Bill restricting transgender youths in sports faces uncertain future as activists clash in hearing

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
LGBT activists and conservatives clashed Tuesday in the Statehouse over legislation restricting how transgender individuals participate in sports.

LGBTQ activists and conservatives faced off Tuesday over legislation that would restrict how transgender individuals can participate in sports, although the fate of the bill remains unclear.

The legislation, introduced earlier this month, would require athletes to compete in sporting events based on a person’s gender assignment at birth. That means someone deemed to be male at birth but who later transitions to female couldn't compete in women's sports.

Advocates for transgender Kansans have framed this push as an attack on trans youths, while proponents have argued it preserves fairness for girls in sports. 

In an unusual twist, members of the Senate Education Committee were unable to question those testifying on the legislation, something Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, the committee's chair, said was due to the sheer number of those presenting on the topic.

The full Senate was slated to be in session for floor votes, she noted, limiting time for the hearing. 

“I did feel it was very important to hear those that wanted to share their side — neutral, proponent, opponent — that we heard those voices,” Baumgardner told reporters after the hearing. "That was more important than a question of whatever those questions might be."

Members will be able to submit written queries and get responses, which will be posted online, but that did not satisfy everyone.

“I am concerned that some of the dialogue, as we are asking questions and then responses, that we are not allowing that to happen in the committee process,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa.

National debate comes to Kansas

The legislation comes as lawmakers in over a dozen other states are pushing similar bills in response to an executive order from President Joe Biden prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, including in interscholastic sports.

Proponents of the legislation came from across the country, underscoring the national nature of the debate. That included several former college athletes, who testified in support of the bill as a way to preserve opportunities for women to compete in college. 

Jessica Steffen, a Buhler native and former Yale basketball player, said the bill was an important buffer against the “coastal mentality” that she said was pervasive at her alma mater.

“If we don’t make a conscious decision here in Kansas to preserve those opportunities for young women, they will be taken away,” Steffen said. "I'm here out of respect for the women who came before me and gave me the opportunity to pursue an Ivy League education through sports."

But not all athletes shared this view. Allie Fennell, a 15-year-old who plays field hockey and golf in Kansas City, Kan., said that, as a cisgender woman, “I am the athlete you claim to be protecting.”

Fennell said she wasn't bothered by the idea of competing against transgender athletes, saying she does "not need your protection.”

“Transgender women are not threats,” she said. "They are our friends, they are our sisters and they are our teammates."

Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, who introduced legislation restricting how transgender individuals participate in sports, listens to testimony on the matter Tuesday.

Opponents label bill a ‘bounty’ on trans youths

But Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, who introduced the legislation, pointed to the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which sets different qualifying standards for boys and girls for the state swim meet.

She added that boys routinely beat state records set by girls in track and swimming events.

“There are indisputable, scientifically proven hormonal, chromosomal and physiological advantages that males have over females, which create an unequal playing field," Erickson said.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, the first openly transgender legislator in the state’s history, said the legislation was tantamount to taking out a “bounty” on the heads of trans youths.

The school climate for trans youths would worsen simply because the legislation is being debated, she argued.

"It is a tremendous feeling to not be invisible, but rather to be seen for who you truly are," Byers said. "Preventing students from playing sports as their authentic self gives one more proof that, in spite of who you know yourself to be, you are unwanted."

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, testifies against legislation restricting how transgender individuals participate in sports. Byers is the first openly trans legislator in the state's history.

Ryann Brooks, whose daughter came out as transgender last year, agreed, saying the bill would merely succeed in ostracizing students like her child.

She tearfully recounted how she held her daughter as she talked about committing suicide, "because maybe I will wake up and be a girl."

"You're telling children like my daughter that she doesn't belong in activities," Brooks, an Emporia native, told legislators. "You are telling children like my daughter that it is OK for them not to be with other children."

Legal questions arise, with fate of bill unclear

There are also myriad legal issues for legislators to consider. Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt shepherded a similar bill into law in her state, the first of its kind in the nation. 

"In athletics, it is first about winning and it is first about competition," Ehardt said. "All the other benefits come second. I would hope the committee ... would do every they can to continue to protect those opportunities."

But the Idaho law is currently under legal challenge, with a federal judge ruling in September that it was unconstitutional. The matter is currently pending appeal but Kendall Seal, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Kansas, said that group will quickly file a similar lawsuit if the legislation were to become law.

"It is a concerted effort by the far right to target kids in this country," Seal said at a news conference following the hearing. "It is discriminatory, it is wrong and that is why we will see them in court."

Whether the bill gets that far remains unclear.

Baumgardner told reporters after the hearing that the issue wasn't one of her top priorities and she wished that KSHSAA, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, would address the matter on their own.

She didn't rule out any potential action, however, but said any work would need to happen quickly — the deadline for the legislation to move out of committee is Friday.

"I really can't tell you where in the legislative process this is going to end but I think it is important that we heard both sides of the issue," Baumgardner said.