The last time Republicans in South Dakota made a serious push to bar transgender girls from school sports, in 2019, their bill was known only by its nondescript numerical title, Senate Bill 49. Its two main sponsors were men. And it died without ever getting out of committee, just 10 days after it was introduced.
But when Republicans decided to try again in January, they were far more strategic in their approach. The sponsors this time were two women who modeled their bill after a template provided by a conservative legal organization. They gave the bill a name that suggested noble intent: the “act to promote continued fairness in women’s sports.” Supporters from Minnesota and Idaho traveled to the Capitol in Pierre to testify that a new law was urgently needed to keep anyone with male biological characteristics out of female competitions, even though they acknowledged only a handful of examples of that happening in South Dakota.
“These efforts appear to be far more slick, and far more organized,” said Elizabeth A. Skarin of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, which opposes the bill. “Anytime they give a bill a name in South Dakota,” she added, “you know something’s up.”
Then things took an unexpected turn. Gov. Kristi Noem, who is seen as a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, demanded changes to the bill. The response was swift and harsh: Social conservative activists and Republican lawmakers accused Ms. Noem of bowing to pressure from business and athletics organizations, which have been successful at stopping laws in other states that single out transgender people for exclusion and feed ugly stereotypes. On Monday, the legislature rejected her changes, setting up a showdown that could drag out for several days.
South Dakota is just one of a growing number of states where Republicans are diving into a culture war clash that seems to have come out of nowhere. It has been brought about by a coordinated and poll-tested campaign by social conservative organizations like the American Principles Project and Concerned Women for America, which say they are determined to move forward with what may be one of their last footholds in the fight against expanding L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
Three other states have passed bills this month that resemble South Dakota’s. In Mississippi and Arkansas, they are set to become law this summer. And similar bills have been introduced by Republicans in two dozen other states, including North Carolina, where an unpopular “bathroom bill” enacted in 2016 prompted costly boycotts and led conservatives nationwide to pull back on efforts to restrict rights for transgender people.
“You make change in our society by making laws, and luckily we have some great states that have stepped up,” said Beth Stelzer, the founder of a new organization, Save Women’s Sports, that she said opposes “demolishing women’s sports for the sake of feelings.” Ms. Stelzer, an amateur power lifter who was in North Carolina this week for the bill introduction, has also testified in support of new laws in South Dakota, Montana and Arkansas.
But the idea that there is a sudden influx of transgender competitors who are dominating women’s and girls’ sports does not reflect reality — in high school, college or professionally. Sports associations like the N.C.A.A., which has promoted the inclusion of transgender athletes, have policies in place to address concerns about physical differences in male and female biology. The N.C.A.A., requires athletes who are transitioning to female to be on testosterone suppression treatment for a year before they can compete on a women’s team.
Ms. Stelzer, who competes in a weight lifting league that does not allow transgender women to participate, says the point is to get ahead of what she and other activists believe will become a bigger issue. “We’re nipping it in the bud,” she said.
In high school sports, policies vary widely. Some states pose no barriers to transgender athletes; some have policies similar to those of the N.C.A.A. and others have outright bans or demand that students verify their sex if questioned.
Rarely has an issue that so few people encounter — and one that public opinion analysts have only recently begun to study in depth — become a political and cultural flash point so quickly. The lack of awareness creates an environment in which the real impact of transgender participation in sports can be overshadowed by hyperbole.
But the debate also raises questions — that ethicists, lawmakers and the courts are only beginning to address — about whether the decades-long effort to give women and girls equal opportunities in sports is compatible with efforts to give transgender people equal opportunities in life. A lawsuit in federal court in Connecticut brought by three high school runners who lost in competition against transgender girls will be among the first to test how nondiscrimination laws apply.
A mix of factors has helped social conservatives breathe new life into the issue: activists who agreed to give up on unpopular bills regulating public bathrooms; an awareness that women, not men, could be more persuasive and sympathetic advocates; a new Democratic administration that quickly moved to broaden and restore rights for transgender people that the Trump administration had eliminated; and a political and media culture on the right that often reduces the nuanced issue of gender identity to a punchline about political correctness.
Activists who have been fighting the anti-transgender efforts say the focus on school athletics is creating a false and misplaced perception of victimization.
“There’s a sense that there’s a victim of transness,” said Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., which was successful in temporarily blocking the implementation of a transgender athlete ban in Idaho last year.
In fact, studies have shown that the majority of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school.
“What we have is a speculative fear of something that hasn’t materialized,” Mr. Strangio, who is a transgender man, added. “They’re acting like LeBron James is going to put on a wig and play basketball with fourth graders. And not one LeBron James, 100. In reality, you’re talking about little kids who just want to play rec sports. They just want to get through life.”
But the isolated instances that have been filmed or generated headlines — female weight lifting records being broken by a new transgender competitor, for example — make for viral content, bolstered by media personalities with huge followings like Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan.
The issue is much more widely covered in conservative media — and often presented with a heavy dose of sarcasm. According to a review of social media content conducted for The New York Times by Media Matters, a left-leaning watchdog, seven of the 10 most popular stories about the proposed laws targeting transgender people so far this year were from the Daily Wire, a website founded by Mr. Shapiro. Two others were from Fox News. Combined, the articles were read, shared and commented on six million times, Media Matters said.
The heightened media awareness on the right is due in part to how social conservative activists have improved at packaging transgender-specific restrictions. Borrowing a page from the anti-abortion movement, which was led by men for much of its early period, they have begun featuring women as public advocates.
In Arkansas, where the governor signed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” into law last week, the leading proponents were the attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, who is a candidate for governor, and the Arkansas Republican Women’s Caucus. The bill will prohibit transgender participation on female teams from kindergarten through college.
In many instances, lawmakers have worked closely with groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that has argued several Supreme Court cases on behalf of people claiming discrimination because of their traditional beliefs about marriage and gender roles.
In the ongoing case in Idaho, opponents of the law argued that it was exclusionary, discriminatory and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing two female college runners who said they had “deflating experiences” after losing to a transgender woman, agreed that the case was about equality, but in the context of creating “a level playing field,” said Kristen Waggoner, the group’s general counsel. “When the law ignores the legitimate differences that exist between men and women, it creates chaos,” she added.
Limiting the rights of transgender people is an issue that has resonance with an increasingly small share of the overall population. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that only 7 percent of Americans were “completely against” pro-L.G.B.T.Q. policies. But it is a vocal group intent on showing that it can flex its power in the Republican Party.
When Ms. Noem sent the bill back to the South Dakota Legislature on March 19, despite having said on Twitter that she was “excited to sign this bill very soon,” social conservative organizations went on the attack, taking aim at her apparent presidential ambitions. “It’s no secret that Gov. Noem has national aspirations, so it’s time she hears from a national audience,” the Family Policy Alliance, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, wrote in an email to supporters.
Ms. Noem appeared to be aware of how damaging it could be to have conservatives think she was on the wrong side of the issue.On Thursday, she and her advisers joined a hastily arranged conference call with members of the Conservative Action Project, which includes leaders of the largest right-wing groups in the country. Ms. Noem expressed concern that if she signed the law, the N.C.A.A. would retaliate against South Dakota, as it did with North Carolina, by refusing to hold tournaments there, according to one person on the call.
The activists were respectful but clear, this person said: this was not what they expected from the conservative firebrand they had come to admire so much.