We can’t call Kansas welcoming and entertain anti-trans laws

Sen. Renee Erickson defended legislation that bans transgender girls and women from sports by saying it was necessary to ensure competitive fairness. (March 11, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Aubrey Neihaus is an assistant professor of mathematics education at Wichita State University.

I am a recent transplant to Kansas, having uprooted my family in the midst of pandemic to take a position here in math teacher education. My husband and I have lived in many different regions of the United States and were thrilled to come to the Great Plains. We knew Kansas would be a wonderful place to raise our family and be our forever home. It’s not called the heartland just because it’s in the middle, but for the welcoming, caring, community-oriented way of life.

The welcome we experienced coming to Kansas has been true to the reputation of community, kindness, and care. Despite a pandemic, working from home, remote learning, and being thousands of miles away from family, we’ve felt love and hospitality from colleagues, teachers, neighbors, and our church. Our child’s teacher and my colleagues feel more like friends than newly formed acquaintances. Our church hosted drive-thru Halloween and brought Sunday School lessons to our porch. The community has given us all the metaphorical embrace one could hope for in a cross-country move, pandemic or not.

In my nationwide job search last year, I interviewed in other states, including Texas. Last year, Texas’ legislature was debating bills that would limit the rights of parents of transgender children to affirm their child’s gender. In my interview there I asked about these bills. I asked because as an education researcher, I know what the research says about trans kids and I know how such a law would affect my students (prospective teachers) and their students in turn.

Many people might not be up on the research around trans children and how this type of legislation affects them. Allow me to recap the high points: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that 2% of high school students identify as trans. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that affirming a child’s gender supports their mental health by decreasing incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The Trevor Project’s recent National Survey of LGBTQ Youth discovered that just one accepting adult can cut the risk of suicide for trans teens by 40%. The American Academy of Pediatrics is against these anti-trans bills and denounced them as dangerous. As a teacher educator, it’s my duty to prepare teachers to know this research and the importance of supporting their trans students. It was my familiarity with this data that caused me, as a job seeker, to be concerned with the discrimination that certain portions of the Texas Legislature were attempting to pass into law.

But it’s not just my career path that causes me to care about these issues. As a millennial, I have more LGBTQ friends than my baby boomer parents did, despite not being LGBTQ myself. My generation is more concerned for the rights of LGBTQ people than older generations. This was evidenced by the fact that when I accepted my current position here in Kansas, my friends — both in and out of education, and those who are LGBTQ or not — congratulated me on avoiding the discrimination that Texas was attempting to codify. I wasn’t the only one concerned by what the anti-trans legislation signaled in Texas. Millennials care about these issues because our generation has more out trans people. Millennial educators care about these issues because we see that we have trans students (Gallup reports that 1 in 6 members of Generation Z identify as LGBTQ). Increasingly, millennials are raising trans kids and are bearing the weight of these laws that target trans children.

In moving to Kansas, I was grateful to be in a place where being kind and welcoming was a priority. Then the 2021 legislative session hit. And the Kansas Legislature decided that being welcoming and kind wasn’t as important as legislating discrimination against already vulnerable children. One bill wasn’t enough — we needed three (HB 2210SB 208, and SB 214). These bills came from outside our state — namely, the organization called Alliance Defending Freedom. The bills in Kansas are identical to ones in 28 states around the country.

And let’s be honest — we also know because these bills go against who Kansans are and strive to be. Does it represent Kansas’ caring spirit for a legislator to author and sponsor a bill that required the examination of children’s genitals to prove their sex? (The first version of SB 208 had this very thing in it.) Do we show Kansas to be community-oriented by introducing a bill that purports to solve a problem we aren’t actually experiencing in Kansas, while also creating discrimination? Does it show the heart of Kansas when a state legislator promotes these discriminatory bills, despite the fact that we know from research at the University of Kansas that the mere introduction of bills and the rhetoric they drum up harms the mental health of trans kids? (Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, called opponents of the bill “incredibly insulting” for pointing out the deleterious effects of these bills on trans children’s mental health.)

It’s tempting to think that the kind spirit of Kansas will save us and that these bills will die before being passed. Or perhaps that Gov. Laura Kelly will veto these bills if they do make it to her desk. But what we as Kansans need to recognize is that harm is already being done, whether these bills become law or not.

Trans children have already heard — loud and clear — that they should be ostracized and their mental health is collateral damage to those in positions of power.

Parents, educators, and coaches of trans kids have already heard how little the legislators in our state consider the damage done to trans kids’ mental health when they are treated as a political boogeyman.

And even if as a collective we can’t muster kindness and caring for trans kids, at the very least we need to recognize the harm these bills do to us economically. Younger generations notice these discriminatory bills. Do we really think the millennials — the largest generation behind the baby boomers, the generation currently buying houses and making career moves and starting businesses — will be attracted to a state where discrimination is codified into law? I can tell you from my own experience as a young and highly credentialed STEM expert on a national job search — they will not. Had this legislative session been last year, I likely would not have even applied for my current position, given the way these bills look from outside Kansas.

Do we think younger generations of Kansans will want to stay and raise a family in a place where if they have a trans child, that child will be ostracized? Where providing trans children necessary medical care will be made criminal? Of course not. The talent Kansas so desperately needs to attract and retain will continue to hemorrhage from the Sunflower State as young folks from other states look past us and our own younger generations leave to find more welcoming places for their families.

If we really and truly want Kansas to live up to its potential, we wouldn’t even entertain bills that discriminate against 2% of our future workforce and the parents and allies who won’t stand for such discrimination. We wouldn’t entertain discriminatory bills with full knowledge of how damaging even the discussion can be.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.