'Day of visibility' brings LGBTQ advocates to North Dakota Capitol
Audin Rhodes was one of many people who participated Tuesday in an LGBTQ lobby day at the state Capitol, where lawmakers this session have dealt with a slew of transgender-related bills
BISMARCK — Audin Rhodes found it difficult to testify for the first time in front of a North Dakota legislative panel on Tuesday.
Rhodes, who identifies as trans-nonbinary, opposed a bill restricting schools' transgender student accommodations such as for restrooms, one of roughly a dozen bills in the Republican-run Legislature opponents say would restrict trans people in society.
"I felt like I was very vulnerable and like I was exposed, and I just feel so desperate to try and make these people understand that trans people are people, trans girls are girls, trans boys are boys, nonbinary people exist. We're here," said Rhodes, who uses the pronouns they and them.
Rhodes, 28, grew up in Velva, with little access to a "visible queer community" before attending college in Wisconsin, when "I was able to see myself reflected in others" and joined a gay/straight alliance and met other trans people "living loud and proud."
Rhodes was one of many people who participated Tuesday in an LGBTQ lobby day at the state Capitol, where lawmakers this session have dealt with a slew of transgender-related bills that supporters say would protect youth and females in such realms as restrooms, school sports, and other places and activities.
The bills this session -- which include ones criminalizing gender-affirming health care for minors, restricting trans people in school athletics, and limiting vital statistics data collection -- made Rhodes feel "a lot of anger and anxiety and fear," which led them to testify, to "do something productive."
Rhodes, of Minot, hopes lawmakers "see that trans and nonbinary people are here, and it's our home, too."
Percy Araujo, of Dickinson, who identifies as trans-masculine/nonbinary, said the bills are "stuff I feel I should show up for," despite being new to the legislative process in Bismarck.
"It's easy to talk about people when they're not in the room," Araujo said. "It's easy to just put a wall between you and the people that are actually affected, I suppose. It's a lot harder to talk about things that negatively affect someone when they are there."
Araujo, who uses the pronouns he and they, grew up in a strict household, but found the ability at Dickinson State University to "express myself and go into different aspects and think of who I am as a person." Araujo said he has "extremely low contact" with his parents, who "are not supportive whatsoever" of his identity.
Araujo, 21, said he has been fortunate in not being "severely harassed" over his gender identity, "which I am extremely thankful for, and I hope that continues, but I know that has not been the case for a lot of people."
American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota Advocacy Director Cody Schuler called the lobby effort Tuesday a "day of visibility."
About 25 people met at the state Heritage Center and walked over to the Capitol to attend bill hearings, tour the building, meet with lawmakers and attend floor sessions -- an important opportunity for lawmakers, lobbyists and other people to interact with LGBTQ people, Schuler said.
"LGBTQ+ folks are citizens as well, and we want everyone to have a clear message that this is their home, this is their state," he said. "We oftentimes hear about folks maybe saying that they want to leave, but this is where their friends and their family are, and when it feels like the government is hostile toward your existence, it's time to speak up."
Most of the bills originated in the state House of Representatives, with all but a few passed on to the Senate, where committees have been handling the proposals in recent days.
Supporters have portrayed the bills as protections, such as ensuring safety and privacy in female restrooms, protecting children's innocence, and ensuring fairness in female sports.
Schuler sees hypocrisy in a number of bills that seek to empower parental rights, while others would ban drag shows, certain books and gender-affirming care, all based around protecting minors.
"These bills are in conflict in the sense that on one hand we have legislators who want to govern morality, they want to say what parents can and can't do, and on the other side, they want to strengthen parents' rights, and it feels like they want that particularly around what children are learning in school ... but then when it comes to a drag show or books in libraries, then we want to tell folks what to do," he said.
Schuler said he finds hypocrisy more prevalent than ever before in today's politics, "and it also goes completely ignored and unchecked, and it is something that I, as someone who works for the ACLU, feel very strongly that we need to hold people accountable to being consistent but also that people's rights under the law are protected and advanced, period, full stop."
Senate Majority Leader David Hogue, R-Minot, said he doesn't have strong views on the bills, but plans to listen to committee recommendations and floor debates, which he expects to be rigorous.
He said he intends to support the athletic restrictions, which he called reasonable, and a bill to restrict amendments of sex designation on birth records, what he called "the idea of altering a record that was accurate at the time it was recorded."
Hogue said he doesn't have an on opinion on whether the bills are harmful or discriminatory, as opponents have called them, "because I don't know enough about this area." He said he'd like to know how many transgender people are in North Dakota.
A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 1.6% of U.S. adults are transgender or nonbinary, or their gender is different than their sex assigned at birth.
Hogue said "mutual respect" is key in the bills' public discourse.
"These bills arouse passions from both sides of the argument," he said.
Dakota OutRight Outreach Coordinator Caedmon Marx has testified throughout the session, representing the Bismarck-area LGBTQ advocacy group in testimony against bills opponents have called harmful and discriminatory toward trans people.
Many lawmakers might be "afraid of something that they don't know," not knowing a trans person, or not having been to a drag show, Marx said.
Religious views also appear to be a factor in proposing and passing the bills, said Marx, who uses the pronouns they and them.
Marx, who works with queer youth, said restrictions on trans kids' expression, such as restroom usage, "does not accept who you are," which he said affects suicide statistics -- as high as 36% for suicide attempts and 51% for thoughts about suicide among queer people in North Dakota in the last year. The percentages he cited were derived from statistics from groups such as the Trevor Project and National Suicide Center, according to Marx.
The issues are personal for Marx, who lost their housing and connection with their parents "for a long time" after coming out as gay.
"I want to be someone there who knows that there is a connection, there is a community there," Marx said. "You're not alone. Here in North Dakota, you feel like you're alone half the time, and it's important for people to know that they are not alone. They are not closed off. They're not the only gay person in their neighborhood."
Marx said LGBTQ advocates have found unexpected allies in some Republican lawmakers who have spoken against bills such as the proposed ban on gender-affirming health care for minors.
Araujo said he hopes lawmakers "see us as actual people."
Testimony in support of the restroom bill Tuesday morning felt "dehumanizing" and "extremely villainizing toward trans women," he said. The bills before lawmakers "definitely don't make it easier on any of us," he said.
"I just hope they kinda get that, that we're just trying to exist," Araujo said. "Most of us are just trying to get through life."