No matter election results, threats to LGBTQ students in Kansas will continue in new session

November 1, 2022 3:33 am

While the upcoming election dominates attention, bills targeting transgender students will likely be introduced next session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector 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. Brenan Riffel is a graduate student studying higher education administration at the University of Kansas, where she serves as both an academic adviser and assistant complex director.

Think about what values we teach our kids to hold. What do we as adults, as parents, as teachers, and as role models tell our kids about bullying? Do we tell them it’s okay to hit other kids, or that it’s totally cool to leave someone out?

Of course not!

This campaign season, we’ve seen LGBTQ kids targeted by politicians. And if history is any guide, we’ll see more of the same when the Kansas Legislature returns in January.

The Gardner-Edgerton school board teeters on the edge of targeting trans kids and invalidating their identity. Other school districts, such as USD 232, appear likely to follow. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, showed up in Kansas last month to spread his values.

Recently, I attended a Shawnee City Council meeting where the city decided in a 7-1 decision to release an official statement that the city believes “all should have equal opportunities in sports but allowing biological males to compete in women’s only divisions is robbing girls of their opportunities at all levels.”

Fifteen of the 18 people who spoke that night opposed the dangers of this rhetoric. Despite Mayor Michelle Distler’s opposition to the statement before the meeting, it remained on the agenda. Councilman Eric Jenkins falsely stated that trans girls are transitioning just for the sake of doing better in sports.

I’ve said this before, but every time trans kids’ identities are up for “debate,” it harms their mental health. Stop debating our existence and the validity of our identity. Stop turning hate into philosophical “debates” that deprive us of our humanity and our voice.

Put this past whatever political feelings you may have. Kansans face profound moral questions in the months and years to come. The future of the education system hangs in the balance. This is a question of whether or not you support the future of our kids and create an inclusive and safe place for them to thrive in.

The hatred doesn’t start at the Kansas Legislature level: It originates in our towns and in schools. This column focuses on statewide threats to trans students, but members of our school boards and city councils cannot be ignored either.


Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, appears during a hearing in February at the Statehouse in Topeka
Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, appears during a committee hearing in February at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Supporting schools and students

We have to ensure that our schools are fully funded. We have to ensure that our schools do not become political tools where kids become targets. We have to ensure that our schools are not threatened with budget cuts for supporting all students, regardless of their identities.

State Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, is running unopposed for reelection into the Kansas House. As chairwoman for the K-12 Education Budget Committee, she has a direct say on who receives funding and where that funding can be cut. Talks among Kansas legislators about the future of our K-12 system are filled with tension.

Williams has said she believes that special education programs are fully funded in the state, when special education teachers across the state struggle to support their students.

During a committee hearing about a “parents’ bill of rights,” Williams allowed supporters 10 minutes to speak while opponents were given two minutes. Three of the supporters of the bill were lobbyists from organizations outside the state. There were 72 opponents of the bill, but the six supporters of the bill were given more time than those who spoke against it.

Earlier this year, Williams held a round table meeting to discuss what she called “critical pedagogy.” Williams brought in people to hold a conversation. Those invited believed the discussion would be about critical race theory and went on and on about how teachers are supposedly indoctrinating kids.

You might think that as a former teacher, Williams would care about the safety of students, and how important funding is for school districts. Teachers across the state are expected to give their own money to create an environment conducive to learning. Teachers shouldn’t be spending their own money to support students. Teachers shouldn’t have to worry about a politician cutting funding or removing them from their position without explanation.

I’ve studied to be a teacher.

I have a degree in secondary education, and while I’m invested in supporting college students currently, protecting our K-12 students is still important to me. I learned that the point of critical pedagogy is to teach students to discern bias in the information presented to them. Closing the ability to hold dialogue outside a narrow purview is dangerous, intentional and designed to erase students with marginalized identities — including LGBTQ students.

State Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican and vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, has been covered by Kansas Reflector for sponsoring a transphobic bill. As a senator, she’s not on the ballot this year.

Let’s take a look at Erickson and Williams’ voting records.

SB 160: Fairness in Women’s Sports. Veto Sustained. Erickson voted to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto in the Senate. Williams voted to override the veto in the House. 

SB 208: Fairness in Women’s Sports. The bill died in the House committee; however, Erickson voted in support of the bill.

SB 484: Fairness in Women’s Sports. The bill died in the House committee; however, Erickson voted in support of the bill.


Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, offered her comments on biology, bathroom usage and transgender athletes in response to an inquiry from a college student concerned about anti-transgender legislation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Demonizing and attacking

Supporters continue to say that these bills are not about targeting trans kids, that they’re not attacks on the trans community. These bills are supposedly just about sports.

If that was truly the case, then what about the following measure?

HB 2210, which I contacted the sponsors of back in April, aimed to take away trans kids’ ability to transition by making it illegal for doctors to perform gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement therapy. The idea that doctors are frequently performing these surgeries on kids is a lie weaponized to erase us. SB 214 had the same goal and died in committee.

These bills aren’t about sports. They are about demonizing and attacking the trans community and sending a message to our trans kids.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt is no stranger to sending hateful messages to trans kids either. On Sept. 23 on Twitter, he said Kelly was wrong to oppose the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. He frames accepting children of all identities as “exposing kindergarteners” to “gender identity politics.” Does this sound eerily familiar to DeSantis and his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill?

My identity is not political. The identities of our trans children are not political. We are asking state legislators and public officials to stop targeting us. To stop spreading misinformation. Quit using trans kids as political fodder.

If we care about our schools and the future of our children, this must stop. Florida is hemorrhaging teachers, and kids are being hurt and targeted because of their LGBTQ identities.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, K-12 schools opened up this fall with 1,628 vacancies. Teachers are spread thin enough already. What do you think is going to happen when you tell teachers to invalidate their student’s identities? What will happen to our teachers with LGBTQ identities?

These challenges await regardless of the election outcomes next month. Kansans who care about the well-being of LGBTQ youth need to understand that protecting their rights will require a long view and persistent advocacy.

Our teachers and students deserve no less.

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Brenan Riffel
Brenan Riffel

Brenan Riffel is a graduate student studying higher education administration at the University of Kansas, where she serves as both an academic advisor and assistant complex director. She holds a Bachelor's degree in secondary education from Kansas State University and is passionate about supporting kids and their dreams. She lives in Lawrence and upon graduating plans to remain in the Kansas City area.