South Dakota Man to Governor: Don’t Make Transgender Kids Endure What I Did Growing Up
Terri Bruce passed away in January 2019. We honor his memory and his tireless commitment to supporting LGBTQ youth and sharing his story.
Terri Bruce has lived most of his life in South Dakota. He grew up in Sioux Falls and has lived outside Rapid City for the last 11 years – and nothing makes him prouder than his roots in the state. That’s one reason why he works as an archaeologist: With a graduate degree in anthropology, Terri helps discover and protect the history of South Dakota. Besides his work, it’s the friendly people, its small town atmosphere, and the backdrop of the Black Hills that makes him happy.
Terri is also a transgender man, meaning that he was born female that identifies and lives his life as male. “I’m a fifth generation South Dakotan,” Terri said. And, contrary to what most might believe about the midwest, “all I’ve gotten is acceptance here.” But Terri’s path to acceptance began long ago and, like a lot of people overcoming a sense of being different, his journey has been challenging.
From his earliest memories, Terri knew that he was different. Doctors and Terri’s parents told him that he was female. Without community or the words to describe his true sense of self, Terri struggled to explain his gender identity.
In high school, Terri quickly felt isolated. School uniforms — skirts for girls — were a particular source of frustration. Most people who haven’t met a transgender person might not understand how a school uniform might affect a transgender person, and it is still hard for Terri to describe. “I don’t think there is any way I can adequately convey how painful it was to be forced to wear something that was at odds with how I felt about myself.” This was made worse by being forced to use the girl’s locker room and restrooms. “I was not comfortable with my body and these things were so psychologically and emotionally damaging to my young mind…”
“I’m a fifth generation South Dakotan, and all I’ve gotten is acceptance here,” Terri said. But Terri’s path to acceptance began long ago and, like a lot of people overcoming a sense of being different, his journey has been challenging.
Terri’s search for understanding and acceptance was all he thought about in high school. After enduring these complex feelings for so long, it consumed him. This, among many factors, led Terri to attempt suicide. For Terri, the lack of support and the overwhelming sense of isolation contributed to that moment.
“When you’re at that point, you can’t see anything else but your own despair. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly or made in a moment of rage or anger. I thought about it a lot. When you’re in that place, you can’t see the light — the sun — because you’re down so deep. To be honest, I don’t know how I came back from that.”
Terri is fortunate every day that he did not die, and, since that day, he has developed a fuller sense of self. Over time, with the support of family and friends, “I found me — the me I was meant to be,” Terri said. He has lived openly and proudly as a transgender man for five years. But memories of that experience has resurfaced in light of efforts by South Dakota’s state legislature to require students to use the restroom in accordance with their birth sex.
In a package of anti-LGBT bills, one bill — The “Genital Check Bill” — stands out as the most dangerous. The “Genital Check Bill” would require students to prove their sex by submitting a birth certificate, blood or DNA sample as a condition for using the restroom or locker room. One of the bill’s lead sponsors in the Senate, Senator Brock Greenfield (R-Clark) even suggested during a hearing that a “visual accounting” would help determine which restroom students would be allowed to use – that is, the bill is so broadly written it could conceivably be used to justify school districts examining students’ genitals just so they can use the restroom.
That is why Terri is speaking out today. In front of the South Dakota Senate Education Committee, Terri recently told his story to urge them to vote down this measure. “It was a difficult story to tell because it was so personal, but it is my story, my truth, and I felt I needed to share it so maybe someone else’s life might be a little easier.”
“It was a difficult story to tell because it was so personal, but it is my story, my truth, and I felt I needed to share it so maybe someone else’s life might be a little easier.” – Terri Bruce
Terri’s worst fear is that young transgender people already grappling with who they are will see this legislation and lead them to face the same choice he faced years ago. This time, he fears, under this unprecedented climate of hostility, transgender South Dakotans will attempt suicide and, unfortunately, some will complete it.
The Genital Check Bill advanced in the House and Senate and is now on Governor Dennis Daugaard’s desk. “There is no way this can be overstated if Governor Daugaard doesn’t veto this bill: The attempt to codify discrimination in South Dakota does a grave disservice to the people of this state. South Dakotans are tolerant, respectful, friendly people that, in my experience, live and let live. Governor Daugaard is a good man, and I do believe that he has the best interest of the people in this state at heart. I trust that he’ll listen and do the right thing.”