Kansas transgender sports bill: Epitome of fair play? Or, brazenly unconstitutional?

Legislation reveals fissure in public K-12, university athletics policy

By: - February 23, 2021 5:11 pm
Family Policy Alliance lobbyist Brittany Jones, former Yale University basketball player Jessica Steffen and former University of Kansas pole vaulter Callie Hicks, left to right, testified in favor of a Kansas Senate bill assigning transgender athletes to sports programs at public schools and colleges based on gender at birth. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Family Policy Alliance lobbyist Brittany Jones, former Yale University basketball player Jessica Steffen and former University of Kansas pole vaulter Callie Hicks, left to right, testified in favor of a Kansas Senate bill assigning transgender athletes to sports programs at public schools and colleges based on gender at birth. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Former University of Kansas pole vaulter Callie Hicks offered assurances Tuesday that failure to impose a state law restricting transgender athletes to competitions based on biological gender at birth would destroy girls and women’s sports programs.

She was among two dozen people drawn to the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on a bill requiring all public schools, from elementary through university levels, to designate teams categorized as boys or men, girls or women, as well as coed. The bill forbids any team designated for females to be open to students of the “male sex.” Verification of biological sex would be conducted through physical examinations or laboratory testing. Any student or institution harmed by violation of the law could file a lawsuit for physical, emotional or psychological harm.

Champions of Senate Bill 208 said it would preserve hard-fought opportunities won by feminists for equal participation in athletics and guarantee a level playing field for girls and women. Opponents of the bill said it would provide legal authority to further marginalize people faced with discrimination and would obviously be challenged in court as unconstitutional.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said Senate Bill 208 restricting transgender athletes to teams based on gender at birth was another chapter in the Kansas Legislature’s relentless bullying of LGBTQ people. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“I am here today because I want fairness in sport for my colleagues and teammates who continue to compete collegiately, and also for these young girls just beginning their athletic journeys and developing their competitive spirits,” said Hicks, a Greeley resident who excelled at Lawrence Free State High School in track and while at KU as a pole vaulter.

“It is at the core of my being that I believe and know to be true — biological men have an unfair advantage competing against biological women in women’s sports. To say otherwise denies overwhelming data in sports statistics as well as science,” she said.

Kyle Velte, an associate professor at the University of Kansas’ law school with a focus on LGBT civil rights, said the Senate bill distorted medicine and psychology. Velte said it was unconstitutional on multiple grounds, misguided as public policy and harmful to vulnerable youth.

Velte said transgender athletes had been allowed to compete on Olympic teams since 2004 and in NCAA competition since 2011. Transgender students are likewise allowed to compete in Kansas high school sports. The bill fails to acknowledge two decades of evidence that transgender athletes don’t enjoy distinct advantages over cisgender teammates or opponents, Velte said.

“It is grounded in fearmongering, stereotypes and unsupported claims about transgender girls and women,” Velte said. “The bill is nothing more than a means of discrimination, plain and simple. Discrimination has consequences. Here, those consequences will include harm to transgender Kansans and the exposure of the state to the real risk of costly litigation and the loss of corporate revenue — all in the name of a ‘problem’ that does not exist.”


Honoring Title IX

Jessica Steffen, who grew up in Buhler and played basketball for Yale University, said she had to speak up for the generations of women who fought tirelessly for equal opportunity in sports at educational institutions through Title IX. Testifying in front of her father, GOP Sen. Mark Steffen, she said was able to earn the world’s best education through basketball. The Senate bill would be a leap forward, she said.

Jeff Freund, principal at Robinson Middle School in Wichita, said the bill was certain to “force undue shame and despair on an already vulnerable group. It will increase bullying and fear.” He added: “Let. Them. Play.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“But, I know Yale. And, I know the coastal mentality,” said Jessica Steffen, a first-year law student at KU. “If we don’t make a conscious decision here in Kansas to preserve those opportunities for young women, they will be taken away.”

Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said the debate in Kansas and about 20 other states with comparable legislation wasn’t about basketball, volleyball, baseball, swimming or other forms of athletic endeavor. He said supporters of the Senate bill were once again engaged in bullying aimed at kids in public schools. The history of anti-trans bills introduced in the Kansas statehouse makes clear that proponents “just don’t like LGBTQ people,” he said.

The legislation is “extreme, unnecessary and harmful to transgender youth in our state who deserve the chance to succeed and thrive like any other student,” said Nadine Johnson, director of the ACLU of Kansas.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, an Overland Park Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she was uncertain what the committee would do with the bill. She took the extraordinary step of forbidding senators during the hearing from asking questions of people testifying on the bill. Instead, senators were instructed to send questions to the committee secretary to be forwarded to individuals who testified. Responses are to be posted online along with all the written testimony submitted in conjunction with the bill, she said.


‘Unjust advantage’

About two-dozen people testified for or against Senate Bill 208, including chief sponsor Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita. She said the simple bill’s sole purpose was to protect opportunities that she enjoyed by competing against only biological females.

She said allowing biological males to play against females was “the epitome of an unjust advantage.” There are indisputable, scientifically proven hormonal, chromosomal and physiological advantages that males have over females, she said.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, a transgender Democrat who taught at a Wichita high school with Erickson, said she opposed the bill as she would the series of other bills introduced in the Legislature since 2016 that “put bounties on the heads of trans school children.” In the 2021 legislative session, bills have been introduced to make it a felony to provide lifesaving medication along with the ban on trans girls affirming their identity through sports.

“Trans kids thrive when their identity is affirmed, but it is not always an easy path,” Byers said. “The emotional exhaustion of keeping who you are hidden in a world that often goes out of its way to demonstrate you are not welcome, takes its toll. Affirmation counters those exterior forces, it helps relieve the anxiety and depression that, far too often, leads to suicide.”

She said the trans community paused Nov. 20 each year to recognize people who died from violence in the previous year. The names of Wichita students are on that list, she said.

“I oppose this bill,” Byers said. “We don’t need to read the names of any more dead children.”


Student perspectives

Ali Gleason, a seventh-grader in Goodland and a participant in track, cross country and wrestling, was among students who submitted testimony to the Senate committee. Gleason said she had no qualms about competing against a transgender athlete.

“I don’t think it’s fair to keep them from being my teammates because of your fears and bigotry. Kids just want to play sports and this isn’t about scholarships or advantages and disadvantages,” she said. “This is about participation and about letting all kids play and just having fun, regardless of whether they’re trans or not. I routinely beat boys in sports as we run cross country meets or wrestling together. Our strongest and best athlete on our team this year was a girl with no girls wrestling league to compete in.”

Topeka-born Allie Fennell, who has been part of sports ranging from ballet to basketball, said Senate Bill 208 was a mistake if public policymakers were interested in helping young people develop social skills, build confidence and create opportunities. She said high school sports should remain a safe place for all people, including transgender youth. The legislation before the committee wasn’t designed to advance the cause of sports, she said, but would transform lawmakers’ transphobia into law.

Claire Hill, 11, of Olathe said the bill banning trans girls from girls sports teams was an unnecessary intrusion by government into personal lives of Kansas youth. She plays competitive soccer in Overland Park, and her team won the 2020 league championship.

“I would be happy to play with or against trans girls in my league,” she said. “They deserve to be treated like you would any other girl.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.