Democrat Stephanie Byers became the first transgender member of the Kansas Legislature Tuesday night.
She’ll represent parts of south Wichita after defeating Republican challenger Cyndi Howerton in the race for Kansas House District 86. Byers received 54% of the vote in her first run for public office.
Byers is a retired band, orchestra and jazz teacher at Wichita North High School. She taught there for nearly 30 years.
She spoke about her transition and how she explained that to her students in an interview with KMUW in May 2019.
"[With] the kids that first year, my coming-out story was to sit down with them after I was presenting as my real self,” Byers said. “They all came and I said, 'Obviously, we need to talk about something and so here it is: Instead of Mr. Byers, it’s now Ms. Byers, and now let’s talk about my goals for our classes this semester.' ”
It was a relief to Byers that she could be her authentic self in one of the largest high schools in the state without any repercussions.
She was worried that it wouldn’t be the same when she ran for office this year.
“This is untried territory in Kansas,” Byers said.
She didn’t know how voters in her district would react to a transgender woman running for office.
She was relieved once again when the race became about the candidates’ stance on issues and not the candidates themselves.
“The only comments that came up were, ‘I don’t care about her gender. What I care about is how she will decide things that will help me and family,’ ” Byers said.
She said she focused on the issues affecting constituents in her district. Byers wants to prioritize the health care needs of Kansans, which are worsening due to the pandemic.
She also wants to reexamine the unemployment system in Kansas, which has been criticized for its slow response as claims soared this year. Byers hopes to streamline the process for those who need that safety net.
Byers said she has not lost sight that her election is a historic one. There were only four transgender lawmakers across the country before last night.
“I’m still feeling all of this,” Byers said. “I’m processing through this because I never expected in my lifetime that I would be someone that is making history like this.”
Byers joins Sarah McBride, the country’s first transgender state senator from Delaware, and Taylor Small, Vermont’s first transgender lawmaker, in winning elections last night.
The results, Byers said, are a sign that our humanity has grown.
“It’s about who is the best person,” Byers said, “not necessarily some sort of identity that becomes a barrier when we look at electing someone.”
David Garcia is an intern in the KMUW News Lab. He is a senior in Wichita State University's Elliott School of Communication.