Lawmakers, activists push back as conservatives introduce bills on transgender youth

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
LGBT activists and their allies in the Kansas legislature are pushing back against bills that would restrict how transgender individuals can participate in sports and when they can receive treatment that helps them transition.

LGBT activists and their allies in the Kansas Legislature are pushing back against a slate of bills backed by conservative Republicans that would restrict how transgender individuals can participate in sports and when they can receive medical treatments that help them transition.

A bill introduced Wednesday in the Kansas Senate would require athletes to compete in sporting events based on a person’s gender assignment at birth. That means someone deemed to be male at birth but who later transitions to female couldn't compete in women's sports.

Similar legislation was introduced in the Kansas House last session and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., has launched a parallel effort at the federal level.

Republican pushback from Biden's gender identity discrimination order

It comes as legislators in over a dozen other states are pushing similar bills in response to an executive order from President Joe Biden prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, including in interscholastic sports.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, who in November became the first openly transgender legislator elected in Kansas, said that "we would see an impact" on the mental health of transgender youth because of the bill.

"We should make sure we're protecting all kids and not being inclusive or exclusive of certain groups," Byers said. "It is something where we open up the door because if the benefit of athletics is participation, that benefit should be available to everybody."

Trans bill argues 'inherent differences between men and women'

A proponent of the legislation, Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, framed it as a way "to ensure our women have a fair and equitable playing field" in sporting competitions, which would include both high school and collegiate athletics. 

"This absolutely is not meant as a pro or an anti-transgender or LGBTQ issue," Erickson said.

The bill argues "there are "inherent differences between men and women," including "higher natural levels of testosterone," among other physical differences.

That makes it more challenging for girls to compete with transgender athletes, advocates for the bill argue, with the legislation citing research from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine that points to a gap between male and female Olympic athletes in a variety of sports.

What happens if this trans bill passes?

Under the bill, the Kansas State High School Activities Association and the state Board of Regents would be required to pass conforming rules and regulations. Any student-athlete who feels they have been harmed would have a cause of action under the bill against their school district or university.

The issue has come to a head in Washington, D.C., as well, with Marshall confronting Biden's nominee for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, on the issue last week. He announced legislation on the matter days later. 

In Topeka, the bill's introduction comes a week after four Kansas House members launched a separate effort that would criminalize a doctor for offering gender reassignment therapy to minors.

Under the legislation, doctors could lose their license and even face jail time for providing hormone therapy and treatments to halt the onset of puberty.

One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, said it was consistent with the notion that those under 18 aren't yet adults.

"I have five kids and I have 13 grandkids and I know their maturity level at each age," Garber said. "While some mature more than others, I don't believe any child really has things figured out before the age of 18."

But the hormone therapies are reversible and are used to address gender dysphoria, where a person's gender identity differs from the sex they are assigned at birth.

Equality Kansas director: Trans bill would hurt youth mental health

Thomas Witt, director of Equality Kansas, said that both bills would have an adverse effect on the mental health of transgender youth, increasing bullying and leaving them "feeling as though they have no options other than self-harm, dropping out and ending up in the streets."

"None of these bills are about protecting children," Witt said in a statement.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, told The Associated Press last week that she wasn't anticipating that the committee she chairs would be holding a hearing on the gender reassignment legislation, a sign the bill isn't a major priority.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Molly Baumgartner, R-Louisburg, said last week that her focus was on the budget process, as well as legislation targeting the state's foster care system, but she noted she would reevaluate when a bill on transgender athletes was formally introduced.

Byers said she was focused on thwarting the bills, as well as an effort she had launched with three Democratic colleagues to formally change state law to acknowledge the legality of same-sex marriage.

Most Kansans, including voters she talked to in the fall, weren't bothered by someone being transgender and said she believed a majority of the state's residents wouldn't be in favor of the bills.

"Unfortunately, a lot of our elected officials feel like they are playing to a certain base that does not represent most all of their constituents," Byers said. "It represents a few, maybe a few loud ones. The issue of someone being trans, it is becoming a smaller and smaller part of life. My hope is it becomes no more of an identifier than the fact that I'm that one legislator with auburn hair or that one legislator with brown eyes."