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Civil disobedience is disruptive and disrespectful. That’s the point.
On April 5, the Kansas Legislature voted to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of the so-called “fairness in women’s sports act.”
The bill bans transgender women from participating in school-sanctioned sports. This vote in the Legislature succeeded despite weeks of advocacy, testimony and other methods of politely petitioning lawmakers to respect trans athletes.
Advocacy and voter turnout have long been the only theories of change advanced by liberals and moderates throughout the state. The thinking goes that by appealing to lawmakers’ better angels or bluffing that you have the numbers to beat them at the polls, legislators will back off from the worst of their reactionary agenda. That didn’t stop them from passing this bill, but not all hope is lost.
One alternative to the two failed models is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the practice of not voluntarily participating in your own oppression or the oppression of others. It requires openly defying laws that are unjust. The most well-known examples include Civil Rights-era actions like the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and Rosa Parks’ refusal to change seats on a segregated bus.
It’s important to understand why this works. Rather than relying on the good faith of bad people, it raises the cost of discrimination. Oppression relies, in part, on the compliance of bystanders. When people start flagrantly ignoring rules, it costs time, money and energy from those in power to enforce their rules. If enough people — especially allies — refuse to play along, those in power cannot continue to uphold an unjust system.
Regarding the anti-trans sports ban, there are several ways to disobey this law. Coaches and school administrators should enroll trans athletes in the teams of their choosing, regardless of what the law says. If an opposing sports team says nothing upon seeing this, great. You’ve essentially neutered the law.
When opposing teams do try to enforce the rule, cisgender teammates of the trans students should boycott the game. Parents need to wholeheartedly support the athletes and coaches in doing so. While forfeiture may give the other team a de facto win, it denies them the satisfaction of playing and denies athletes the individual sports statistics needed for college recruitment. So the action raises the cost of discrimination for the discriminator and those around them. To hurt other people, they end up hurting themselves, too.
For solo sports, disobedience requires some creativity. Once again, schools should register trans athletes for competitions in the hopes that no one says anything. But if someone does try to block a trans student from competing, allies need to raise the cost of discrimination. For example, students can physically stop cross country or track an field competitions by laying across tracks and paths. Parents volunteering as timers at swim meets can withhold their needed volunteer labor when trans athletes are excluded. Walk offs can be applied to most other competitions.
Civil disobedience is highly disruptive by design. Doing the right thing sometimes requires grit. There’s just no way around that.
Before trying anything like the above examples, keep in mind that the most successful civil disobedience campaigns are strategic and done in groups. Activists of past movements formed organizations such as the Jane Collective, ACT UP New York, ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transportation), and so many more to plan and execute their actions. They pooled resources to minimize risk for those at the front lines of these fights, such as setting up legal defense funds for protestors. It’s easy to punish one disruptive person. It’s much harder to punish a large group.
We should not tolerate discrimination in the Free State. Civil disobedience may be disruptive and disrespectful, but the traditional methods of petitioning our legislators didn’t work. It’s time to try something with a much better track record of success.
Trans kids are counting on it.
— Vince Munoz is an organizer with Rent Zero Kansas.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.
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