In Kansas fight over anti-trans sports bill, Senate adds civility to casualty list

By: - April 15, 2021 8:33 am

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes raises concerns during Friday’s debate in the Senate about the mental health toll of enacting legislation that discriminates against the LGBTQ community. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Asia Jynaé Foster.

Yunieski Carey Herrera.

Angel Unique.

Sara Blackwood.

Brooklyn Deshuna.

Felycya Harris.

Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas.

Mia Green.

Aerrion Burnett.

Kee Sam.

Lea Rayshon Daye.

Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears.

Queasha D Hardy.

Dior H Ova.

Marilyn Cazares.

Summer Taylor.

Bree Black.

Shaki Peters.

Merci Mack.

Brayla Stone.

Brian “Egypt’ Powers.

Selena Reyes-Hernandez.

Jayne Thompson.

Riah Milton.

Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells.

Tony McDade.

Helle Jae O’Regan.

Nina Pop.

Penélope Díaz Ramírez.

Layla Pelaez Sánchez.

Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos.

Johanna Metzger.

Lexi.

Monika Diamond.

Scott/Scottlynn Devore.

Yampi Méndez Arocho.

Neulisa Luciano Ruiz.

Dustin Parker.

Republicans scoffed in indignation last week when Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes tried to read the names of transgender children — listed above — who died from suicide or murder in 2020 in the United States.

The Democrat from Lenexa violated the chamber’s rules on polite debate by referring to an effort to restrict participation by transgender children in sports as “crappy legislation.” Republicans leapt to their feet in protest.

Lawmakers are expected to be civil, even when responding to an attack on vulnerable children.

Senate President Ty Masterson lashed out at Democrats for using highly charged rhetoric in opposition to legislation that targets transgender athletes. (April 9 photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Days after the Legislature voted to send Senate Bill 55 to Gov. Laura Kelly, who is presumed to veto the bill, Senate President Ty Masterson chastised Democrats for sinking “to unprecedented levels of unrelated vitriol in their attempt to derail the bill.” He issued a joint statement Tuesday with Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican who led debate on the subject.

Masterson and Erickson took offense at the implication that “actual lives would be lost” as a result of their legislation, an accusation supported by academic research.

“This type of highly charged rhetoric has no place in civil debate,” Masterson and Erickson said in their statement.

The model legislation, written and promoted by anti-LGBTQ groups, has been introduced in numerous states this year. It requires public schools and universities to designate a gender for each sports team and limit participation based on an individual’s assigned gender at birth.

Republicans who support the bill say female athletes need protection. During debate, they drew numerous distinctions between the athletic achievements of men and women, but never compared cisgender girls to transgender girls.

In her closing remarks during Friday’s debate, Erickson defended the legislation by quoting from “Genesis.”

“‘Male and female He created them,'” she said. “May not agree with it — those are God’s words.”

Sen. Rene Erickson, a Republican from Wichita, quoted God in defense of her anti-transgender sports bill. (April 6, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Democrats characterized the effort to pass discriminatory legislation as a political ploy aimed at energizing far-right voters at the expense of just five transgender athletes in Kansas schools. They complained that the bill, even after amendments, would still subject children to genital inspections if there is a gender dispute. And they pointed to the possibility that Kansas would lose sporting events or business investments by embracing discrimination.

“I have little patience for conversations about civility or decorum during debates surrounding legislation that targets five transgender children learning how to dribble a ball and pass to their classmates,” Sykes said in response to the statement from Masterson and Erickson. “The extremists pushing this legislation are so clouded by their own self-righteousness that they cannot see the long-term consequences this legislation will have on our state.”

“Most importantly,” Sykes added, “kids who don’t fit the rigid mold of how these leaders think they should live will add it to their list of reasons they don’t belong, and some of them will heartbreakingly decide they can’t live in a world rooting against them every day. I am unwilling to let any of those kids think for a moment that I’m not on their side, no matter how crass my colleagues may think that makes me and my fellow Democrats.”

Masterson and Erickson blasted the NCAA for suggesting a basketball tournament could be removed from Wichita if the bill were to become law.

“Republicans in the Kansas Senate will not cower in the face of such intimidation and inflammatory rhetoric,” Masterson and Erickson said. “We will not back down in defense of fairness in women’s sports. We will not sell out decades of progress by women for a few days of a basketball tournament. We will continue to engage in this debate with scientific facts, civility, and respect.”

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, indicated in a column he wrote for the Hutchinson News that the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas was influential in the effort to pass the bill in Kansas. When the lobbying group says to jump, Steffen wrote, “I ask how high.”

The alliance issued a statement in February after Erickson introduced the bill, calling it a “national movement supported by radical feminist groups and conservative pro-family organizations.” This appears to be the first time the alliance has shown an interest in “radical feminist” policies.

In 2018, the alliance supported legislation that allows state contractors to deny services to the LGBTQ community on the basis of firmly held religious beliefs. In 2019, the alliance protested a Kelly administration directive demanding confidentiality from foster parents about a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Other legislation backed by the alliance would have allowed college organizations supported by mandatory student fees to refuse LGBTQ members based on religious objections.

The alliance describes itself as “a Christ-centered organization with a vision for a nation where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive and life is cherished.” The group’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, labels as misguided a bill from Sen. Renee Erickson of Wichita , requiring participation in sports teams to be based on a person's gender designation at birth. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, says he was shocked and disappointed by the cruelty in debate over legislation requiring participation in sports teams to be based on a person’s gender designation at birth. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, referred to the Family Policy Alliance as a “national hate network.”

“I would never characterize what they’re doing to kids as Christ-inspired,” Witt said. “I read the Bible, and nowhere does Jesus say, ‘Let’s go beat up on little trans kids.’ ”

Witt said the cruelty displayed by Republican senators this session toward transgender children in Kansas was “shocking and disappointing.” Lawmakers are refusing to recognize that their actions have a direct impact on the mental health of the children they are trying to erase, he said.

Witt criticized remarks made by Masterson during a debate on the topic earlier in the session.

“He tried to frame the debate and say, ‘We’re not going to have a discussion about emotional issues, because they’re not relevant.’ Well, you know, if somebody isn’t going to get emotional over little kids committing suicide, then Ty Masterson is exactly the cruel person we think him to be,” Witt said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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