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Kelly, Kobach split over what a new law means for transgender Kansans’ IDs

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said she disagrees with Attorney General Kris Kobach's interpretation of SB 180.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said she disagrees with Attorney General Kris Kobach's interpretation of SB 180.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Kansas agencies will continue allowing gender marker changes. 'We will see her in court,' Kobach responded.

Kansas officials will continue to let transgender residents update their IDs and birth certificates to reflect the gender they identify with, Gov. Laura Kelly’s office said Thursday — setting up a likely legal fight with Attorney General Kris Kobach over a law set to take effect Saturday.

The announcement puts Kelly, a Democrat, at odds with the Republican attorney general, who said earlier this week said he thinks the law requires the state to maintain records in line with a person’s sex assigned at birth.

Kelly said she has directed agencies to follow the law, but that her legal counsel does not think it requires any changes to procedure.

“While my administration and the Attorney General’s Office have had many conversations about the law, KDHE and KDOR disagree about its impacts on their operations and will instead keep in place their policies regarding gender markers on birth certificates and driver’s licenses,” Kelly said in a statement.

Kobach — who has argued that agencies must not only stop issuing gender marker changes, but also reverse changes that have already been processed — swiftly dismissed Kelly’s interpretation of the law as “nonsense.”

“The Legislature passed SB 180 and overrode Governor Kelly's veto specifically to ensure that those documents reflect biological sex at birth,” Kobach said in a statement. “She is violating her oath of office to uphold Kansas law. We will see her in court.”

It’s the latest in a series of developments regarding the implementation of the controversial law, which legally defines terms like man and woman according to a person’s reproductive anatomy. Kelly vetoed the law, but conservative lawmakers were narrowly able to override her.

For months, transgender Kansans anxiously awaited news about how the law would impact various facets of their lives, including their use of sex-segregated facilities and their ability to seek legal redress when they experience discrimination.

Initially, the law was expected to ban them from bathrooms, locker rooms, domestic violence shelters and detention facilities that aligned with their gender identity — something its Republican sponsors touted in legislative hearings.

“Boys and men do not belong in women's bathrooms,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said on the House floor in April. “Boys and men do not belong in the juvenile or the prison system with women.”

But Kelly and Kobach both now say that the law will have little practical impact on Kansans’ use of those spaces. In part, both indicated, that’s because the law is vaguely defined — it creates no crime and outlines no means of enforcement.

“The lack of clarity may have been intentional — in the sense that it still sends the signal of fear and harassment that many of the sponsors wanted it to,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

That leaves identity documents as the biggest point of contention.

Kansas has allowed transgender people to amend the gender on their documents since a 2019 consent judgment.

Hundreds have since done so — and their numbers skyrocketed this year. After the law was passed in April, attorneys held legal aid sessions across the state to help people complete the paperwork before the law took effect.

Many legal experts expected the state to stop allowing new changes, but were surprised to hear Kobach planned to retroactively reverse those already made.

Last week, Kobach asked a federal judge to alter the 2019 judgment in light of the new law. In a news conference Monday, he said that while he thinks state law would supersede the judgment, he didn’t expect agencies to change their policy before the judge issued a decision.

The ACLU has not challenged the law so far, but Kubic said the organization could do so in the future.

“We will determine what the impact of the bill is once it goes into effect and who is being harmed by it,” Kubic said. “We encourage folks who experience discrimination or unfair treatment as a result of the law to report it to us.”

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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