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Inclusion, fairness central to Kansas Senate debate over ban on transgender athletes in sports

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Bill advances for final vote Tuesday

TOPEKA — Kansas senators renewed a debate Monday over legislation to ban transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports, advancing the bill to a final vote despite pushback over what some considered discriminatory policy.

Senate Bill 484 would apply to any Kansas children in sports, theoretically applying to elementary or middle school students in addition to high school. It would also open the door for student-athletes who feel wronged due to a violation of the act to file a lawsuit to recoup damages and attorney fees.

The measure has been dubbed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act by proponents who say it is a necessary protection for girls against unfair advantages for transgender athletes who they argue have clear biological advantages.

But opponents and even some who said they would support the underlying bill said it looked more like an attempt to push a group of people out than to safeguard the rights of women. 

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, noted a study often cited by proponents to show biological advantages says it’s findings should not be used to set guidelines. Instead, study authors suggested any determinations should be left up to each sports federation or association.

“The assumption that a transgender woman and girl will have certain physical attributes or inherent advantage over other athletes is incorrect and dangerous,” Sykes said. “What’s more dangerous is we know the mental and the likelihood for suicidal ideation. Sports give a sense of belonging; they teach you how to work with people different from you.”

However, Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the counterpoints to the bill were all a big distraction.

“The advantage person is the transgendered woman. The disadvantaged is the actual natural woman who’s displaced,” Masterson. “The fact that you don’t allow unfair competition says nothing about the intrinsic value of that person.”

An identical bill cleared the Legislature last year before Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill. Lawmakers attempted to override the veto but fell short. It is expected that Kelly would also veto this legislation should it pass, and it is unclear if legislators have the two-thirds majority needed to override.

The Kansas Senate will vote on this year’s iteration of the bill Tuesday. Last year, Republican senators came one vote shy of overturning the veto.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, told senators this time around he would reluctantly support the bill. While he felt the need to act because the Kansas State High School Activities Association had not weighed in, the measure did not sit right with him.

Doll offered several amendments to make the bill more palatable during the debate — including to remove the ban on elementary sports — but none succeeded. He read aloud a text message sent to him while he expressed his concerns that said he was a disgrace to Republicans.

“If fighting for all kids is disgraceful, then I’m disgraceful,” Doll said. “I can’t help but see this as a way to throw shade at a group of people.”

Other amendments to the bill, including one proposed by Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, to require KSHSAA to adjudicate claims under the policy and one by Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, to allow home school students to participate in public school sports, also failed.

Since Kansas senators last considered the legislation, more state capitals across the country have considered and passed similar laws. Earlier this month, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a transgender athlete ban. In 2021, despite initially vetoing the bill, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem approved a similar measure.

Some state legislation, like Florida’s “Don’t say Gay” bill, has taken a more extreme approach to policy surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.

Last year, KSHSAA only reported a handful of transgender athletes competing in the state.

Sen. Renee Erickson, who reintroduced the bill this year, said this may not be a major issue yet, but it could be down the line. She said it was important to protect her granddaughter, who is just now picking up sports.

“Who knows where her interests and athletic ability will take her,” Erickson said, arguing that it could be anyone’s daughter or relative displaced by a transgender athlete. “All Kansas girls deserve fair and equal opportunities.”

At the time of a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, 109 people had provided written testimony in opposition to the bill, compared with 11 supporters. The supporters include representatives of national groups, such as the Women’s Liberation Front and Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, the first sponsor of the model legislation. 

A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement of the Idaho law, and those who testified against the bill raised questions about the bill’s legality. A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision found Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 protects transgender individuals against discrimination. 

Other opponents of the bill argued that for every girl displaced by a transgender athlete, there would be many more ostracized and left with mental scars because of this exclusionary policy. Sen. Oletha-Faust Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat and the only Black woman in the state Senate, spoke against any legislation that would single out individuals just for being who they are.

“I didn’t have a choice of how short or tall I was going to be, or the color of my skin,” Faust Goudeau said. “I feel a disadvantage most of the time, but what hurts the most is in my heart of not being able to just be me, and I’m sure that those students who would be affected by this Senate Bill 484 feel the same way.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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