science. Research demonstrates that gender dysphoria is real, that children's psychological gender sometimes differs from their physical sex, and that it is deeply traumatic for these children to be forced to live in the wrong gender.

Do you doubt this? Then ask yourself what it would be like to be forced to conceal your own gender. All day, every day, whenever you go out in public, on pain of being humiliated or physically attacked or murdered if you let slip your true identity. Imagine this, and you have some idea of the pain we inflict on our transgender children with such legislation.

Proposals to compel these children, yellow badges on their breast, to use separate facilities from others only encourage feelings of exclusion and worthlessness and inadequacy on their part, and the mentality of the lynch mob on the part of others. They diminish us as a nation, inviting comparison to the worst instances of racial legislation in history.

The language of the law's sponsors augments the damage. Senator David Omdahl says, "I'm sorry if you're so twisted you don't know who you are." One of the authors of this op-ed is half Jewish, half Christian. Shall he too be made to twist at the end of Senator Omdahl's rope?

Transgender children in America are abused, killed, and pushed to suicide at obscene rates. The decision before Governor Daugaard will determine whether we teach our children to respect those who may be different from us, or instead to reject and exclude them and rejoice in their suffering.

The issue is hardly confined to South Dakota. Legislatures in other states are considering enacting similar discriminatory laws, and would be emboldened by passage of this one. The nation should not stand by idly as lawmakers imperil our most vulnerable children. Let us remember the plea of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who took her own life after enduring years of harassment, "My death needs to mean something.... Fix society. Please." We can honor her memory by ensuring that acts of bigotry like the bathroom bill never become law, in South Dakota or anywhere else.