Yankton High School senior Oliver Dickman is, by all means, a normal high school student.
He enjoys theater and has played soccer in the past.
Dickman is also beginning to speak out on a personal matter.
“I came out before my freshman year as transgender male to my family,” Dickman told the Press & Dakotan. “Then I came out publicly the year after that. I used to do soccer and then I quit once I came out.”
Dickman is one of a number of transgender youths in the state of South Dakota who are facing a harsh truth, as legislation in Pierre currently singling them out in a manner that many find alarming.
During the 2019 legislative session, four total pieces of legislation have been proposed in the South Dakota Legislature targeting transgender youth. According to one human rights official, this is more than any other state this year.
• Senate Bill (SB) 49 would have voided the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s policy on transgender student participation. The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 to defer the bill to the 41st legislative day, effectively killing it.
• House Bill (HB) 1225 is the House’s attempt at SB 49 and has been assigned for a hearing in the House Health and Human Services Committee next Tuesday.
• HB 1205 reads, “A parent has a right to refuse consent to health care treatment of a minor child if the parent believes that the treatment would induce, confirm, or promote the child’s belief that the child’s sex or gender identity is different from the child’s sex presented at birth. No public authority or official of this state may take any adverse action against a parent for exercising this right.” The bill was heard in the House Health and Human Services Committee, where it was deferred to the 41st legislative day.
• HB 1108 reads, “No instruction in gender dysphoria may be provided to any student in kindergarten through grade seven in any public school in the state.” The bill passed the House 39-30 on Tuesday and has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Dakota described the situation as concerning.
“Having four bills this session that target transgender kids has been really difficult,” Skarin told the Press & Dakotan. “I see the impact of that reflected when I talk to parents of transgender kids and transgender kids themselves.
She said the legislation has parents and transgender youth alike worried about the worst.
“When we see these bills filed, we get flooded with calls and we’re having conversations with people who say, ‘These bills hurt me. I feel like I’m discriminated against,’” Skarin said. “I’ve had parents confide in me that they don’t know if it’s safe to stay in this state anymore. They’re thinking, ‘If the Legislature is going to keep targeting my kid, are we at a point where I have to consider moving out of state to do the best thing for my child?’”Dickman said the legislation being considered is extremely unfair.
“The fact that they were considering legislation that would prevent students from joining sports was a little off-putting to me,” he said. “Part of high school is being able to contribute to different activities. To ban students that are transgender from them … I just don’t even want to know why they would think that’s acceptable.”
This is not the first time transgender youth have been the subject of legislation in Pierre.
Skarin said since her first legislative session in 2015, bills similar to SB 49 and HB 1225 have been considered.
But the standout year was 2016 when HB 1008 — which would have mandated students use bathrooms based on what was on their birth certificate — was introduced. The so-called “Bathroom Bill” as it was referred to was passed by both houses but vetoed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Seeing more legislation like the 2016 “bathroom bill” return highlights an ongoing struggle for acceptance, according to Dickman.
“I really thought that, once it was shot down a few years ago, I thought that was going to be the end of it and that maybe society was more accepting of people who came out as transgender,” he said. “But it seems like it’s going to be an ongoing battle for a little bit longer. LGBT rights seem to be struggling lately.”
Skarin said the 2019 session feels much different than in 2016, when there were only a couple of bills to worry about.
“That was in 2016 when we saw HB 1008, which was the bathroom bill,” she said. “In that session, we also saw a bill to change the Activities Association’s policy. That year, there were two bills and most of the energy was focused on 1008, and that ultimately led to a veto. This year feels like really doubling down on that effort. Each of them take up committee time, testimony and time for public debate. In some regards, this year is worse than in the past.”
Dickman said the ACLU first reached out to him as the current legislative session moved along.
“Right around when this bill was proposed, they were trying to find trans students that were willing to go to Pierre to talk about it,” he said. “At first, they asked me, but because I’d quit sports when I came out, it didn’t really affect me as much.”
He did not go to Pierre at that time.
However, Dickman said that he intends to use his voice in the future and may travel to Pierre for testimony, if needed.
“A lot of my friends that came out as trans are scared to do so, and if nobody is going to, then who else?’” he said. “I’m really into theatre and public speaking, so I figured that maybe this is something that I’d like to do.”
Dickman said the sort of legislation being proposed in Pierre has detrimental consequences for the people it targets.
“It greatly impacts transgender health — (that’s) the main thing I’d like to focus on,” he said. “A lot of us fear what society is trying to do to our community. It can be difficult to spread awareness to people. To bring this to publicity is a step in the right direction.”
Dickman is aware that many people may have questions about the community itself or what it means to be transgender.
“Since I came out, a lot of people seem to be unsure of whether I’m male or female,” he said. “I just encourage people to ask questions as long as they aren’t being rude and they aren’t asking very private questions. It’s more than OK to ask what my pronouns are, what I identify as or even my name.”
He said that this education has a purpose.
“I try to help people understand the community more, because that will help prevent things such as (these bills),” he said.
Still, Dickman said he still hears derogatory language hurled at the community, and at himself.
“A lot of people that aren’t aware of the struggles of the LGBT community … will say very unacceptable comments to me or they’ll say slurs to my friends or myself — even just in the hallways,” he said.
He said there have been some instances of harassment in the past.
“If I tend to be in larger groups with my friends, it’s not as bad,” he said. “I have been singled out by some of my peers.”
Where the legislation currently under consideration in Pierre goes from here is uncertain.
Skarin said that, in spite of the additional legislation, there may be a silver lining as half of it has already been defeated.
“I think the encouraging thing is what we’ve seen is really a shift in the way people are discussing these issues,” she said. “Some legislators are approaching them. The hearing on SB 49 really made me feel like legislators are starting to understand transgender people and the struggle that they face, and they’re really starting to say, ‘We’re not voting for this bill because we know it hurts transgender kids, because we know it’s the wrong thing to do.’”
As for Dickman, he said he’ll make a positive impact in any way he can.
“I’m going to keep my options open for if any future bills try and pass and will try and prevent them,” he said. “I’m debating going into psychology as a major to help counsel those who are LGBT in the future.”
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.