Kansas lawmakers likely to pass bill on transgender athletes

LGBTQ-rights advocates in Kansas are relying on Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly or the courts to block a ban on transgender athletes in girls’ or women’s school sports

TOPEKA, Kan. -- LGBTQ-rights advocates in Kansas are relying on the state's Democratic governor or the courts to block a ban on transgender athletes in girls' or women's school sports after conservatives on Thursday moved to push it through the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The House approved the bill late Thursday, 76-43, and the Senate was expected to follow. Senate passage would send the measure to Gov. Laura Kelly, who has hinted strongly that she plans to veto it.

Freshman state Rep. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, the state's first transgender lawmaker, called events in Kansas “heart-breaking.”

“We're looking at opening up a doorway that tells trans kids they are not welcome in any way, shape or form,” she said. “It's coming through our schools — the one place where everybody should feel welcome and appreciated.”

Supporters argued that they’re preserving decades of hard-won opportunities for “biological” girls and women to compete in K-12 sports and win college athletic scholarships.

“We want to protect all female athletes, K through collegiate,” said Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican and former college basketball player who is the ban's main legislative sponsor.

Despite Republicans’ hold over the Kansas Legislature, LGBTQ-rights advocates have in recent years prevented hearings on what they consider anti-trans legislation, partly by tapping concerns about potential opposition from businesses.

The state Senate approved the bill on transgender athletes last month. The House never had a committee hearing on the measure, and LGBTQ-rights advocates worked behind the scenes to prevent it from advancing. But it was like a carnival game of whack-a-mole because conservative lawmakers and groups always found a way to get the measure moving again.

On Thursday, Republican negotiators for the state House and Senate on education issues stripped an unrelated bill of its contents, dropped in the proposed ban and sent the measure to both chambers for an up-or-down vote.

Kelly, a supporter of LGBTQ rights, has called the measure “regressive” and suggested it would hurt the state's efforts to recruit businesses.

Also, the American Civil Liberties Union has promised to file a lawsuit if GOP legislators override a veto. Idaho's law is on hold because of a federal lawsuit.

“This bill puts a target on the back of every little kid who identifies their gender differently, all the way down to the kindergarten and first-grade level,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading LGBTQ-rights group.

Erickson, a former K-12 principal, bristled at Witt's suggestion that she would have “blood on her hands” for the bullying he said already has resulted from the measure.

“I don't mistreat any student. They have a right to live their life however they want,” she said. “But we also have to be fair to all of the students in that school setting. That's what this bill does.”

Supporters of such bans have pointed repeatedly to the 15 championships won between 2017 and 2019 by two transgender high school runners in Connecticut, which prompted a federal lawsuit. They argue that transgender girls and women have innate physical advantages in girls’ and women’s sports that would ruin competition.

“As a mother of three daughters and one son, I want my daughters to be able to fairly compete,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area conservative who was House Republicans’ chief negotiator. “I must support our girls.”

Yet supporters generally have been unable to cite local examples of problems. The association overseeing extracurricular activities in Kansas K-12 schools says it has been notified of only five active transgender athletes, and there is no known case of a transgender athlete having won a Kansas championship.

“This is morally wrong,” said Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Kansas City-area Democrat. “This is a solution to a non-problem.”

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