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Kansas lawmakers override governor’s veto, enacting ban on transgender athletes

Legislators talking at the Statehouse.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Legislature passed a bill banning transgender girls from girls sports by overriding a veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Some lawmakers were emotional after the vote, including Democratic Rep. Heather Meyer, who is the mother of a transgender child.

The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed a bill into law that bans transgender girls and women from participating in girls and women’s sports. The lawmakers had failed twice in past years to override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas Legislature finally rallied enough votes on Wednesday needed to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill banning transgender girls and women from girls and women’s sports at public schools and colleges.

Lawmakers failed the last two years to override a veto to similar bills.

Kansas now stands with 19 other states that have enacted laws limiting transgender girls to participating in sports that align with the gender they were assigned at birth. The Kansas law does not affect transgender boys.

The Senate sealed the override with a 28-12 vote Wednesday afternoon. The House had previously voted 84-40. Both reached the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

Republican House leaders said the law known as the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act will protect the rights of female athletes.

“We proudly stand with the female athletes across Kansas,” House Speaker Dan Hawkins and other leaders said in a news release, “in their pursuit of athletic awards, opportunities, and scholarships and believe they deserve every chance at success afforded to their male counterparts.”

They have argued that athletes identified as male at birth have inherent physical advantages that would undercut the competitive dynamics of female sports.

Kelly said some lawmakers who supported the override will later regret it and they should have focused on other ways to improve the lives of Kansas children.

“It breaks my heart,” Kelly said after an event in Olathe. “I'm sorry that they distracted themselves with this really awful bill.”

The override puts into law a bill Kansas Republicans have sought for three straight years. The House fell just short of the 84 votes during the last two attempts to overturn the veto. But with a new group of lawmakers after the 2022 midterm elections, the House garnered just enough votes to overcome the Democratic governor’s objections.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Marvin Robinson of Kansas City, Kansas, joined the Republican majority. The override would have failed if he stuck with his party. Robinson declined to explain his vote to reporters, but said he had been insulted for his choice.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Heather Meyer of Overland Park, who is the mother of a transgender child, was emotional after the vote.

“I’m sitting here in tears,” Meyer said, “because all I see is people saying they hate my child.”

A change affecting few

The law will not lead to a widespread change in Kansas.

Jeremy Holaday, a spokesperson for the Kansas State High School Activities Association, said of the 106,000 students participating in the organization’s sports and activities, only three are transgender girls.

Two of those transgender girls are set to graduate this spring. That means only one of the students currently participating in Kansas high school activities will be impacted when the law goes into effect in July.

KSHSAA uses a policy that allows schools to consider each case of transgender youth participating in gender-specific activities on an individual basis. The student’s school ultimately makes the decision.

“We believe it has worked for our member schools,” Holaday said. “If the state legislature gives us new direction, then we will adjust accordingly.”

Supporters of the new rules argued the law protects fairness in girls and women's sports. Republican Rep. Cyndi Howerton of Wichita said athletes who are biologically male have an athletic advantage over athletes who are biologically women.

The Kansas Senate sealed the veto override with a 28-12 vote with all Republicans voting in favor of the measure. The bill known as the Fairness in Women's Sports Act will be enacted into law.
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Senate sealed the veto override with a 28-12 vote. Republican lawmakers argued the bill protects fairness in women's sports by prohibiting athletes who were assigned male at birth from competing with girls.

Meanwhile, critics contend the bill is just one of several ways the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature is attacking transgender rights. Several Democratic lawmakers argued the bill would hurt the mental health of transgender youth.

Some also argued the bill will have unintended consequences. Democratic Rep. Jerry Stogsdill of Prairie Village warned the bill may lead to businesses and sporting events — like the NCAA’s national tournaments — shunning the state.

“We have put targets on the backs of some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Stogsdill said. “As a proud Kansan, I’m ashamed.”

National trend

The bill is one of several measures the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature is pursuing that limits transgender rights.

Lawmakers also approved a bill known as the Women’s Bill of Rights that bars transgender women from bathrooms, shelters and other spaces designated for women. Kelly is expected to veto that bill, too.

Elana Redfield, the federal policy director for the UCLA School of Law, said conservative legislatures across the country have likely ramped up efforts to roll back transgender rights in recent years because the U.S. Supreme Court now skews more conservative, providing a court that is more receptive to legal challenges of LGBTQ-rights.

However, the laws in Kansas would also be subject to the state constitution. The Kansas high court is considered more liberal than the conservative Legislature. Redfield said groups could challenge the laws targeting transgender people on the basis of gender discrimination.

After the Senate vote, Republican Attorney General Kris Kobach said he would fight legal efforts to throw out the law.

“And I am confident that the law will survive any challenge," Kobach said in a news release.

Additionally, a study conducted by the UCLA School of Law determined about 1.6 million Americans 13 years or older identify as transgender. That is roughly 0.6% of the U.S. population that is older than 13.

Redfield said that means the push against transgender rights will only affect a small number of people.

“It’s mostly ideological,” Redfield said, “but also not particularly tied to an urgent problem that’s happening in Kansas or in any other state.”

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

Samantha Horton reports on health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SamHorton5.

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.

Corrected: April 6, 2023 at 3:31 PM CDT
An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Democratic Rep. Jerry Stogsdill's hometown. He is from Prairie Village.
As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.
Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
Samantha Horton is a former health reporter for the Kansas News Service. She most recently worked as a fellow with the NPR Midwest Newsroom and the Missouri Independent.
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