Kansas bans transgender athletes from joining women's sports

Kansas is banning transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports amid a national debate on transgender athletes. Nineteen other states have imposed such bans, most recently Wyoming, but also Arizona, Florida, Texas, and West Virginia. 

John Hanna/AP
Cat Poland poses with her 13-year-old trans son, Alex, after a day of lobbying by LGBTQ+ youth at the Statehouse, March 28, 2023, in Topeka, Kansas. Alex and his mother are frustrated with multiple bills seeking to roll back LGBTQ+ rights in the Kansas Legislature.

Kansas is banning transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports from kindergarten through college, the first of several possible new laws restricting the rights of transgender people pushed through by Republican legislators over the wishes of the Democratic governor.

The Legislature on Wednesday overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s third veto in three years of a bill to ban transgender athletes, and came a day after state lawmakers passed a broad bathroom bill. Nineteen other states have imposed restrictions on transgender athletes, most recently Wyoming.

The Kansas law takes effect July 1 and is among several hundred proposals that Republican lawmakers across the United States have pursued this year to push back on LGBTQ+ rights. Kansas lawmakers who back the ban are also pursuing proposals to end gender-affirming care for minors and restrict restroom use.

Republican governors in Indiana and Idaho have signed into law bills banning gender-affirming care for minors, making those states the latest to restrict transgender health care as Republican-led legislatures continue to curb LGBTQ+ rights this year.

More than a dozen other states are considering bills that would prohibit transgender youth from accessing hormone therapies, puberty blockers, and transition surgeries, even after the approval of parents and the advice of doctors. Other proposals target transgender individuals’ everyday life – including workplaces and schools.

The measure approved by Kansas lawmakers Tuesday would prevent transgender people from using public restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities associated with their gender identities, and bars them from changing their name or gender on their driver’s licenses. Ms. Kelly is expected to veto that.

“It’s a scary time to be raising a trans child in Kansas,” said Cat Poland, a lifelong Kansas resident and mother of three who coordinates a Gay-Straight Alliance at her 13-year-old trans son’s school about 40 miles northwest of Wichita. “We may face the very real threat of having to move, and it’s heartbreaking.”

The ban demonstrates the clout of religious conservatives, reflected in the 2022 platform of the Kansas Republican Party – “We believe God created man and woman” – and echoes many Republicans’ beliefs that their constituents don’t like any cultural shift toward acceptance.

“I wish it was 1960, and, you know, little Johnny’s a boy and Mary’s a girl, and that’s how it is, period,” Republican state Rep. John Eplee, a 70-year-old doctor, said during a committee discussion of the bathroom bill.

LGBTQ+ rights advocates say it’s part of a national campaign from right-wing traditionalists to erase transgender, non-binary, gender-queer, and gender-fluid people from American society.

Alex Poland, an eighth-grade cross-country runner who hopes to play baseball next year, said legislators are pursuing “bills against children” who “haven’t done anything to harm anyone.”

Alex, who lobbied for trans rights with his mother at the Statehouse last week, said it’s good for trans kids’ mental health to play on teams associated with their gender identities, and that most other kids just don’t care.

It’s largely adults who “care so much about what the trans kids are doing,” Alex said.

Ms. Kelly told reporters in the Kansas City area that she believes legislators eventually will regret voting for “this really awful bill.”

“It breaks my heart and certainly is disappointing,” Ms. Kelly said.

The first state law on transgender athletes, in Idaho in 2020, came after conservatives retrenched from the national backlash over a short-lived 2016 bathroom law in North Carolina. In Kansas, conservatives’ biggest obstacle has been Ms. Kelly, who narrowly won reelection last year after pitching herself as a political centrist.

Conservative Republicans in Kansas fell short of the two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers needed to override Ms. Kelly’s vetoes of the transgender athlete bills in 2021 and 2022. But this year, the House voted 84-40 to override her veto, exactly the two-thirds majority needed. The vote was 28-12 in the Senate, one more than a two-thirds majority.

Supporters of the ban could not have overridden Ms. Kelly’s veto this year but for the only Democrat to side with them against the governor. Rep. Marvin Robinson, of Kansas City, told reporters that he had wanted to “meet in the middle” but found the debate “all or none out there.” He said he prayed for guidance before the vote.

Two LGBTQ+ Democratic lawmakers from the Kansas City area were especially upset because they believed Republicans were gloating over the House vote.

Rep. Heather Meyer stood up, opened her jacket, and displayed a “Protect Trans Youth” T-shirt before making a rude gesture as she left the chamber. Rep. Susan Ruiz yelled at GOP members, briefly cursing at them before being told she was out of order.

“We’re tired of putting up with it, and I’m tired of putting up with it,” she said later. “There needs to be some respect.”

Across the U.S., supporters of such bans argue that they keep competition fair. Track and field last month barred transgender athletes from international competition, adopting the same rules that swimming did last year.

Supporters argue that they’re also making sure cisgender girls and women don’t lose the scholarships and other opportunities that didn’t exist for them decades ago.

“Over the past 50 years, females have finally been able to celebrate our differences and create a division that enabled us to achieve athletic endeavors similar to our male counterparts,” Caroline Bruce McAndrew, a former Olympic swimmer and member from the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame from Wichita, testified to lawmakers.

LGBTQ+ rights advocates acknowledge that arguments about competition resonate outside Republicans’ conservative base because of the longstanding assumption that men and boys are naturally stronger than women and girls.

They’re also frustrated that the debate often focuses on whether transgender athletes have or can win championships.

Hudson Taylor, a three-time All-American collegiate wrestler said youth sports should be about learning discipline, “healthy habits,” and having fun in a supportive environment. He founded and leads the pro-LGBTQ+ group Athlete Ally.

“There’s been a professionalization of youth sports over the last 40 years,” Mr. Taylor said. “So often, the legislators and people who oppose trans-athlete inclusion really go directly to the most elite, top talent, Olympic-hopeful athletes.”

The Kansas measure bans transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ teams starting in kindergarten, even though sports and other extra-curricular activities aren’t overseen by the Kansas State High School Activities Association until the seventh grade.

That’s one reason LGBTQ+ rights advocates are skeptical that the true issue is fair competition. Another is the scarcity of transgender female athletes.

The state association said three transgender girls competed in sports in grades 7-12 this year, two of them seniors. Mr. Taylor said transgender athletes in college likely number fewer than 500. The NCAA says about 219,000 women play collegiate sports.

The international track and field ban doesn’t affect a single transgender female athlete.

Cat Poland, the Kansas mother with a trans son, said: “They just keep taking the next, the next step, the next step, until where are trans people supposed to go? Where can they can exist to be safe and live happy and fulfilling lives?”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.  

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