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Kansas Democratic governor vetoes anti-transgender bills, saying they'd scare off business

 Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill banning gender-affirming care.
Stephen Koranda
/
Kansas News Service
Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill banning gender-affirming care.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly shot down two bills Thursday that Democrats say target transgender people and could hurt the economy.

“Companies have made it clear that they are not interested in doing business with states that discriminate against workers and their families,” Kelly said in a statement after her veto. “I’m focused on the economy. Anyone care to join me?”

One of the bills bans giving transgender hormones or procedures to kids. The other bars transgender women from women’s restrooms, shelters and other places designed for women.

Kelly’s rejection of the bills sets up another political fight with the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature — and the possibility of more high-profile reversals of the governor’s vetoes — over what detractors characterize as attacks on transgender rights.

Republican legislative leaders promised to override Kelly’s veto when lawmakers return to the Statehouse next week. Legislators have already overturned her veto to a bill banning transgender girls from participating in girls' sports — with Republicans gaining the support of one Democrat in the Kansas House.

That new law is one of several measures affecting transgender people. It also follows a trend nationwide of conservative legislatures aggressively pursuing a cultural issue that attempts to put women’s rights and transgender rights at odds.

Banning gender-affirming care

One of the bills allows doctors to be sued for performing gender-affirming care and can even take away their license.

Gender-affirming care has a loose definition and some medical institutions list laser hair removal, voice therapy or mental health treatment as part of it. But the bill specifically targets puberty blockers, hormone treatment and vasectomies, among other procedures.

It also goes after surgeries like mastectomies or other operations that remove body parts. But those aren’t common.

Republican state Rep. Steven Howe said the University of Kansas Health System did two total transgender-related surgeries on patients under 18 in 2021 and 2022. He said on the House floor when the bill was debated that children can get these surgeries only after getting parental consent and two independent psychological evaluations.

Democrats blasted the ban as another attack on trans kids. They say the care saves lives.

“Where will we draw the line because people are dying,” said Lindsay Vaughn, an Overland Park Democrat when the bill first passed. “Trans kids are dying. Gender-affirming care saves lives.”

Republicans worried treatment might not be reversible and said kids will change their minds when they grow older. A 2021 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that 1% of trans people regret their surgery. A Washington Post and KFF poll from this year found that 78% of people who transitioned to a new gender are more satisfied with their life. Four in 10 reported they were much more satisfied.

The bill originally passed 70-52 in the House and 23-12 in the Senate. Both were short of the votes needed to override a veto. In the House, supporters fell 14 votes shy of an override supermajority.

Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican, said that 14-vote margin could be overcome. The bill got a hearing in the Senate but not in the House. The first time House lawmakers heard the bill was around 2 a.m.

Humphries said more time for lawmakers to review testimony and study the issue could flip some votes.

“I would have loved to have been able to hear it earlier in the day,” she said. “People would have been more likely to ask more questions and be more engaged.”

Ultimately, the Senate and House leadership have said they’ll push for the legislation to become law.

“The Kansas Child Mutilation Protection Act protects minors from the life-altering, permanent effects, such as sterilization, of gender reassignment surgery before they’ve reached the age of consent where they are fully able to weigh the risks,” said House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, in an emailed statement. “House Republicans are committed to putting the well-being of Kansas children ahead of extreme political ideology.”

‘Women’s Bill of Rights’

The bill that supporters call the “Women’s Bill of Rights” limits use of women’s bathrooms and shelters to people who are identified as female at birth.

The bill defines men and women by the gender they’re assigned at birth. It further defines male and female based on sexual reproductive organs. Those definitions are applied to gender-specific areas.

Supporters contend it would protect a woman’s right to feel safe in areas designated for her. Republican state Rep. Brenda Landwehr argued biological sex is a scientific fact that should be enshrined in state law.

“By defining these terms,” Landwehr said, “we ensure that our current protections for women’s spaces are not eroded by courts or unaccountable executive actions.”

In practice, it bars transgender women from using women’s bathrooms, being held in women’s prisons, staying at domestic violence shelters and other areas designated for women. Instead, transgender women would be required to use facilities designated for men.

Opponents see the bill as an attack on transgender people under the guise of protecting women. Democratic state Rep. Lindsay Vaughn said that the bill forces transgender people to be legally defined as a gender that is not consistent with their identity.

“It does nothing to protect women’s rights,” Vaughn said, “but instead weaponizes the rhetoric of rights to erase protections for trans and non-binary people.”

The bill also includes language to address individuals who do not fall under a simple male and female designation.

It defines intersex individuals — who are born with a combination of both male and female traits or sexual organs and do not fit in the binary male and female classification — as disabled and protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Elana Redfield, the federal policy director for the UCLA School of Law, said the carveout for intersex people highlights the difficulty lawmakers run into when trying to legally define a man and a woman.

“They struggle,” Redfield said, “to fit a very complex idea into these very simplified boxes.”

Kelly also vetoed two other bills regulating how schools provide accommodations to students for overnight trips and how county jails house inmates. Both bills require separating students and inmates based on their gender assigned at birth.

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Blaise Mesa
Dylan Lysen