TOPEKA — An effort to ban transgender athletes from school sports failed Thursday after the House fell short on an attempt to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of the bill.
The bill, a subject of significant debate the past two sessions, garnered 81 votes in favor, falling short of the 84 required a two-thirds majority vote to overturn the veto. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 28-10 to override Kelly’s veto of Senate Bill 160.
Republicans argue the bill is the best way to ensure fairness. They said transgender athletes in women’s sports have an unfair advantage compared with those assigned the female gender at birth. Opponents of the measure, predominantly Democrats, say the bill is hateful and political.
But as legislators returned for veto session, the debate about transgender identities shifted to new extremes. Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat and the first transgender Kansas legislator, said the override vote was a decision between accepting and rejecting transgender Kansans’ identities.
“Wrestle with your consciences, decide how you want to vote with this. Decide how you want to commit to the fact that trans women are not really women, trans girls are not really girls, or you’re going to say that trans girls are girls, trans women are women,” Byers said. “This is not a lifestyle. This is my existence.”
Rep. Barbara Wasinger, a Hays Republican, said identifying as transgender is a mental health issue.
“I feel greatly and deeply for these young people and all people that are confused,” Wasinger said during Republican caucus before the debate.
Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and one of four LGBTQ legislators, countered transgender children just want to be seen as human.
“If you disapprove of who I am or who a young trans person is, take that up with our creator,” he said.
At the high school level, there is just one transgender girl participating in any school activity in Kansas, according to LGBTQ advocates.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman said earlier this week he did not have the votes to overturn the measure this week, but he reversed course Thursday, attempting to override the veto. Eighty-five Republican House members were present, and 84 votes were needed for an override.
During the first debate on the bill earlier this month, several legislators were absent or chose not to vote. The measure originally passed 74 to 39.
Earlier this week, an email sent by Rep Chery Helmer, a Mulvane Republican, to a transgender college graduate student sparked controversy over comments that she did not feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with Byers, who she described as a “huge transgender female.” Helmer also spread false claims that many school-age girls have been sexually assaulted in bathrooms by transgender people.
Opponents of the bill have pointed to this email as an example of the underlying fear and hatred of LGBTQ Kansans driving this bill. Legislation in Kansas matches bills pushed by conservative lobbying groups across the country.
Rep. Owen Donohoe, a Shawnee Republican, said it was the duty of government to uphold the “rules of nature,” which he said led him to consider things like same-sex marriage and transgender athletes to be inherently wrong.
Rep. Chuck Schmidt, a Wichita Democrat, said he did not understand what it was like to be transgender, and after listening to the debate, it was clear most legislators do not either. He said high rates of suicide and suicide ideation among transgender people and how this bill could exacerbate those were of greater concern to him than anything else.
“I speak as a coach for many years, and I know the value of activities, and I know how important it is to allow kids to be counted as a part of something bigger than themselves,” Schmidt said.
“This is not just some boy deciding I can do better in girls’ sports. This is someone who decides this is who I am, and this decision doesn’t come easy.”
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: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.