Kansas GOP legislators target rights of transgender youth; Lawrence delegates and activists warn of harm

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Following a trend in Republican-dominated legislatures around the nation, GOP members of  the Kansas Legislature have been pushing bills that would restrict the rights of transgender youth. 

Although the bills seem destined for failure, Lawrence-area legislators and activists say these bills are harmful and unnecessary and are taking steps to mitigate the effect of such proposals. 

Kansas is no stranger to proposed discriminatory legislation. During the wave of Republican-backed “bathroom bills” in 2016, the Kansas Legislature’s committee on federal and state affairs considered a bill allowing students to sue their school district for up to $2,500 if they found a person of the wrong sex in their school bathroom. And in 2019, seven Republican representatives sponsored a bill that aimed to outlaw same-sex marriage. Both of these bills died in committee. 

But during this year’s legislative session, three bills directed at transgender youth have been introduced by Kansas Republicans. One, introduced in the Senate, would restrict transgender youth access to sports; the other, introduced in both houses, would make it a crime for doctors to perform gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy on minors. Similar bills are pending or have been passed in several other state legislatures around the nation. 

Gov. Laura Kelly is expected to veto the sports legislation, while the bill prohibiting medical treatment of trans youth died in committee. But the bills’ introduction and progress through the state Legislature illustrate the Republicans’ nationwide agenda to attack trans rights.

Senate Bill 208: The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act

The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act aims to ban transgender women from participating on women’s sports teams. The bill claims women are at an inherent disadvantage in athletics when compared to men. Supporters of the bill suggest that high school and college-aged males could publicly transition just to have the opportunity to compete and win against females. 

Similar bills have been introduced in 25 states, with governors in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi signing the legislation into law. In addition, Kansas Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall has proposed a bill that would make this a national law.

“Letting biological boys compete in biological girls’ high school and college sports is not equal, it doesn’t level the playing field and it’s certainly not fair,” Marshall said. 

Kansas Democrats have strongly opposed the proposed state bill.

“This bill may be one of the most extreme examples of this type of hateful legislation,” said state Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa. “Our kids deserve compassionate government and leadership and… the Senate has failed them in their duty to provide that.”

“This is based on an outdated view that we are divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’ rather than the more complicated understandings of gender, gender identity and gender expression,” said Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence.

Another Lawrence representative, Dennis “Boog” Highberger, D-Lawrence, also disagrees with the bill.

“I expect that the legislators who introduced these bills don’t really know any transgender individuals and don’t understand how hurtful just introducing bills like this can be,” he said. 

In 2015, the Kansas High School Activities Association adopted a policy that allows schools to determine what team a student will play on. It also recommends that schools consider the impacts of allowing a student to play on a team that correctly aligns with their gender identity. Additionally, it recommends that schools allow transgender students to use their preferred name, pronouns, gender presentation and bathrooms.

This guidance has not been an issue in the past. 

Tori Gleason

“We essentially have 105,000 youth that are participating in sports in the state of Kansas,” said Tori Gleason, a transgender health activist who works with the advocacy group Equality Kansas. “We have five youth that we know of that are trans or nonbinary [that compete in high school activities] … so the reality is, when you look at that, it’s a non-issue in Kansas.”

Others take issue with the Republican legislators’ reasoning for the bill, pointing out that other athletic organizations allow transgender participants.

“I don’t think it has really anything to do with the integrity of sports, or maybe groups like the NCAA would be for the ban of trans youth, which they’re not,” said Christiana Cranberry, a Lawrence paraeducator and transgender woman. 

The NCAA has taken a stand on transgender rights before, boycotting the state of North Carolina after it passed a law in 2017 preventing transgender people from using the bathroom that correctly aligns with their gender identity. 

Christiana Cranberry

This year, more than 500 student athletes competing in the NCAA signed a letter asking the organization to not hold competitions in states that pass bills discriminating against transgender athletes. This could greatly affect Kansas, since the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship is scheduled to be held in Wichita. 

