The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In South Dakota, a budding transgender movement is taking on conservative lawmakers — and winning

Elliot, 16, holds signs that he made for the protest of House Bill 1057 on the bus ride to Pierre, the state capital. (Steel Brooks for The Washington Post)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — She was raised an evangelical Christian, a pastor's daughter who attended an evangelical college and became a children's ministry director. Then, after years of Sunday services and Wednesday night Bible programs, her 10-year-old wrote her an eight-page letter.

“Mom, I love you so much,” the letter began. “Ever since I was two, I felt different. I am a boy in a girl’s body. I can’t live this way.”

With that, Susan Williams realized that her child was not “an extreme tomboy” or going through “a phase.” Wyatt, as he asked to be called, was transgender, and his letter would lead Williams to leave the church and launch an advocacy campaign that has made cherry-red South Dakota the unlikely epicenter of a transgender uprising on the American Great Plains.

On Monday, nearly 100 LGBTQ youths and their parents, along with dozens of other demonstrators, poured into the tiny capitol in Pierre to protest a bill that sought to criminalize medical professionals for treating transgender youths with hormone blockers and surgery.

With at least nine other states considering similar bills, South Dakota was the first to pass the legislation in its House, putting the state at the forefront of a polarizing national conversation over transgender rights and state government’s place in personal decisions.

After an emotional two-hour hearing, the bill failed in a Senate committee on Monday in a 5-to-2 vote. But the legislation could be revived if 12 senators vote to bring it to the full Senate on Tuesday.

Republican state Sen. Deb ­Soholt, chair of the committee, said she voted against the bill because “to leapfrog over parents is wrong. No government should be in the middle of that.”

In an effort to save the bill, its sponsor, state Rep. Fred Deutsch (R), put forward a last-minute amendment that removed criminal penalties for doctors who offer hormone blockers, hormones and surgery for transgender children. But it would allow minors to sue later in life if they regretted the decision.

“All I was doing was trying to protect vulnerable children from mutilation and criminal acts,” Deutsch said. “The amendment gets the state out of the doctor-
patient relationship and puts doctors on notice.”

Deutsch’s effort has been met by a vocal alliance of trans youths, parents and advocates whose personal stories of struggle with identity won over enough Republican lawmakers to put the legislation in peril.

Even Republican Gov. Kristi L. Noem has said she “has concerns with the bill.”

“Folks are also seeing trans people for the first time in South Dakota,” said Samson Mettler, a 22-year-old transgender man, who is on the board of Williams’s nonprofit organization, the Transformation Project. “Even though the transgender movement has a way to go, especially in red states, if you have met and listened to a transgender person, it’s a lot harder to hate them.”

Outside the state capitol, South Dakota activists were backed by representatives from organizations such as the ACLU of South Dakota and the National Center for Transgender Equality. South Dakota Native Americans, supporting those known in their own community as “two spirit,” a term for all LGBTQ individuals, participated on horseback, waving pink-and-blue transgender pride flags. Others traveled overnight from Sioux Falls, where the state held its first LGBTQ pride parade in June.

Williams drove through the snowy night so Wyatt could hold his own sign: “Trans People Do Belong HERE.”

“We are not going to let this happen, Mom,” Wyatt said as they drove to the capitol. “I’m really happy to be here protesting.”

South Dakota has been an incubator for conservative legislation in the past, including the 2016 bathroom bill that sought to restrict transgender people to facilities that aligned with their gender assigned at birth. Though that legislation was vetoed by the governor, conservative lawmakers added similar “bathroom bills” to statehouse agendas across the country.

Advocates for transgender youths say hormone blockers are lifesaving for a population suffering from daily discrimination and high rates of suicide. They say Deutsch’s bill uses scare tactics because surgeries are rarely performed for transgender people younger than 18.

Some Republican lawmakers who favor small government worried it would worsen the state’s brain drain of young people and scare away business.

South Dakota’s burgeoning transgender movement has reached Deutsch’s own district, where a middle school student who identified as non-binary recently died by suicide, police and school district officials confirmed.

Soon after, Amy Rambow, a mother of a transgender son, started “Watertown Love,” a support group for LGBTQ youths.

“Enough is enough,” Rambow said. “There wasn’t anything to support these kids in the more rural areas.”

The group started small but has grown to over 500 members who identify as queer and their supporters. One of the group’s most active members is Meredith, 16, who came out as a lesbian and was threatened by another student in her school over social media.

He wrote, “I will rape the gay out of you,” said Meredith, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her from harassment.

When her parents showed a screen shot of the message to the principal, they recalled that he responded, “She wouldn’t have these problems if she didn’t blather about her sexuality.”

The Watertown School District did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Meredith, who is now home-schooled, designed a pin that reads, “Operation Blather” — which she encourages young people to wear as a sign that they accept and will stand up for one another.

She was very close friends with the student who died by suicide, and she designed the pin partially in their memory.

“After everything that happened, I had to take back the power,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “It’s not easy here in South Dakota. We still have a long way to go.”

At meetings of Watertown Love, she said, most of her friends say they have felt so much stress over the bill that they have had trouble sleeping.

Pulling at the sleeves of his blue hoody, one 14-year-old transgender boy, who asked not to be identified because of bullying, said that hormone blockers saved his life.

“I felt like my body didn’t match up with who I was inside, a boy,” he said. “I didn’t shower. I wouldn’t go outside. I never allowed photographs of myself to be taken.”

His first suicide attempt was at age 10, and he was hospitalized six more times before he got help.

Once he began hormone blockers, he said, he was able to focus on his schoolwork and started to hang out with the theater crowd in Williams’s support group. There, he and trans kids were able to be themselves, he said, talking about anime and belting out songs from “Dear Evan Hansen,” a Tony award-winning musical about teenage friends dealing with anxiety and suicide.

He said a waiter recently called him “bro” at an Olive Garden.

“I smiled so bright. My face hurt from smiling so long,” he said.

Many in this deeply religious swath of the United States had to first learn what a transgender person even was.

Williams — who uses a pseudonym for her advocacy work to protect her son’s identity — said that growing up in the evangelical world, she was allowed to listen to only Christian music and didn’t know until they later came out to her that she had many close friends who are gay.

“I was so deep in the bubble,” she said. “The first evangelical website I went to when Wyatt told us was so disheartening that they called being transgender sinful. I didn’t want my child to go through that.”

Soon after Williams emailed their church community to tell them about Wyatt’s name change, 12 families threatened to leave the church in protest. Williams left instead.

The signs had been there: Before Wyatt came out, they had argued over his refusal to wear dresses and his insistence that one day, “I will be a daddy.” During a family trip to South Dakota’s Little House on the Prairie homestead, he wanted to dress only as the male character Almanzo.

After his letter, Wyatt cut his waist-length hair and, after years of doctor’s appointments and therapy, started taking hormone blockers. Today, he’s a happy kid, who loves reading and visiting Disney World, “but not for the princess sparkly dresses.”

Wyatt dreams of leaving South Dakota. But for now, Williams, who also thought of moving to a more open place, says they have too much work to do.

She’s planning the Transformation Project’s first conference in May for teachers, counselors and church leaders across the Midwest and the Plains.

She’s also in a church again, one that is supportive of trans families.

“We are even closer to God now,” Williams said. “And in many ways, that closeness is even stronger because we had to trust Him in the process of this huge life change.”