Without asking for it, transgender kids have been swept up into Kansas political imbroglio

September 26, 2022 3:33 am
Transgender kids with flag

Politicians and school boards have made hay over the rights of transgender kids. Left out of this? The students themselves. (Getty Images)

Kansas politicians and school districts have contorted themselves in fury recently over simple requests of transgender students.

Treat us fairly and inclusively. Call us by our names and treat us with respect. Value our lives.

We saw it recently in Gardner Edgerton School District, as a proposed policy covering trans students would have forbidden teachers from using the students’ preferred pronouns or names. We’re seeing it in the governor’s race, not just with Attorney General Derek Schmidt making a gimmicky appearance with a University of Kentucky swimmer, but also in a new Laura Kelly ad. There, the incumbent governor addresses Schmidt’s distortions and focuses on his broader education record.

D.C. Hiegert, an American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas legal fellow focusing on LGBTQ issues, tracked the Gardner Edgerton proposal and spoke about it during this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast. They pointed out that simply defeating such measures doesn’t go far enough.

“There (are) harms that are happening right now, even though Gardner Edgerton hasn’t officially adopted a discriminatory policy,” Hiegert said. “The research bears out that even when communities discuss anti-trans policies, when they’re introduced, when they’re debated and talked about on the community, whether that’s at a school board, whether that’s at the Legislature level, these policies already are impacting the mental health of trans and queer kids in the community.”

Unfortunately, trans folks don’t just have to worry about a rogue school board.

In response to Kelly’s ad, Schmidt’s campaign blasted out a news release claiming the governor is lying when she says that she doesn’t believe men should play in girls’ sports. Yet his campaign has encouraged the distortion and strayed into outright hate speech.

Biological men are not competing in girls’ sports. Transgender girls and women are girls and women. To intentionally misgender them in this way does real and continuing damage. I don’t even have the time to get into how using the “men” and “girls” framing encourages old pedophilic libel against LGBTQ people. Schmidt’s campaign has pushed back against claims that it encourages discrimination, but what else do you call this?

Kansas Reflector columnist Brenan Riffel also stopped by for this week’s podcast. She pointed out that the harmful hysteria from Gardner Edgerton and the gubernatorial campaign has spread to other districts.

“A friend who works for a school district, family works for the school district, and they’re also getting messaging like this,” Riffel said. “And this is in a different district. … They’re being asked to take down Safe Space stickers or ally stickers. And the school districts reasoning is that it’s too political. However, we all know that’s not the case. And so I know that it’s starting to ramp up. Not even just on this side of the state, but also further west you go.”

During the podcast discussion — and now — that phrase “too political” exasperates me.

Straight people have the luxury of breezily dismissing such public debates as “political” disagreements. But a transgender person’s existence has nothing to do with politics. Their body and soul exist separately from Schmidt or Kelly or a random school board. How difficult can it be for these officials to allow children and young adults the space to be themselves, free of bullying and expectations?

Straight people have the luxury of breezily dismissing such public debates as 'political' disagreements. But a transgender person's existence has nothing to do with politics. Their body and soul exist separately from Schmidt or Kelly or a random school board.

– Clay Wirestone

I empathize because something similar happened to me. Back in 2004, same-sex marriage was used as a crude wedge issue in the U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. My husband and I had been together for three years at that point. While we enjoyed support from family and friends, I felt singled out and nervous.

With the benefit of hindsight and favorable U.S. Supreme Court decisions, we can look back and laugh. But I remember what it felt like.

For transgender children, teenagers and adults, the crisis now goes deeper. Politicians don’t debate trans’ folks right to marry: They debate their right to exist and be recognized as fellow humans. Just this week, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia introduced a bill that would make providing gender-affirming care a felony. It has 37 Republican co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. You ready that correctly: 37.

The worst part of all this? Most people sincerely don’t care. They might not understand transgender folks or the issues surrounding them, but they would never stand to see their own children or friends hurt. As Riffel wrote for the Reflector, the loudest and angriest among us have exploited ignorance and fear.

Hiegert noted during the podcast that you could watch the difference between rhetoric and the real world at the Gardner Edgerton School Board meeting.

“It seemed like maybe there was some fearmongering going on around, a couple loud voices, or a couple parents in the community,” they said. “But it didn’t seem like the students and the teachers and the staff and the district were trying to be discriminatory. It seemed like they wanted to adopt an inclusive policy and get on with the school year.”

Ending the political extremism surrounding trans kids will take time. As long as politicians see votes to be won, they will try. But we can listen and care for those near and dear to us. And we can call out those who would hurt them.

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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.