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Governor candidates Kelly and Schmidt split over a Kansas transgender ban in female sports

 Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, left, and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, right, appear during a debate in Overland Park.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, left, and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, right, appear during a debate in Overland Park.

Republican Derek Schmidt says a new law is needed to make sports reserved for girls and women fair. But Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who twice vetoed such a bill, says it's not a real issue.

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — The two leading candidates for Kansas governor sparred Wednesday over how to let transgender athletes compete in girls' and women’s sports.

Republican Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said transgender athletes pose a threat to Title IX, the federal education law barring discrimination based on gender. The law is credited for elevating athletic opportunities for female high school and college students.

He said during a debate sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association that he would quickly sign a bill into law that prohibits competitors in female sports who were identified as male at birth. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is seeking a second term, twice vetoed such a bill.

“It’s fundamentally unfair to female athletes,” Schmidt said. “People who are biologically male should not be allowed to compete in sports that are reserved for female athletes.”

Kelly argued the matter should be decided by state organizations dedicated to those matters, like the Kansas State High School Activities Association. She said those governing bodies look at the facts of individual instances to make rulings on a case-by-case basis.

She also argued that Kansans are more worried about things like the economy, health care access and public school funding.

Transgender athletes taking over female sports is “not happening here in Kansas,” Kelly said. “We really do need to focus on the issues of true concern to people.”

The Republican-led Kansas Legislature twice passed a bill that banned transgender girls from girls sports, but Kelly vetoed both. Lawmakers were unable to override either of her vetoes.

Supporters of the bill argued this spring that it was needed to create a level playing field for cisgender girls and women who might not be able to keep pace with transgender females.

Schmidt attacked Kelly’s vetoes by campaigning with former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines, who’s appeared in campaign commercials criticizing Kelly. She’s also attacked the NCAA for allowing a transgender swimmer to compete against her in national competitions.

Meanwhile, the Kelly campaign has straddled the line. In an ad, she said, “men should not play girls' sports.” But the ad did not clarify her stance on whether transgender girls should be allowed to play in girls’ and women’s sports.

Election Day is Nov. 8. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 18. Schmidt and Kelly also face conservative state Sen. Dennis Pyle, an independent, and Libertarian Seth Cordell in the race.

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. 

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As a Kansas political reporter, I want to inform our audience about statewide government and elected officials so they can make educated decisions at the ballot box.