North Dakota bill targeting transgender students’ pronouns goes to Gov. Burgum's desk

The bill, which the Senate passed last month, represents the first in a wave of legislation opposed by LGBTQ advocates to reach Gov. Doug Burgum’s desk.

North Dakota Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, speaks on the Senate floor in the state Capitol on Feb. 10, 2023.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — A bill to restrict how North Dakota’s public schools treat transgender students will be the first test of Gov. Doug Burgum’s appetite for socially conservative legislation aimed at gender issues.

The Republican-led North Dakota House of Representatives voted 60-32 on Wednesday, March 22, to approve Senate Bill 2231, which would bar school districts and their governing boards from creating policies to accommodate transgender students unless parents give explicit permission.

The proposal sponsored by Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, at the request of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, says public school teachers cannot be required to use a student’s pronoun if it doesn’t align with their sex at birth. A teacher would be allowed to use a transgender student’s preferred pronoun but only if the child’s parents and a school administrator give their blessing.

Schools would be prohibited from providing classroom instruction that recognizes the concept that gender identity can differ from sex at birth.

The bill also states that public agencies and other government entities can’t require employees to use a transgender colleague’s preferred pronoun in work-related communications.


Supporters say the legislation supports teachers who are caught in the crossfire of a national debate on pronouns. Opponents contend the legislation discriminates against transgender youth, who are already at risk of mental health issues.

The bill, which the Senate passed last month, represents the first in a wave of legislation opposed by LGBTQ advocates to reach Burgum’s desk. Lawmakers also are considering about a dozen proposals that would restrict health care, activities and personal expression for transgender residents.

Burgum can sign Luick’s bill into law, veto the proposal or allow it to take effect without acting on it. A spokesman for the Republican governor declined to comment on the proposal.

In 2021, Burgum vetoed a bill to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in K-12 sports. Conservative lawmakers narrowly failed to override the governor’s rejection.

The Legislature can override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber. Luick’s bill passed the Senate with a veto-proof majority, but fell three votes short of that threshold in the House.

Rep. Lori VanWinkle, R-Minot, promoted the proposal as a "back-to-the-basics bill" that would allow teachers, children and parents to focus on academics rather than divisive issues.

“Children deserve a learning environment that is academically strong, safe and without social distractions,” VanWinkle said.

North Dakota Rep. Lori VanWinkle, R-Minot, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 2231 on Wednesday afternoon in the House chamber of the state Capitol.
North Dakota Rep. Lori VanWinkle, R-Minot, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 2231 on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in the House chamber of the state Capitol.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

Rep. SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin, said the bill "allows teachers to know where they stand" on the pronoun issue. Teachers shouldn't be subject to discipline if they refer to students by pronouns they don't prefer, she said.


Several Democratic lawmakers spoke against the bill, including Fargo Rep. Mary Schneider, who noted that mental health professionals, school officials, student groups and human rights organizations opposed the legislation.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, questioned whether prohibiting classroom instruction on gender identity would prevent teachers from offering lessons on current events and sociology. Boschee added that respecting students by using their gender pronouns is simple and considerate.

"Sometimes the most important thing we can do for some of these kids is acknowledge them as they wish to be acknowledged,” Boschee said.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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