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Effort to include young kids likely to sink Kansas transgender sports ban

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Kansas appears unlikely to join other states this year in banning transgender athletes from competing in girls’ and women’s school sports, in part because conservative state lawmakers want the ban to apply to elementary school students.

TOPEKA — Kansas appears unlikely to join other states this year in keeping transgender athletes from competing in girls' and women's school sports, partly because conservative state lawmakers want the ban to apply to elementary school students.

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a proposed ban early Saturday with solid majorities in both chambers — but not the two-thirds needed to override an almost-certain veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. She rejected a similar bill last year, saying it would send “a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families.”

Republicans nationwide have pushed the issue to appeal to a broad swath of voters, framing it as fairness in competition and access to scholarships. At least 12 other states have enacted such laws, including Arizona and Oklahoma this week. Supporters in Kansas think the issue grew even more compelling for athletes and their families with the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas recently becoming the NCAA's first transgender champion in women’s swimming.

But enough GOP lawmakers in Kansas keep breaking with Republican colleagues that LGBTQ-rights advocates probably will prevail for a second consecutive year. Several of those dissident Republicans said having a ban apply as early as kindergarten is a problem for them.

State Sen. John Doll, a western Kansas Republican, has voted both ways and was a “no” early Saturday because he wasn't able to persuade colleagues last month to exempt elementary school students from the ban.

“To be honest, I don't know where I'm at with it,” he said Saturday of a ban overall. “When it comes to a veto, I can't say that I would vote to override the veto.”

The vote Friday night in the House was 74-39, leaving supporters 10 votes short of a two-thirds majority. While a dozen of the House’s 125 members were absent, at least five were likely to vote “no.”

The state Senate's vote early Saturday was 25-13 and sent the bill to Kelly. But supporters were two votes short of a two-thirds majority, and the Republicans who were absent have split over the proposal in the past.

“The focus now on, again, the very, very young kids who have no concept of ‘transgender’ — it just didn't feel appropriate,” said state Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican and a former local school district superintendent who has consistently voted “no.”

Besides attacking proposed bans as anti-LGBTQ discrimination, critics across the U.S. have noted there have been relatively few transgender athletes. In Kansas, the state association overseeing extracurricular activities for grades 7 through 12 says it has been notified of only six or seven transgender athletes in those grades.

Kansas opponents of a ban have accused backers of picking on young children and suggested that schools could be forced to inspect children's genitals to settle disputes about their participation.

State Rep. Heather Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat, said Friday the bill told transgender children that “they are not valid.” After speaking about her transgender 12-year-old son in sixth grade and their transgender best friend, she wiped her eyes with a tissue as the debate continued.

“This is my child, and I’m going to stand up for them. I’m going to stand up for their friends. I’m going to stand up for their peers,” Meyer said. “This is just wrong.”

Supporters of the bill argued during debates Friday night and into early Saturday that schools could rely on birth certificates and other language to settle disputes.

They also argued that children are entering puberty at younger ages, making the unfair advantages of transgender girls appear earlier.

“It needs to be taken care so things don't go out of hand,” said Rep. Barbara Wasinger, another Republican from western Kansas.

The bill’s supporters said they are showing support for young girls who want to play sports and older girls who strive for college scholarships. Supporters of a proposed ban often refer to transgender athletes as “biological” boys, men or males.

“It makes me sad that the women in the room don’t realize that we biological women are being bullied,” said Republican Rep. Tatum Lee, also from western Kansas. “We do everything we can to protect those being bullied, and I feel bullied.”

But Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, the state's first and only elected transgender lawmaker, said that when she returns home, "There will be families that come to my porch and look at me and say, ‘Can you tell us that this is going to be OK?’”

“I promise you, your constituents will write ME, and those letters start with, ‘I would tell my representative, but they won’t listen,’” she added.