Exuberant protesters challenge malevolent Kansas legislators. Whose side are you on?

April 4, 2023 3:33 am

About 200 young people and adults turned out for the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse on Friday. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The children have spoken.

If Kansas legislators care about keeping their seats and consciences, they had better listen.

The stakes could not be simpler or more stark. Young transgender people, supported by their friends and families, have demanded the right to live as their authentic selves. You might not understand. You might not agree. But that is what they want. Kansas legislators, lead by hard-right culture war zealots, scheme to deny them that right.

Whose side are you on?

On Friday afternoon, 200 young people and adults supporting LGBTQ rights marched on the Kansas Statehouse. See editor Sherman Smith’s coverage and wonder at the bravery of these children, speaking their minds against politicians who want nothing more than to erase them from existence. Earlier in the week, hundreds of students from Lawrence High School, Free State High School and West Middle School walked out of school and protested in Lawrence, the very crucible of Kansas’ “free state” reputation.

Whom do you embrace? The children or the well-fed, well-coiffed empty suits? Those sharing optimism for the future or those bemoaning the decadence and depravity of American life?

Who best represents the principles that made Kansas and America great?

(Hint: It’s the kids.)

Students from Lawrence High School march last week to protest anti-trans bills in the Kansas Legislature.
Students from Lawrence High School march last week to protest anti-trans bills in the Kansas Legislature. (Molly Adams/Lawrence Times)


Journalistic purpose

I can’t tell you what it’s like to be transgender first-hand. I don’t have that experience. But I have worked as a professional journalist for 17 years.

I know why I do what I do.

Journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That hoary old quotation originated as a jest by humorist Finley Peter Dunne, but it captures such an essential truth that generations of ink-stained wretches have held it close to their bleeding hearts.

In any given situation, some people hold power and some lack it. Journalists and columnists raise the concerns of those who are given the short end of the stick by politicians or circumstance. We demand answers from those who would demean or exploit the less fortunate for political gain. The comfortable politician, you see, will always be able to share his or her message far and wide. The afflicted person has less reach and fewer options.

One of many reasons I’m proud to work as Kansas Reflector’s opinion editor is that we’ve made this purpose explicit.

At the end of every column, we add these words: “Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify voices of people whose lives are affected by public policies but who might typically be left out of public debate.”

I’m also gay, of course. While I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender, I do know what it’s like to see your worth as a human being debated by politicians and news pundits. I know what it’s like to be classified as mentally ill for no other reason than being yourself.

No one deserves that.



Reader response

Most readers online responded positively to Smith’s story and photos.

A handful did not.

They accused adults of manipulating the children and teenagers who marched. They claimed that transgender people were confused or threatened communities. In contrast to the images of joy and determination, these readers injected poison into the veins of public discourse.

To them, I direct the following:

If you seriously believe teens and preteens have been forced by their parents to demonstrate in public, you haven’t lived with a teen or preteen recently.

Of course teens search to find their true selves. So do adults. So do kindergartners. Expressing your innermost being, your essence as a human, requires work no matter your age.

Young, white, cisgender men post the greatest risk to our communities. You would be both safe and lucky to live in a neighborhood of transgender people.

You are not harmed by other people’s happiness.

You are not harmed by other people defending their right to exist.

Kansas legislators have tried to frame their response as commonsense and limited. They have debated who participates in school sports at all levels. They have talked about who can legally gain entrance to traditionally women’s-only spaces. In a different time and a different place, one in which people trust one another and believe the best of one another’s motives and goals, we might see good-faith discussions.

In this time and this place, however, conservative legislators have twisted these discussions to persecute a disfavored group.

Students from Lawrence High and other Lawrence schools walked out to protest on Tuesday, March 28. They held homemade signs and pride flags. (Molly Adams/Lawrence Times)


No going back

All sorts of people and groups have seen their rights extended and expanded over the decades. Kansans and Americans understand this, and they will not turn away from progress, regardless of how long it might take or how difficult the path ahead may appear.

Women will not give up the right to vote or make their own personal, private medical decisions.

Black people will not return to a separate-but-equal world where they endure a government focused on subjugating them.

Gay people will not go back in the closet or allow their relationships to be erased.

Transgender people will not disappear, or give up their right to be finally and totally themselves.

These things will not happen.

Society does not work that way. America does not work that way. Free people do not willingly give up their freedom to those who would take it from them, especially under the false guise of righteousness.

Are you on the side of freedom or repression?

Do you believe in tomorrow or cling to yesterday?

Are you motivated by compassion for your fellow humans or disgust at those who are different?

Those legislators who argue against the rights of transgender youths will find themselves on the wrong side of their friends, children, grandchildren and history itself. They suspect this truth even today, which is why they protest so heartily against the suggestion that they’re discriminating as they pass laws that do just that.

Anyone who cares to look can see.

These legislators will, in years and decades to come, have to explain why they chose to remain in their gilded chamber and spread hate while the youth paraded outside, spreading love.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Through its opinion section, Kansas 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.