Peeling back Kansas GOP leaders’ self-serving rhetoric on transgender sports bill

February 27, 2023 3:33 am
Rep. Barb Wasinger

Rep. Barb Wasinger, R-Hays, addresses a committee on Jan. 11, 2023. She sponsored the latest attempt to ban transgender girls from playing sports with cisgender girls. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

After the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill barring transgender girls from playing sports — an absurd legislative priority that would affect approximately two student athletes in the entire state — their leaders took a victory lap.

Their news release, headlined “House Republicans Issue Statement on Passing Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” plunked into my inbox at 9:04 p.m. on Thursday. I read it and raised an eyebrow. I read it again and raised two eyebrows. I don’t make a habit of dissecting propaganda, but this piece in particular deserves our attention. The words used, the phrases employed and the people speaking all have something important to tell us.

Read the whole screed here if you time the time and constitution.

“The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act passed with bi-partisan support today in the Kansas House of Representatives.”

The first sentence rings alarm bells. Yes, one Democrat voted with Republicans to support House Bill 2238, which applies to K-12 and college students. But two Republicans voted with the Democrats to oppose it. You could just as easily say the bill faced bipartisan opposition.

“On average, there are biological advantages that males have over females like more heart and lung capacity, larger body size with more skeletal muscle mass, and a lower percentage of body fat that make competing athletically against females not fair.”

As contributor C. Malcolm Ellsworth pointed out in a Nov. 3 column for Kansas Reflector, this kind of rhetoric overlooks biological reality.

“The inclusion of grade school children is particularly troubling,” she wrote. “To be clear, boys and girls are similar in weight, height, and testosterone levels until puberty.” The bill being touted applies to elementary school students, including kindergartners. Leaders don’t want to talk about those cases, though, because they undercut the fearmongering motivation behind the bill.

“Republican leaders in the House of Representatives offered the following statements in support of the bill:”

Quotes from five Kansas representatives follow. Four of those five are men. Funny, when the subject is supposed to be girls’ sports.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins: “The purpose of this bill is simple: to stand up for the rights of female athletes in our state. Any attempt to paint this bill as anything else is dishonest and politically motivated.”

Right. The sole motivating force for this bill, according to the speaker of the House, is protecting female athletes. It couldn’t possibly also be about discriminating against a tiny, powerless minority.

The simultaneous introduction of a dizzying array of bills attacking the LBGTQ community in the Statehouse? That must have been a coincidence. Wasn’t it weird, though, the way that the Senate passed an effective ban on gender-affirming care the same week? Wasn’t it also weird that a bill from Sen. Mike Thompson would bar drag performances for children? And that Rep. Patrick Penn sponsored a bill erasing local nondiscrimination ordinances across the state?

It’s just so darned peculiar that all of these bills came up during the same session.

Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins hailed the passage of a bill means to stop transgender girls from playing in girls sports at Kansas schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

House Majority Leader Chris Croft: “This is commonsense legislation that puts fairness and competition first, giving Kansas athletes a level playing field to demonstrate the skills they have developed over years of hard work and dedication to their sport.”

Again, I would note that this bill applies to kindergartners and other elementary school students. Making children political pawns may seem commonsense to this batch of leaders, but it looks downright sadistic to me.

Rep. Blake Carpenter, House speaker pro tem: “When biological men have the ability to compete against women in sports, it threatens all the progress women have achieved to be equal members of our society.”

Note the use of the words “men” and “women.” They do apply to college students, who will be affected by this law. But they don’t apply to the half-million students in elementary, middle and high schools across the state. These are children. Again, as pointed out by Ellsworth in her column, efforts in past years to exclude young children from the bill failed. Those supporting the bill have chosen to retain the broadest, and cruelest, application possible.

Rep. Les Mason, House assistant majority leader: “In Governor Laura Kelly’s re-election campaign ads, she said the following: ‘So let me just say it: Of course, men should not play girls’ sports. OK. We all agree on that.’ I take the Governor at her word. This simple statement of common sense is something I believe we can and should all agree on.”

The governor was right, and I agree with her. Men shouldn’t play in girl’s sports.

First of all, they would simply be too old. Secondly, transgender girls and women aren’t boys or men. They are girls and women, and they should be able to play with their peers. That’s the point.

The final statement in the news release comes from Rep. Barb Wasinger, who sponsored the bill. But rather than quote that, I would like to repeat something she said on the House floor when the bill was debated Wednesday.

Wasinger: “Today I was just called a bigot, misogynist, extremist, shameful and hateful, and I’m offended because I have not been hateful to anyone in this body.”

We should pay attention to this statement. It’s all too common among a certain class of Republicans, those pushing to limit others’ rights. Wasinger wants those listening to understand that she’s not “hateful” because she hasn’t personally treated anyone badly.

But that’s just the point. Legislators don’t have to discriminate against individuals to support policies that spread hate.

You can be a lovely and supportive friend to transgender people. You can laugh and cry and text with them. But if you endorse policies that harm trans student athletes, that supposed friendliness falls short. Here’s another way to think about it: You might attend a same-sex wedding. You might give the happy couple a gift and wish them well. If you then vote against same-sex marriage laws, however, you’re not actually supporting that couple.

This bill may become law. It may not. But Republican leaders shouldn’t deceive themselves with self-serving happy talk. They’re scoring political points on the backs of persecuted children. And they’re the ones doing the persecuting.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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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.