With Kansas Legislature’s override vote, anti-trans bill becomes law. Here are five takeaways.

April 6, 2023 3:33 am

LGBTQ children and their allies participate in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy on March 31, 2023, at the Kansas Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

As alternately feared, expected or ardently desired, a bill banning transgender girls and women from Kansas school sports became law Wednesday.

You can write about this topic from a huge number of directions, and I’ve tried several in recent columns. Kansas Reflector readers know where I stand. America extends freedom, justice and equality to everybody, and that should include trans folks. My heart aches for those affected, and for those who have worked for months to protect schoolchildren from outrageous discrimination.

But each defeat plants seeds of victory, if one digs deep enough.

The experience of legislators, advocates and everyday Kansans this year carries hard-won lessons for all of us. Here are five that came to mind.


It came down to one vote

The bill passed because of one Democrat: That would be Kansas City Rep. Marvin Robinson. If he had made a different choice Wednesday, Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto would have been sustained. The caucus didn’t unite to support its governor, who has been consistent and on-message in opposing such bills.

Democratic Rep. Ford Carr, who had previously voted for the bill, ended up opposing the override. I had singled out Carr in past columns because he appeared to be the swing vote. I should credit him here for being there when it counted.

Two House Republicans — Rep. Mark Schreiber of Emporia and David Younger of Ulysses — voted against the bill originally and opposed it on the override attempt as well. One Senate Republican — Sen. Brenda Dietrich  of Topeka — did so as well.

These three Republicans ended up being more dependable allies for the trans community than Robinson.


Passions ran high

No one could ignore the bill or the feelings it evoked.

Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat, said bill supporters were “full of s***” after the House override vote. Rep. Heather Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat, showed off a T-shirt reading “protect trans youth.”

That came five days after hundreds of trans kids and supporters marched on the Statehouse to demand their rights. That came three days after massive school walkouts in Lawrence supporting transgender students.

I imagine that some senators and representatives want to get these debates finished and bills out of the way. Then everything can return to normal, they think. I’m here to tell them: As long as you legislate against a group, pushback will follow. And when you pass a bill that clears the way for genital inspection of children — in other words, state-sanctioned sexual assault — those affected won’t be silenced.

Rep. Heather Meyer wears a "protect trans youth" T-shirt Wednesday on the floor of the Kansas House
Rep. Heather Meyer wears a “protect trans youth” T-shirt Wednesday on the floor of the Kansas House as lawmakers vote to ban transgender athletes from school sports. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Math matters most

Republican supermajorities cleared the way for this outcome. They had the numbers, and they could afford to lose a couple of caucus members in pursuing their outcome.

If Democrats had done even slightly better in November elections, the entire story would be different. A few hundred votes here and there in a handful of districts might have produced a handful of extra Democratic representatives. Robinson’s single vote would no longer matter as much.

Half of all House races went uncontested last year. As editor Sherman Smith wrote in June: “55 of the state’s 125 House seats are already decided because only one candidate filed for the seat before last week’s deadline. Another 10 races only have a primary contest.” Thirty-six of those seats were held by Republicans, and 19 were held by Democrats.

I don’t want to simply beat up on Democrats here. Almost all of their members held the line. But you can’t win votes like Wednesday’s without winning seats first.


Kelly remains the most skilled politician in Kansas

I’ve praised the governor’s raw political savvy before, and she took it out for a spin Wednesday.

“It sort of breaks my heart,” Kelly said when asked about the vote. “It certainly is disappointing. I know that there’s some legislators for whom this was a very, very hard vote, and one that I think they will regret as they look back on their time in the Legislature.”

Noticed how well that statement works. She doesn’t speak in anger or outrage, instead voicing a gentle disappointment. She then both empathizes with and scolds legislators for voting to override her veto. She also drops a truth bomb: This vote will haunt those who put political expediency ahead of Kansas children’s lives.


We’re all still here

Allow me an old man moment.

Back in 2004, states across the country passed constitutional amendments forbidding same-sex marriage. At the time, I was a new hire at the Tampa Tribune in Florida. My husband and I had been together for three years.

I attended a diversity training session where, for reasons that remain unclear, I became the voice for the LGBTQ community. Other employees at the session found the notion of gay people existing hilarious, much less marrying one another. Even as a twentysomething, I didn’t have much patience for that.

We’re still going to be here, I told them. Even if same-sex marriage bans pass from coast to coast, gay people will still be here. We will still have relationships, we will still love one another, and we will still be your friends and neighbors. Deal with it.

Some two decades later, I’m grouchier, greyer and heavier. My husband and I will celebrate 22 years together this November, and same-sex marriage has been the law of the land for nearly eight years. This law’s supporters need to hear the same thing now that I told the ignoramuses then.

Transgender people are still here. Even if you bar them from playing sports in every city and state, transgender people will still be here. They will still demand their right to exist and participate in sports and society.

We are all still here. And we are watching.

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. 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.