In the “We’re All Neighbors in South Dakota” file, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota held its “Cheers for Liberty” fundraiser at the Hilton Garden Inn last night, in a ballroom right next to the Don Haggar for House fundraiser. I didn’t stop in for hors d’oeuvres and a headcount at Rep. Haggar’s event, but Rep. Haggar’s efforts this year to bully transgender students with legislation helped drive a big crowd of Sioux Falls civil libertarians to the ACLU’s hall to support civil liberties and hear from attorneys Chase Strangio and Mark Meierhenry about the importance of standing up to bullies.
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Chase Strangio, ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project staff attorney, flew in from New York to cheer the resurgent South Dakota chapter’s successful effort to fight this year’s House Bill 1008, the paranoid potty bill.
Strangio told supporters that the ACLU had braced for some backlash following the Supreme Court’s upholding of marriage equality in 2015—a backlash marked by the repeal by referendum of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in November 2015—but they did not anticipate the “onslaught” of over 200 anti-LGBT bills considered by state legislatures nationwide this year. Strangio said Rep. Fred Deutsch’s anti-transgender bathroom bill made South Dakota the first statewide battleground in this year’s anti-trans war.
Strangio wasn’t optimistic about fighting HB 1008 in South Dakota, but he said that was only because he hadn’t worked with our local ACLU team of “superheroes.” Strangio praised the work of ACLU-SD lobbyist Libby Skarin, who he said provided lots of early and detailed analysis of HB 1008 and the political landscape in Pierre. The national ACLU office recognized the importance to the national effort of fighting HB 1008 here. Strangio said Governor Dennis Daugaard’s veto of HB 1008 on March 1 was “the highlight of my career, as powerful of a victory as I have ever known.” Strangio said defeating HB 1008 “literally saved the lives” of LGBT youth across the country.
Strangio acknowledged that the fight for transgender equality is far from over. He noted the “heartbreaking message” of exclusion sent by North Carolina’s own trans-discrimination law, as well as the serious economic harms North Carolina is suffering from that decision. Strangio said that the litigation around HB 2 shows “the incredible amount of resources government is willing to spend just to expel us” from public life. But South Dakota’s defeat of of HB 1008 shows how powerful the ACLU and all defenders of equality are when we work together and speak up to injustice.
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One South Dakotan who spoke up against the injustice of HB 1008 was transgender student Thomas Lewis. Then a senior at Lincoln High School, Lewis testified last winter against HB 1008 in committee in Pierre. Lewis joined other transgender South Dakotans to meet with Governor Daugaard to discuss the bill after Governor Daugaard famously declared that he had never met a transgender person.
Last night, Strangio presented Lewis with the ACLU 2016 Youth Advocate Award. Lewis now studies Russian, political science, and women’s studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Even though Nebraska is leading the multistate lawsuit against the federal government’s directive on transgender bathrooms and locker rooms, UNL offers gender-inclusive housing and is making it easier for transgender students to identify themselves with their own name and gender. UNL also lists gender-neutral/unisex bathrooms in sixteen City Campus buildings and four East Campus buildings, all of which have locks and can be used as changing rooms.
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Former Republican Attorney General Mark Meierhenry sponsored and spoke at last night’s ACLU event. Meierhenry said that he has “always been a supporter of the ACLU, because they fight bullies. They fight the people who pick on others. And that’s not an easy job.” Meierhenry said bullies and narrow-minded people “always going to be here. That’s the nature of humanity.” As long as that nature persists, we need the ACLU to protect the rights of all Americans against our worse tendencies.
Meierhenry said he gets “paid a lot better arguing about property rights” than about constitutional rights, “and that’s why we need… the ACLU.” Invoking the memory of his father, who “died fighting for liberty,” Meierhenry urged all in attendance to “Help these people fight what’s bad about our country.”
Meierhenry acknowledged the sacrifice Lewis made to speak out against HB 1008. “It’s not easy being in public life,” said the twice-elected Attorney General who has argued six times before the United States Supreme Court.
Meierhenry did not comment on the federal lawsuits on which his successor Marty Jackley is expending government resources to fight trasngender equality. Meierhenry did speak to the bathroom bills, noting simply that he grew up in in Gregory, and that his school had only one bathroom for everybody. Meierhenry does not appear to suffer from bathroom panic.
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The Hilton Garden Inn’s kitchen may make Meierhenry a little squeamish. The Hilton Garden Inn laid out a nice spread of hors d’oeuvres, including lamb meatballs with tzatziki sauce (yes! Yes yes yes!!!) and a sushi bar with a chef rolling raw things together on the spot. Meierhenry mentioned that along with legal arguments, he also raises Black Angus cattle. “I wouldn’t serve sushi if I were in charge,” he said to laughter during his remarks from the podium, “but I’d have given my money even if had known we’d be eating raw fish.” That’s one more bit of evidence that we really can find tolerance in South Dakotans’ hearts… and their bellies.