I once overheard my Dad answer someone’s question about how my brother and I could be so different. He shrugged and said, “Oh, they are exactly the same. Both are very competitive in everything they do – sports, politics, or even who can read the newspaper fastest. That’s what connects them. Competition.” I smiled when I heard it because it’s true. And anyone who has ever played on a team likely understands exactly what that means too.

There is another bond that members of a team share – you belong. You are connected. You trust each other. Governor Burgum knows this too. As a basketball player, a college cheerleader, and a competitor he understands the value of contributing to the team and the bond of belonging with your peers. He demonstrated it this week by vetoing House Bill 1298, which would restrict the participation of transgender athletes in K-12 sports in North Dakota. In doing so, Burgum said there is no evidence to support the bill’s premise that fairness in girls’ sports is endangered under current laws.

“North Dakota today has a level playing field and fairness in girls’ sports,” Burgum said, crediting the current policies of the North Dakota High School Activities Association (NDHSAA). “We have every confidence that they will continue to ensure a level playing field for the 27,000 students who participate in North Dakota high school sports.” The NDHSAA has said there has been “not a single recorded incident” of a transgender girl attempting to play on a girls’ sports team in North Dakota.

House Bill 1298 was a supposed solution looking for a problem. It is the opening act in a political play that is promoting transphobic bigotry in over 30 states in a cruel effort to win elections by presenting children they don’t understand as a threat to society. Instead of “defending” high school sports that the governing athletic bodies say don’t need defending, maybe supporters of transphobic legislation should try picking on someone their own size.

It is worth noting that many of the bullies who want to ostracize and exile young trans students from high school sports in the name of “fairness” are the same extreme “right to life” advocates who vouch for cutting programs that would help struggling families – all in the name of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, cutting taxes, and reducing spending on social programs. These anti-trans bigots don’t care about fairness, or sports, or children. If they did, they wouldn’t spend so much time making the lives of high school kids, especially the most marginalized ones, harder than they already are.

We cannot allow the state legislature to tell our children they only matter if they look, dress, or think a certain way. Crucially, there are major mental health consequences for young transgender North Dakotans who already deal with one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. A statewide survey of 10,000 North Dakotan youth found that queer children attempted suicide at a rate 58 times higher than the national average. Almost half of North Dakota’s LGBTQ+ youth experienced bullying because of their identity. These numbers are heart-wrenching and should cause serious concern for anyone purporting to support kids.

I started this column by discussing the importance of teams in creating bonds of togetherness. One phrase that is often repeated when it comes to raising children is “It takes a village.” A village is like a team. We need to come together and decide which side we’re going to play on. Are we going to be a team that uplifts and supports North Dakotan kids to find opportunity, possibility, and hope in their lives? Or are we going to team up against them, beat them down, tell them they don’t belong – and contribute to the alienating environment that pushes young trans kids toward suicide?

I know which team Governor Burgum and I play on. Legislators, there’s room on our team for you. Let’s follow the example of the governor and, more importantly, let’s just let kids be kids.

Tessa Gould