The language employed in the Kansas Senate bill is connected to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit right-wing organization that also opposes abortion and marriages or civil unions for same-sex couples, and advocates for forced sterilization of transgender people. 

Last Friday, the House voted 76-43 and the Senate voted 25-11 to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Laura Kelly to sign. Kelly is expected to veto the bill, however, and it appears the Republicans in the Legislature do not have enough votes to override her veto. 

HB 2210: Gender reassignment and hormone replacement for minors

HB 2210, along with a similar Senate bill, would “[make] it a crime for doctors to perform gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy on minors.” It would outlaw gender-affirming medical treatments for anyone under 18. Doctors charged with performing these treatments would have their medical license revoked and be charged with a felony carrying a sentence of seven to 23 months in jail. 

However, the bill was declared dead when it did not pass the House committee on health and human services. 

Again, this bill is similar to bills that have been advanced in other legislatures. There are 40 bills focused on transgender youth’s medical care proposed in 21 states this spring. A similar bill passed in Arkansas, but was vetoed by the governor. The Arkansas Legislature then overrode the governor’s veto. 

Transitioning, at any age, can take many forms. According to the Mayo Clinic, the American Pediatric Association and the American Psychological Association, if a child decides to medically transition, a doctor will typically prescribe hormone blockers. These stop the body from producing the hormones that create the changes seen during puberty. Hormone blockers can be stopped at any time and leave no lasting effects on the hormones that are naturally produced within the body. Essentially, this treatment is completely reversible. 

“Think of a blocker like a pause button,” Gleason said. “If you push the pause button, you don’t get all those changes [seen during puberty].”

Gleason, who trains doctors in Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, said she draws on her own experiences as a transgender woman to help others understand how to properly care for patients with a variety of gender identities. 

Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, co-sponsor of HB 2210, believes the bill is a way for the state to protect children from being forced to transition by a parent or guardian. Fairchild points to a custody battle between a couple in Texas as an example of a parent allegedly forcing a child to transition. As the couple attempted to finalize their divorce, the mother said their 7-year-old child wanted to present as a girl. The father denied these claims and said she was not transgender. Conservatives argued that the mother was forcing her child to present as a girl. In 2020, a judge ruled both parents would have joint custody and both would need to consent to any medical treatments performed on the child. 

Although Fairchild did not expect the Kansas bill to become law, he said he hoped it would bring attention to what he sees as an issue facing young Kansans. 

However, Fairchild insists he holds no animus towards transgender people. “If a young person feels that they want to transition to the opposite sex, they can still do so once they turn 18, when they’ve become mature enough to make that decision for themselves,” he said. 

Some see the legislation as motivated by more than protecting children. 

“[This legislation] basically stifle[s] or keep[s] young trans kids from becoming healthy, because they don’t want older trans people to become successful and healthy,” Gleason said. “You know, it’s there for a reason.”

Life after legislation 

With the Kansas legislation apparently defeated, Cranberry said the next steps for activists involve calling on transgender youth and their allies to be more engaged in politics at a local level. “I believe it’s important to be politically active, but I think it’s really very necessary everyone feels safe to do that,” she said.

Kelly Jones

Cranberry suggests that transgender people and their allies form a group to advocate against passage of the bill and others like it with letter-writing campaigns.

Lawrence school board president Kelly Jones has made the board’s position clear.

“These transphobic bills are abhorrent,” Jones said. “They’re not consistent with Lawrence Public Schools’ equity policies and values, and as such, I would expect the board to honor those policies, guiding principles and values above this or any discriminatory state statute, every time.”

Gleason agrees this legislation and other bills like it are an attack on children. 

“Our bullies are not our classmates,” Gleason said. “Our bullies come from Topeka.” 

This article was originally published at the Free Press, the newspaper of Free State High School, where Isis Norris is editor-in-chief.

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