Kansas Republicans moved three bills Wednesday against transgender rights and gender-linked health care in an effort to spark a veto override fight with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
For the third consecutive year, the Kansas House moved a bill banning transgender athletes from playing women’s sports, marking the first step toward an early veto fight of Kelly’s second term.
In a preliminary ballot Wednesday, Republicans lost five votes short of a veto-proof majority on the policy Kelly has rejected for the past two years. Lawmakers will vote on the final bill on Thursday, moving it to the Senate.
The bill was one of three policies lawmakers were due to consider on Wednesday against transgenders in Kansan.
The state Senate has also advanced legislation banning doctors from providing gender transition surgery or hormones to minors and a bill called a “women’s bill of rights” that would bar transgender women from spaces designated for women and transgender men from male-designated spaces. Senators gave initial approval to both bills in a vocal vote, with a final vote likely on Thursday.
The debates come as Kansas follows a national and regional trend of Republican-led states moving forward with measures targeting the transgender community.
Democrats and LGBTQ activists have criticized the legislation as bigoted, discriminatory and hateful. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is almost certain to veto the bills if they get to her desk.
Speaking to reporters last week, the governor called on Republicans to push the legislation to show more empathy and “cut it off.”
Representative Heather Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat and mother of a transgender son, said she was frustrated at once again speaking about her son in the public arena.
“Our children don’t make these decisions out of the blue. They face so much fear and hate and bullying,” she said. “There’s not a kid who’s going to say ‘you know what, I want to be more competitive in sports, so I’m going to be a woman.'”
But Republican advocates insist the legislation is essential to protect cisgender children and women, those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
The push to exclude transgender athletes from women’s sports has been a longstanding goal of GOP leaders in the state legislature who argue that transgender athletes pose a threat to equity in high school and college athletics.
Speaking to fellow Republicans, Rep. Barb Wasinger, a Republican from Hays, said students who don’t feel they’re a perfect fit in gender athletics can compete in coed competitions. He said it was common sense and that someone assigned male at birth would be stronger and faster than those assigned female at birth.
“What it doesn’t do is discriminate against anyone who decides they’re not the right gender,” Wasinger said.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, called transgender female athletes’ participation in women’s sports a setback on women’s rights.
“I’m not against change, but why impose rights on women and girls?” she said.
“If there’s another path, let’s figure out what it is.”
According to the Kansas State High School Activities Association, there are currently only three transgender female athletes who have filed for exemptions to compete in women’s sports.
Such requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and the Business Association requests schools to review a student’s gender identity in registration documents, medical records, and student “gender identity benefits” if request is approved. Students are prohibited from earning exemptions for the purpose of “gaining an unfair competitive advantage”.
Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, an Overland Park Democrat who has a transgender brother, said the bill attacked transgender athletes by ignoring the true inequalities in girls and women’s sports.
“It tries to build political influence on a handful of trans kids who play sports in our state,” she said. “Instead of asking who can we exclude, we should ask, how can we create opportunities for everyone?”
Senate Speaker Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican who has long supported the policy, said his house would pass the bill even if the House lacked a veto-proof majority.
“Who knows what the logic is for one vote at a time, which only tells you where people are at the very beginning of the process,” Masterson said.
Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and the first openly gay member of the legislature, criticized Republicans for repeatedly pushing the bill while ignoring efforts to pass laws protecting the LGBTQ community.
“We can’t get a hearing on a bill that would repeal the legal ban on same-sex marriage, but sure we pass the bills that target two people in Kansas, we target the most vulnerable population in our state,” he said.
The debate over trans medical decisions draws comparisons to abortion
The push to ban hormone therapy and gender transition surgery for minors has been criticized by medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, but Republicans have argued that young people aren’t mature enough to make such decisions.
“I hope everyone in this room and everyone in the Senate agrees that they are not adults,” Senator Beverly Gossage, a Republican from Eudora, said during a party caucus meeting. “These parents who testified spoke about how they felt pressure from society. They felt like they were trying to affirm their baby”
Kansas transgenders have spoken out against the bills. Adam Kellogg, a University of Kansas undergraduate, told lawmakers last week that his decision to undergo hormone therapy before college was key to his ability to transition into college life in an authentic way.
“Medical transition isn’t just about saving lives, it’s also about empowering and setting them free,” Kellogg said. “I can’t imagine a life like this without medical interventions and I don’t want this committee to imagine that either.”
During Wednesday’s Senate debate, Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa, said Kansans made it clear in August they did not want political intervention in medical decisions when voters rejected an amendment that would have allowed the legislature to ban abortion.
“This bill would create a precedent that medical providers should not give you the best medical care available, but instead provide the medical care that politicians decide you should have access to,” Sykes said.
But Gossage, the only senator to speak in support of the measure on the floor, said “parental rights do not extend to consent to harm your child.”
The Senate gave the first approval to the legislation on the “bill of rights of women” after a superficial debate. State Senator Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, said the bill provides “linguistic and legal clarity” to the definition of sex, by defining sex as a person’s biological sex at birth.
“It just codifies the definition of sex as biological, male and female, into existing statutes and laws,” Erickson said.
State Senator Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, was the only Senator to speak on the bill other than Erickson. He called the legislation unnecessary, adding that it “does nothing to talk about women’s rights”.