Opinion

Grad student’s moral clarity exposed bigotry in the Kansas Statehouse. There is more to her story.

June 27, 2022 3:33 am
University of Kansas graduate student Brenan Riffel emailed state Rep. Cheryl Helmer about her sponsorship of anti-trans legislation. The fallout likely reshaped the session. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

University of Kansas graduate student Brenan Riffel emailed state Rep. Cheryl Helmer about her sponsorship of anti-trans legislation. The fallout likely reshaped the session. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Never underestimate the power of an individual setting out to change minds.

That’s proved by the story of Brenan Riffel, a University of Kansas graduate student who confronted state Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, over a bill targeting transgender people. Helmer’s bigoted response drew national attention at just the moment the Kansas Legislature was attempting to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of an anti-trans sports bill. That override attempt failed.

“As a society, we should have never reached the point where we attack each other for being ourselves,” Riffel told me. “Rather than being hateful, we should focus on how to support each other. No one is perfect, but having an open mind and open heart is essential for living and sharing community with each other.”

That composure in the face of hate — Helmer’s response insulted a colleague and accused trans folks of sexual assault — struck me when the story broke in April.

Who among us could meet bigotry with such respect, open-mindedness and caring? Who could resist the urge to rhetorically spar with such nonsensical folderol? Well, Riffel could. That’s why I sat down with the higher education administration student last month in a downtown Lawrence coffee shop to chat about the experience. I also asked her to write for the Kansas Reflector’s opinion section.

We followed that conversation up with an email exchange about her experiences and what Riffel hopes to contribute to the conversation.

 

Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, offered comments on biology, bathroom usage and transgender athletes in response to an inquiry from Brenan Riffel earlier this year. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Reaching out

Earlier this year, Riffel had noted the surge in anti-trans legislation in Kansas and the United States. She wanted to do something, and decided to reach out to state legislators who had sponsored House Bill 2210. That bill would have criminalized gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy for minors.

“I was expecting two different things to happen — to simply be ignored, or a hateful and transphobic response,” said Riffel, who comes from the Kansas City area. “I certainly wasn’t expecting a response but when it came through I had a sinking feeling about the type of response I was receiving. Unfortunately, that sinking feeling was not unfounded.”

What was that response? Here are a couple of choice quotes from Helmer.

“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. A doctor can inject meds and dilute but cannot destroy what God has done in the perfection of the HUMAN BEING.”

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

It’s worth pausing at this point to ask what you or I would do in a situation like this — on both sides of the equation. If you were a legislator, could you imagine emailing an engaged Kansan with a message like that? And if you received Helmer’s message, how likely would you be to simply utter an expletive and toss it in the virtual trash can?

Riffel took a different path. She shared the exchange with Kansas Reflector and spoke with editor Sherman Smith. But she didn’t expect the story to blow up the way it did.

“I received a lot of calls from different news outlets and was surprised when the Associated Press reached out to me,” she said. “It was certainly stressful, and even though I had the opportunity to turn down interviews I felt like I needed to take them.”

Riffel’s story was also picked up by other Kansas newspapers, TV stations and the Washington Post. She went from being a grad student and budding activist to a nationally known force for trans rights.

Just like that.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

 

On reflection

The Kansas Legislature wrapped up its 2022 session on May 23. The state was spared anti-trans legislation yet again, thanks to Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto pen and a handful of courageous legislators.

I asked Riffel about her impressions of the experience, looking back after a couple of months.

I truly believe that people, in their very nature, are good beings,” she said. “We have to take that passion and care to support others — and if we don’t understand someone, we seek that understanding in a respectful way without turning to hate or fear. Our representatives need to have that capability and demonstrate that capability as well. Hateful people should not have a place in public office.”

Riffel added that there is no shame in not understanding all our differences. Back in March, I wrote a column on this very subject. We don’t have to understand transgender people to treat them with respect.

Most importantly, we have the ability to learn from one another.

Please, seek understanding from the trans community,” Riffel said. “Seek understanding through self research and challenge yourself to listen to trans voices and use the technology at your fingertips to learn more.”

Read and think about those words. Then go back to the first part of this column and reread what Helmer wrote and sent to this young person. Then remember that our very own U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall has threatened food aid for schools over an LGBTQ nondiscrimination rule.

Who of these three is more mature? Who of these three actually deserves to be a leader in this state?

 

Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas presents a display of the yearly pay received by Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of the NIAID, at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in January. (Pool photo by Greg Nash/Getty Images)

What’s next

At the beginning of most submitted columns in Kansas Reflector, we note that the site “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.”

I think Riffel can widen the conversation we have in Kansas. We need to hear more from and about transgender folks and issues that affect them. Not less.

Much previous coverage has focused on dark or gloomy topics — suicide rates, gender dysphoria, outrageous discrimination — when in fact being transgender is another facet of identity. That kind of coverage serves an important purpose, but we are all individuals. We experience all the joys and sorrows that come with the human condition. That’s the same for LGBTQ folks, people of color and beyond.

“I don’t speak for the entire trans community,” Riffel notes. “We all have different experiences. We have different identities. I have identities that privilege me — and coming into this space recognizing that is important. I hope my columns can open hearts to compassion. This isn’t just a learning journey for my readers — it is a continual journey we all live day in day out.”

Both she and I believe that we’re better than our state’s hateful public debates on this issue. We can do more to share who we are and what we believe in a constructive way.

We can aspire to be more like Brenan Riffel, and less like Cheryl Helmer.

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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.

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