Church and state: Kansas Republicans target ’eminently exploitable’ LGBTQ community
Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen appears at the March 31, 2023, rally of 200 transgender children and their allies at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Shouting into a bullhorn from the south steps of the Capitol, Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen told a throng of transgender kids: “You belong here.”
The Topeka pastor assured them they have allies in the Statehouse who were working to change the minds of transphobic politicians.
“But you gotta help us out,” Schlingensiepen said. “Wherever you’re from, you need to get politically engaged. You have to find ways to vote people out who don’t care about you, and who keep bringing these hateful bills to the floor in the House, and who are using you to divide and conquer voters.”
It was a rare moment in Kansas politics: A lawmaker whose faith inspired him to speak passionately in support of the LGBTQ community. Two hundred kids and their allies had gathered to protest an assortment of legislation inspired by a different brand of Christianity — one that is more judgmental than compassionate.
Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.
The role of religion in attacks on the LGBTQ community is evident in the hate group that writes legislation, debate among lawmakers, and a secret audio recording from a March 2 meeting of Republicans in Hutchinson.
Adam Peters, Ellis County GOP chairman, told Republicans at the meeting that gender dysphoria is a psychological problem comparable to anorexia.
As Christians, he said, “we need to go very hard against the people that are preying on children.”
“I honestly believe that if many of these transgendered people had parents in their lives, had friends in their lives, good Christian people who could treat them the way that Christ calls us to treat one another, you know, to say to the girl who doesn’t fit in, ‘It’s OK that you don’t like Barbies,’ then we wouldn’t have as much of the problems that we do,” Peters said.
The GOP-dominated Legislature this year reversed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes to ban transgender athletes from school sports and establish a “women’s bill of rights” that blocks transgender women and girls from public restrooms and domestic violence shelters. Lawmakers also passed a ban on gender-affirming care but failed to override Kelly’s veto of that bill.
This was the third straight year in which GOP lawmakers tried to pass legislation banning transgender girls from playing with cisgender girls on public school sports teams, starting in kindergarten. Under a policy adopted by the Kansas State High School Activities Association, disputes will be settled by a birth certificate or, if one isn’t available, a licensed physician will verify a child’s sex by “using current standard assessment protocols.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which promotes “religious liberty” laws and is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, crafted the model legislation.
When Kansas lawmakers first debated the transgender athlete ban in 2021, Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, quoted from the Book of Genesis.
“ ‘Male and female He created them,’ ” she said. “May not agree with it — those are God’s words.”
This year, Rep. Barb Wasinger, a Hays Republican, joyfully told the House Republican caucus they would be voting on the bill on Ash Wednesday. She said the idea that legislation was unnecessary is a “fairytale.” Her colleagues laughed at the slur.
On the other side of the political aisle, Schlingensiepen thought about the transgender members of First Congregational Church, where he has served as senior minister since 2005.
“They’re people I went to school with,” he said in an interview for this series. “They’re people I know. They’re friends that I have. I don’t see really any difference in the way they live their lives compared to anybody else. And so I really don’t understand what the obsession is with them — on a rational level.”
Schlingensiepen’s views are shaped by faith and ancestry.
He grew up in Topeka but spent summers with his grandparents in Germany, where he heard stories about what happened during the years of Nazi rule. Both of his defiant grandfathers were persecuted by the Nazis, and one was sent to the front lines to face almost certain annihilation. Miraculously, both survived. But they felt guilty, Schlingensiepen said, about not speaking up sooner.
“There’s a certain kind of experience that comes from understanding what it means when you put a target on people’s backs that gets politically exploited and where that can lead under the right conditions,” Schlingensiepen said. “We don’t live in 1933 Germany here in the United States, but nonetheless, human behavior is what it is. And that means when people feel like they’re suffering, and savior types come along and suggest that they have the answers to all the questions, it’s not as difficult as people would think to get people to follow them, and to engage in devaluing others in the process.”
Schlingensiepen attended seminary in Germany, where he was admitted at the University of Bonn. He was a research and teaching assistant in systematic theology and ethics, and helped run an institute for social ethics, before returning in 1999 to the church he grew up in.
First Congregational Church was founded in 1855 as part of a movement to fight slavery in the Kansas territory. The congregation founded Washburn University, which was open to women and Black students from the beginning. The denomination, the United Church of Christ, was one of the first to fight for gender inclusivity, back in the 1970s.
Schlingensiepen said “you don’t have to go very far” to realize the ways religion has been used to create hate.
“We see it right now,” he said. “Let’s blame everything on LGBTQ folks. It’s eminently exploitable to do that. And there’s something in the way our brains are wired that is easily led to be suspicious of any group of people that somehow exonerates us from any kind of culpability. So I don’t have to change if I can point to so-and-so being evil.”
Peters, the Ellis County GOP chairman, emphasized what it means to be a Christian as he addressed a crowd of Republicans in March at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson. An unauthorized audio recording of the meeting was shared with Kansas Reflector.
Christians, according to Peters, understand that God created men and women for distinct and important roles.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is going to get to the heart of this thing,” Peters said. “And that’s actually why we need to guard our churches. There have been a growing number of churches that have been promoting drag shows. You just look at this and you think, ‘This is satanic.’ You know, we were seeing about a contract with the devil before, and I have to seriously question what documents some of these pastors are signing.”
An unidentified man in the crowd of 50-75 Republicans asked if Peters knew where to find the highest concentration of toxic masculinity in the world. The answer, according to the man: Arlington National Cemetery.
The conversation devolved into serious consideration of whether “furries” were demanding litter boxes in schools. The urban legend has gained traction with Republicans nationwide who equate transgender people with someone pretending to be a cat.
“At the high school, they’re allowing kids to identify as cats and provided them litter boxes,” said a woman who identified herself as a nurse at Wiley Elementary School.
Tess Anderson, state GOP secretary, asked if she had seen the litter boxes. The nurse had not.
“The reason why I asked is because there are people who say it’s not happening, and there are people who are needing actual proof of that,” Anderson said.
Cheryl Thompson, a member of the Hutchinson Public Schools board, said she went to every bathroom in the seventh and eighth grade and couldn’t find evidence of litter boxes.
Back in Topeka, at the March 31 rally where Schlingensiepen spoke, a 13-year-old transgender boy from Lawrence grabbed the bullhorn.
Ian Benalcázar, dressed in a Pinkie Pie cardigan, told the crowd: “I am what they are scared of.”
“I can’t believe that I, a child, has to explain why I deserve to live, to breathe and to be happy,” Benalcázar said. “I should be worrying about my grades, not whether or not I’ll be a victim of a hate crime on my way to the bus stop.”
Correction: This story has been updated with more details of Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen’s family and work history.
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