Kansas representative’s hateful email unmasks the anti-trans bias poisoning legislation

April 28, 2022 3:33 am

Rep. Cheryl Helmer, right, and Rep. Michael Houser respond to having their picture taken during House action April 27, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Cheryl Helmer gave the game away Monday.

As the Kansas Legislature wrangled over Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of an anti-trans sports bill, the Reflector revealed Helmer’s hateful email to a University of Kansas graduate student. All at once, any pretensions that supporters had about the legislation “protecting girls” were thrown out the window. The letter oozed with odious animus toward transgender people.

“No surgeon can cut, remove, wop, add to change the biology that is chemically occuring [sic] in each and every fiber, bone and molecule of every human being,” Helmer, a Republican from Mulvane, wrote in the message to Brenan Riffel.

Later, she appeared to target Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Democrat from Wichita, the only transgender member of the Legislature and a House colleague.

“Now, personally I do not appreciate the huge transgender female who is now in our restrooms in the Capitol. It is quite uncomforting,” Helmer wrote.

We should acknowledge here that Riffel was contacting Helmer about a different piece of legislation. House Bill 2210, which hasn’t received a hearing, criminalizes transgender-affirming treatment for minors. But it didn’t take much to set Helmer off, and she soon went to an even worse place.

Sen. Cindy Holscher reads from her notes as she denounces legislation that would ban transgender athletes from school sports during debate on April 26, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“We as women have humans that are much larger, stronger, more adrenaline and testosterone and therefore possibly more dangerous and we have to share our restrooms,” she wrote. “Not only that but our wee little girls in elementary and middle and high school are having to be exposed and many have been raped, sodomized and beaten in the restrooms by these supposedly transgenders who may or may not be for real.”

None of that is true. None of it is remotely appropriate for a sitting legislator to say or believe. It repeats a rancid libel against all LGBTQ people that has been heard since time immemorial: They’re threats to your children. That same fear and loathing bubbles behind the anti-trans sports bill.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, did the Lord’s work in asking House leaders to censure Helmer.

As much as some senators and representatives may want to believe they can be on friendly terms with LGBTQ legislators and constituents while simultaneously voting to harm them, they really can't.

– Clay Wirestone

“Helmer’s comments are outrageous, offensive and slanderous,” Witt wrote. “She is going out of her way to perpetuate dangerous, hateful stereotypes of the LGBTQ community — stereotypes that have led to hate crimes against members of the community, and to self-harm by vulnerable LGBTQ Kansans.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, take note. You can hold the members of your chamber to a higher standard.

Helmer’s rant didn’t dissuade a supermajority of senators from voting to override Kelly’s veto the next day. We’ll see what effect it, if any, has on the House override vote.

But it should put to bed once and for all that you can’t be on both sides of equality. As much as some senators and representatives may want to believe they can be on friendly terms with LGBTQ legislators and constituents while simultaneously voting to harm them, they really can’t. If your vote enables Cheryl Helmers of the world, you’re not supporting the equality and dignity of people who are different than you.

A story from Wednesday offers an even clearer glimpse.

Tom Witt confirmed with troopers at the Statehouse that Helmer wanted to file a complaint against him. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Witt recounts in a Twitter thread that on Monday he told Helmer, “What you said about Rep Byers was vile and disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He then says Helmer “claimed to be proud of her comments”

On Wednesday, Helmer tried to file a complaint against Witt with state troopers who provide security at the Statehouse. As bizarre as that might sound, they later confirmed the story to Witt and Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith. According to the troopers, Helmer said Witt was rude and spoke loudly to her. The troopers noted that wasn’t a crime.

Think, for a moment, about the chutzpah needed to accuse an entire group of people of being sexual predators, of feeling free to email and post on Facebook about those beliefs, and then feeling wronged. Think, for a moment, about the self importance required to believe that the way to deal with a lobbyist’s criticism is to involve state law enforcement officers. Think, for a moment, about the mindset required to also attend a church event last month claiming massive election fraud in 2020.

Listen, I get it. Not everyone understands or accepts transgender folks. That doesn’t mean they stop existing. That doesn’t mean they don’t require respect and equal protection under the law.

Bigoted bills like this anti-trans sports measure spread discord and division. They trade the sacred essence of people’s lives for political point-scoring.

They are not harmless. They are not about protecting girls. They are hate, wrapped in a gossamer veil of lies.

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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.