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Kansas Republicans vote to bar transgender women from women's bathrooms, prisons and shelters

 Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Republican from Wichita, voted to pass the so-called 'women's bill of rights' out of committee this week.
Kansas News Service
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Republican from Wichita, voted to pass the so-called 'women's bill of rights' out of committee this week.

WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers have advanced legislation that would bar transgender women from women’s bathrooms, women’s prisons, women’s locker rooms and domestic violence shelters.

Critics see the bill as a political attack on transgender and intersex people, and organizations that support victims of sexual violence said it could jeopardize the money they get from the federal government.

Supporters say the bill — they call it a “women’s bill of rights” — would protect cisgender women from discrimination and sexual violence in the face of what they call an “endangerment of single-sex spaces.”

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, but is based on model legislation by a national group that opposes transgender rights. A similar bill based on the same model is moving through the Oklahoma Legislature.

It would require state agencies to define “women” as people whose reproductive systems are developed to produce ova, and “men” as people whose reproductive systems are developed to fertilize ova.

Republicans in the Kansas Senate approved the bill last month by a 26-11 vote — just one shy of what would be needed to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Three Republican senators abstained.

House lawmakers on the Committee on Health and Human Services passed it out of committee this week and sent it to the full chamber for a vote.

If passed, the Kansas attorney general’s office expects the constitutionality of the bill to be challenged, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Committee Chair Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said it protects women’s rights.

“Women have fought for over 50 years to gain certain rights in this country. And these rights are being eroded,” she said. “I really wish people would not take it that we’re targeting another group of people.”

Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Democrat from Shawnee and the committee’s ranking minority member, spoke against the bill.

“I am more than opposed — I’ll try to watch my language — to this bill,” said Ruiz, one of the state’s first openly LGBTQ legislators. “It is going to be very harmful to so many people, especially children.”

The vote came after lawmakers heard heated testimony on the bill earlier this week.

Tammy Quayle of Wichita said that preventing her transgender daughter from using women’s restrooms would effectively bar her from public spaces like museums and ballparks.

“What this bill seeks to do is to keep transgender people out of the public eye by limiting their access to the most basic of necessities — a bathroom that matches their gender,” she said.

Medical experts said it would complicate the lives of the up to 2% of Kansans who are intersex — born with biological traits that don’t neatly fit into the bill’s definition of male or female.

Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician from Stockton, Kansas, said the bill was based on a misunderstanding of the science of gender and sex.

“Intersex is not a social construct or a gender identity — it’s a biological configuration where a body has both male and female features,” she said. “How are you going to classify them in a bill like this? Do they get the rights and protections this bill claims, or not?”

The bill could also result in domestic violence and sexual assault centers losing access to $14 million in federal grants annually, said Michelle McCormick, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. She said it would take shelters out of compliance with federal non-discrimination requirements.

“When I surveyed our member programs,” she said, “none of them were consulted about this bill and the potential impact of including domestic violence centers and rape crisis centers in this.”

Those who spoke in support of the bill all came from outside Kansas.

“The (bill) doesn’t remove anyone from society or public life, it simply fortifies current law in order to protect women’s safety, privacy,” said Hadley Heath Manning, vice president of policy for the conservative advocacy organization Independent Women’s Voice.

She said it wouldn’t prevent lawmakers from passing laws to protect transgender and intersex people. Such proposals have repeatedly failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Riley Gaines, a spokesperson with the organization, said it would help ensure fairness in girls' and women's sports. Gaines was a member of the University of Kentucky women’s swim team who competed against Lia Thomas, a transgender woman on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team last year.

“I can wholeheartedly attest to the extreme discomfort in the locker room when you turn around and there’s a six-foot-four biological male,” she said.

Lauren Bone, who co-wrote the model legislation the bill was based on for the anti-transgender advocacy group Women’s Liberation Front, said the bill spans partisan divides.

“I am politically liberal, pro-choice. I have spent my career as an attorney fighting for women’s rights,” she said. “Opponents want to paint the bill as a religious, right-wing hit job, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

In Kansas, no Democrats have supported the bill.

It comes as Kansas lawmakers also consider bills that would restrict transgender Kansans’ access to gender-affirming medical care and participation in girl’s and women’s sports.

Republican legislators have failed to override vetoes from Kelly on similar bills in recent years, but they could face more favorable odds amid a national wave of laws targeting transgender people.

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter at @rosebconlon or email her at conlon@kmuw.org.

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

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Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Rose Conlon