Schmidt, college swimmer embrace restrictions on participation in sports by transgender athletes

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2022 Kansas Legislature narrowly failed to override Kelly’s veto of prohibitions

OVERLAND PARK — Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt pledged Thursday to sign legislation targeting transgender persons by mandating athletic teams sponsored by public schools and colleges in Kansas align participation with an individual’s gender at birth.

Schmidt and former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines appeared together at Johnson County Republican Party headquarters to denounce Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s two vetoes of a ban. The Kansas Legislature fell short of overriding the governor’s veto of a measure applicable to interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural or club teams or sports sponsored by public educational institutions in Kansas.

The political objective of advocates would be to block transgender people from taking part in athletic teams designated for girls or women.

“It is apparent why this is such an important issue for so many people all around our state,” Schmidt said. “It’s an issue that Republicans, Democrats, independent voters all talk with me about and overwhelmingly share the view that it’s just a common-sense matter.”

Schmidt asked the Legislature to forward to him, if elected governor in November, the same sweeping bill dispatched by Kelly. He urged the Legislature to act within 100 days of being sworn into office. In addition, Schmidt said he was convinced this type of prohibition would be deemed constitutional by the courts.

Kelly’s veto message said the legislation vetoed in the 2022 session sent a “devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender, who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination and suicide.”

She said Kansans ought to focus on figuring out how to include more students in extracurricular activities rather than create new ways of excluding “those who may be different than us. Kansas is an inclusive state and our laws should reflect our values.”

Gaines, who swam competitively at Kentucky for four years, was a five-time SEC champion, 12-time NCAA All-American and two-time Olympic qualifier. She said she was disturbed by unfair competition at NCAA events from athletes born male and by attitudes of the association’s regulators who declined to forbid transgender athletes from shifting from male to female sports teams.

She swam against Lia Thomas, the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in swimming. She finished first in the 500 freestyle race at the championships.

Thomas competed from 2017 to 2020 as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team before moving to the women’s program from 2021 to 2022.

“I thought that come March there was no way the NCAA would allow Thomas to compete with us, but I was obviously proven very wrong,” Gaines said. “I got to personally witness the effects that this had on the competition and on myself and the other female athletes at that meet.”

In the 200 freestyle final at the NCAA championships, Thomas and Gaines tied for fifth place. She complained the NCAA gave the lone fifth-place trophy to Thomas and promised to send hers by mail.

“We cannot continue to ignore the biological and anatomical differences between males and females that are blatantly obvious and scientifically proven,” Gaines said to applause from about a dozen elderly men and women invited to the GOP headquarters. “If a change isn’t made, it’s only a matter of time before one transgender athlete winning a national title turns into three and then 10 and so on.”

Gaines, who directly criticized Kelly’s policy position, said the NCAA was making a “mockery of women’s sports” and she promised to keep advocating “to keep female sports female.”

In 2022, the Kansas Senate voted to override Kelly’s veto of Senate Bill 160. The Kansas House secured only 81 of 84 votes necessary to reach the required two-thirds margin to reverse the governor.

Republicans seeking adoption of the bill have argued accommodating transgender athletes injected unfairness into sports competition and distorted “rules of nature.”

Opponents of the bill, mostly Democrats, said the measure would intensify bullying of transgender people and fuel high rates of suicide and suicide ideation among boys and girls in Kansas.

State Rep. Brandon Woodard, who is gay and a Lenexa Democrat, said Schmidt and others seeking enactment of the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act should recognize trans women were indeed women.

“We’ve defeated this hateful legislation twice, and we are going to do it again,” Woodard said.

Thomas Witt, an LGBTQ activist in Kansas, said the position taken by Schmidt ignored the welfare of marginalized children. During the news conference, Schmidt declined to address the prospect of children being the target of bullies.

“I remember when you were a decent human being. Now? Look at yourself,” Witt said. “You spend your time beating up on, and further marginalizing, already marginalized children. These are kids you should be protecting. Shame on you.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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