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How Doug Burgum sold out LGBTQ North Dakotans for conservative clout

Burgum's push for the popular vote has clouded this professes small-town boy's ability to remember who he actually works for.
Collage of Doug Burgum
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

The first GOP primary debate features 8 candidates — and one Trump-sized elephant in the room. Are any of the hopefuls fit to be president? Read this installment of MSNBC’s 2024 profile series and find out.

Douglas James Burgum, the 33rd governor of North Dakota, is the poster child of small-town America. He was born in Arthur, North Dakota, population 323, and has made this rural background an integral part of his campaign. He is the small-town boy who made it big — truly big. After founding Great Plains Software in 1981, he sold it to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion. The rest of America may not know much about him, but Burgum has North Dakota wrapped around his billion-dollar finger. 

The rest of America may not know much about him, but Burgum has North Dakota wrapped around his billion-dollar finger.

Our governor truly does love where he comes from and is the first to say it. But increasingly, his supposedly all-American values look just like the boring, culture war rhetoric of the other conservatives hoping to compete with higher-profile primary candidates like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. North Dakotans elected Burgum governor in 2016, seeing him as the answer to the traditional politician, someone who came up on his own and would offer the people of his state an honest, independent option. And yet, over the past few years, his policies and image have pivoted to keep up with whatever voter group he is trying to woo at the time. 

It has been particularly frustrating to witness our governor’s evolution on LGBTQ policies. 2021 brought the first anti-trans bill to the North Dakota Legislature: HB 1298. This bill would have restricted transgender students from participating in public elementary and secondary school sports — this, despite zero examples of transgender girls wanting to play on girls’ sports teams. Burgum listened to reason at the time, or at least seemed to. He vetoed the bill, declaring that fairness on the state’s playing fields was not in danger. 

Fast forward to 2023, however, and the picture changes. In April, North Dakota’s conservative super-majority advanced 10 anti-LGBTQ bills in one day. That’s a record, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Burgum vetoed a bill that would have outlawed the use of an individual’s preferred pronouns in school. “The First Amendment already prohibits compelled speech and protects teachers from speaking contrary to their beliefs,” he said in March.

But our hopes of weathering the rising tide of discrimination quickly came crashing down. Burgum signed HB 1254 (criminalizing medical care for trans youth) and HB 1522 (which prohibits policies on pronouns and requires separate accommodations for trans people). With these signatures, queer families realized they were no longer welcome in North Dakota. Some are moving to refuge states like Minnesota, but picking up stakes is not possible for everyone, setting up a gut-wrenching decision.

Simply put, children and families in North Dakota have been let down by Burgum. He slid from an independent governor exercising rational acceptance of queer people to a culture war champion aligned against them in just two short years, and it is pretty disconcerting to see a leader affected by misinformation in this way. 

Each anti-queer bill brought scores of people out to testify against it. Many of these witnesses were testifying before a legislative committee for the first time, from parents of queer children to doctors, teachers and therapists. Experts brought data, studies, anecdotal evidence and lived experiences showing how harmful these policies will be. Queer citizens read harrowing stories and told tales of homelessness, abuse and addiction. On the other side of the aisle, anti-trans boosters brought Bible passages that they offered as “proof” that being queer is wrong. Burgum’s signatures suggest he agrees.

One supportive adult in a queer child’s life can reduce the risk of suicide by 40%. Youth testified about how their supportive and affirming teachers made positive impacts on their lives. Their stories were inspirational; they highlighted the messages of acceptance and respect learned in North Dakota public schools. Older youth spoke about how one safe and affirming teacher could serve as a beacon in the darkness and a haven from schoolyard cruelty. 

Those stories fell on deaf ears. With the signing of HB 1522, the North Dakota Legislature and Gov. Burgum have made it clear that teachers are not allowed to support queer children in public schools. Teachers are now being told they must use dead names, misgender their students and even out students to their parents. There is no doubt this will create an environment young people cannot trust. And if students cannot trust the school system, they cannot learn.

Originally elected as an answer to generational politics, someone who had a different perspective to bring to the proverbial North Dakota table, Doug Burgum has proven to be a profound disappointment. Burgum is far too willing to sell out the queer people of North Dakota for the sake of keeping his conservative cards in play. I believe he understands the needs and rights of queer citizens, but his push for the popular vote has clouded any ability to remember who he works for. And I believe that if he is given the power of the presidency, Doug Burgum will do more of the same. 

Read the rest of our GOP profile series here: