Anti-trans sports bill sprouts from ignorance. We owe Kansas kids respect and support.

March 9, 2022 3:33 am

The Rev. Caela Simmons Wood, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, testifies Monday before the Senate Education Committee. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

The world is a big, complicated and majestic place. There’s a lot we don’t understand.

But just because we don’t understand every single bit of the world, that doesn’t mean we should hate the parts we don’t. That doesn’t mean we pass laws against them.

Likewise, the fact that some legislators don’t understand or accept what it means to be transgender — or gay, lesbian or bisexual for that matter — doesn’t mean they have the responsibility to make these folks’ lives worse.

You could see this play out Monday during the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on Senate Bill 484. The bill would, according to its short title, “require that student athletic teams only include members who are of the same biological sex unless designated as coed.” In reality, that would be an overt signal of state discrimination against transgender children.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, testifies Monday in opposition to legislation that would ban transgender athletes from school sports. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

“I will use religious language to describe what that is. That is blasphemy,” said the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith. “Any attempt to deny the image of God within another human being, to deny another human being’s very existence, is an affront to the faith of Jesus.”

That’s a big leap for some people with “traditional values” to take.

But I had to take a similar leap. Yes, I’m a gay man, but 20-plus years ago when I first met transgender folks, I didn’t take the time to listen to their perspectives or ask about their journeys. It just seemed strange to be one gender and then want to be another. I couldn’t understand it — and perhaps I just didn’t want to.

Yet over the years, my perspective shifted. I came to recognize that my understanding was irrelevant. Transgender folks are who they are, and that demands respect. No matter what. Once you accept that, you can finally listen and learn. As I did, and as I’m still doing.

The example goes further, too.

I’m white. There is no way I will ever fully understand what it means to be a Black person in a racist society. I can imagine, I can empathize, but I won’t know. I can follow their voices and experiences, but I will only ever be an ally. Likewise, I’m a cisgender male; I’ll never know what it’s like to be a cisgender or transgender woman. These are identities and experiences that I can’t access.

And that’s OK. You don’t have to understand everything in the world. You don’t have to understand physics and astronomy to wonder at the night sky. You don’t have to understand photosynthesis and botany to marvel at an elaborate garden. Just appreciate what you’re able to see and what that experience means to you.

Those advocating for the bill didn’t take the spiritual view of Simmons Wood, or the global view I suggested. Instead, they painted the bill as being solely about defending women’s sports.

Brittany Jones, director of policy and engagement for Kansas Family Voice, testifies during a hearing last year. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Brittany Jones, director of policy and engagement for Kansas Family Voice, said female sports could be “erased” without the bill, according to Smith’s reporting.

“Kansas should not wait until its girls have lost opportunities or been displaced in order to act,” Jones said.

But where’s the threat?

Where are the hundreds of transgender girls clamoring to take over women’s sports in Kansas? Have you seen them in your community? Have you seen them in your friends’ and family’s communities? Or do a handful of kids across Kansas simply want to play sports with their friends?

As the Human Rights Campaign wrote last year about a similar proposal in North Dakota: “Transgender people do not have an inherent competitive advantage in sports. Nobody goes through the long and arduous process of transitioning in order to gain any sort of advantage. Trans women and girls just want to live authentic lives, be part of a team and play with their friends, like anyone else.”

The American Psychological adds: “Transgender children vary in athletic ability, just as other youth do. There is no evidence to support claims that allowing transgender student athletes to play on the team that fits their gender identity would affect the fairness of the sport or competition.”

It should be clear, actually, that sports are a net positive for transgender youth. The teamwork and camaraderie boost the spirits and health of all young people, trans kids included. They can build friendships and a supportive community on the field.

This is what we should want for all Kansas students, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. This is what we would want for ourselves and our own children. That is why my soul stirred when I saw the emphatic turnout Monday denouncing the bill its cynical cruelty.

You don’t have to understand. You do have to love.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.