By Kate Ryan
NEW YORK, Feb 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lawmakers in the U.S. Midwest on Thursday weighed a proposal to limit transgender students' right to play school sports, a measure legal experts say would be as incendiary as a bathroom ban approved three years ago in the state of North Carolina.
The proposal in South Dakota that would only allow transgender student athletes to compete according to the gender on their birth certificates was argued before state lawmakers on Thursday in the capital city of Pierre.
The measure is reminiscent of a controversial law passed in North Carolina three years ago that restricted public bathroom access to transgender students according to the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.
The law was repealed after boycotts by sports organizations, companies and entertainers cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business.
"South Dakota is on the cusp of becoming the first state since North Carolina to pass an explicit attempt to restrict and alienate transgender people," said the National Center for Transgender Equality in a statement released on Thursday.
The measure faces a vote in committee this afternoon and, if it passes, will move to the house floor.
Backers of the measure include religious and conservative groups.
"If you want to cut off a leg or an arm, you're mentally ill. If you want to cut off healthy breasts or a male sex organ, you're transgender," said state Senator Phil Jensen, a Republican, on Thursday.
Currently, South Dakota students can compete according to their gender identity under a policy set by a state high school activity association that requires them to prove their identity has been consistent at school and at home.
The likelihood of the measure passing is unclear. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is working to defeat it, said this year there are four bills that would limit transgender rights before state lawmakers.
"When any state passes a bill, it makes it easier and more likely that it will pass elsewhere," Libby Skarin, an ACLU policy director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nationally, a policy by the administration of President Donald Trump barring certain transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces is making its way through the courts.
On Friday, the state Senate in South Dakota was set to hear arguments for a proposed gag rule that would prevent teachers from teaching anything involving gender identity until the eighth grade.
Some lawmakers in South Dakota argued that transgender athletes would have unfair advantages in cases where athletes who once played on male teams went to play on female teams.
That was the sentiment of tennis champion Martina Navratilova who wrote an editorial in London's Sunday Times saying the rules governing trans athletes "reward cheats and punish the innocent."
She was later dismissed from the board of Athlete Ally, an organization that supports LGBT+ athletes.
Last week, the ACLU posted a full-page advertisement in a local south Dakota newspaper listing more than 200 coaches, athletes and administrators who oppose the bill.
(Reporting by Kate Ryan; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jason Fields. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate chenge. Visit www.trust.org)
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