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Kansas’ first transgender lawmaker reflects on ‘emotionally charged’ legislative session

Stephanie Byers.jpeg
Carla Eckels
State Rep. Stephanie Byers was a music teacher before being elected to the Kansas House in 2020.

State Rep. Stephanie Byers has endured a session in which Republicans tried to pass bills curbing rights of trans kids and a fellow lawmaker complained about sharing a restroom with her.

The 2022 Kansas legislative session is wrapping up and for state Rep. Stephanie Byers, the state's first openly transgender lawmaker, it has been one fraught with issues that hit close to home. The Republican-dominated Legislature pushed to pass multiple bills that target transgender students, including one that would ban female transgender students from girls’ and women’s sports teams.

Byers said this session has been more “emotionally charged” than her first session last year.

“It may simply be because the fact that, you know, it was so green last year, that the expression that it's like trying to take a drink of water out of a fire hose is so apropo. There's so much information coming at you that I didn't have time to maybe react as much,” Byers told KCUR’s Nomin Ujiyediin on Kansas City Today

“This one's been been tough because, you know, being a transgender woman, we knew going in that we were going to see legislation that was going to attack the trans community and that stayed in the back of my mind,” she continued.

The Wichita Democrat worked as a music teacher before being elected to the Kansas House in 2020. Byers said she was disappointed by Kansas school districts that sought to ban books that deal with race or LGBTQ issues.

“The philosophy that they bring forward about, you know, ‘It's not the state's responsibility to teach these to our kids. It's ours.’ Well, that's true. I think that parents should have the responsibility, but that doesn't mean the kids should not be exposed,” she said. “Kids need to be exposed to things, especially if it's someone who identifies as part of that community, to look for that information, to find ways to go, ‘Oh, I'm not alone.’ This takes care of some of that isolation by having those things available.”

Byers said she faced more than just discriminatory legislation this year. She said she was exhausted by hateful emails and comments on social media, as well as remarks made by fellow legislators. Last month, Rep. Cheryl Helmer made headlines for complaining about sharing a bathroom with Byers. Byers said she knows similar comments are made behind closed doors at the Statehouse but it was still surprising to learn about it.

Byers said the attention Helmer's comments received should not distract from other harmful comments being made by Kansas Republicans. Byers explained that when debating the motion to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto on the bill blocking transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports, Republicans said transgender people have mental health issues and called being transgender a “lifestyle.” (The governor’s veto stood after the bill failed to pass with a two-thirds majority in the House.)

“We've gotten to a position where people understand that we are who we are not by choice, but because that is who we are; it's not lifestyle choices,” said Byers. “So those things are kind of being skipped over and not seen, because it's easy to focus on the loud person in the room and not notice that it's not just her. It's prevalent in more corners but maybe more ‘Midwestern polite’ in the way it's brought out loud.”

But Byers said the session wasn’t all bad – she has also been met with an overwhelming amount of support from the public and fellow Democratic legislators. Byers said the recent efforts targeting transgender and LGBTQ students have pushed her to not only keep fighting to protect their rights, but also serve as an example to them.

“It's been said that it's easier to be it when you can see it. And with me being there, there are kids all over the state of Kansas who are saying, ‘I get this now. I've got a future,’” she said. “There are families all over Kansas that are looking at their kids who are coming out to them and saying, ‘You know, my gender is different than my birth certificate says,’ who now go, ‘You know what? This isn't the end of the world. This is not gonna be a hard road for you. We've got Representative Byers. We've seen that this happens and that people, their lives go on and can be productive and informed.’”

Byers said she urges people not to be afraid of change or the unknown.

“Does that mean not to be cautious? No. Always be cautious because we live in a wild world sometimes, but don't let fear be the driving decision maker,” Byers said. “Let it be love. Let it be how you can help somebody else out be what drives your decisions. Let it be how you can help your community be what drives your decisions, and let that love be what we see from everybody.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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