Anti-trans Kansas legislators use children as kindling for their culture war blaze

March 22, 2022 11:59 am

Society will pass by hateful politicians like Sen. Renee Erickson, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone, and their bigoted short-sightedness will be ridiculed. (Jan. 18, 2022, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

As I watched Kansas senators debate Senate Bill 484 on Monday, a sinking feeling grew in my gut. This is what it feels like, I remembered, to have your identity politicized. This is what it’s like to have politicians use your life as kindling for a culture war fire.

The bill at question, which later passed 27-12, bars transgender Kansas girls from participating in team sports that match their identity. It’s a harsh blast of hatred from Sen. Renee Erickson, directed at those with less power and standing than her. It’s also taken from the same playbook that Republicans used in the aftermath of 2003’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

Back then, the argument was over same-sex marriage. If two men or two women were able to be married legally, the argument went, our entire society would begin a slide down the slippery slope to ruin. State after state passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Kansas passed its ban in 2005, with 69% of the state’s voters in favor.

I was living in Florida at the time, but I remember following the abundance of national and state debates over same-sex marriage.

The surreal part? I was in a relationship with a man, my now-husband. We had been together for four years at the time. I had been able to experience firsthand the supposed evils of same-sex marriage, which appeared to me to mainly consist of going to Wendy’s too often and spending money on video games.

I still remember how it felt. These people are talking about me and my relationship, I thought. But they don’t know me at all. They don’t know my family.

In retrospect, anyone can see that the GOP’s crusade against same-sex marriage was nothing but a cynical ploy. The 2004 Bush campaign was managed by a gay man (Ken Mehlman) and advised by a strategist (Karl Rove) whose father was gay. Partisans simply wanted to gain political power during a challenging election season, and they succeeded.

Why should we expect anything different this time? Rightwing legislators don’t care about girls’ sports or women’s rights. If they did, they wouldn’t advocate stripping the right to choose abortion services from the state constitution. They don’t care about college opportunities. If they did, they would support using some of the state’s unparalleled budget surplus for scholarships.

Instead, they’re choosing to target people who are different from them.

To transgender Kansans and their families, I likely don’t understand all of your struggles. But I do know how it feels to watch people who don’t know you make pronouncements about your life from a legislative floor. Like former opponents of same-sex marriage, they will be ashamed one day. Society will pass them by, and their bigoted short-sightedness will be ridiculed.

My husband and I are still together, more than 20 years after our first date. Our marriage didn’t ruin the country or set a bad example for children. We persisted and watched politicians from the mid-2000s make awkward changes or fade away.

That’s cold comfort for trans kids facing hatred and discrimination in the moment. But know that you will win and survive and thrive. Those who would deny an abundant life to you have only cynicism and fear and emptiness in their hearts.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting 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, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly 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.