A State of Flux: What’s Going On in Kansas?

There is a short list of things Kansas is known for: wheat fields, Wyatt Earp, the KC Royals, basketball, disastrous tax experiments, and now an official resolution to “oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity.”

Unfortunately for Kansas, official stances like this are not a new thing. In 2015, Governor Sam Brownback signed an executive order that rescinded protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender state workers. As conservative thinkers often do, he touted that this action meant more equality, saying “This Executive Order ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional ‘protected classes’ as the previous order did.”

In spite of this, the Kansas GOP’s official statement on transgender identity is dripping with a narrow-mindedness that Kansans hoped was behind us. The resolution’s firm statement of support for “God’s design for gender as determined by biological sex and not by self-perception” is particularly cringe-worthy because it narrows the already razor-thin distance between political convictions and religious ones in the Republican party.

The resolution, written by state delegate Eric Teetsel, is a response to Kansas public schools making an effort to affirm and support transgender youth, something which the Kansas GOP clearly disapproves of. “Motivated by love,” the GOP has decided to take the well-being of gender questioning youth into its own hands — by denying them the supports needed to flourish in their communities. Eric Teetsel, who was the director of faith outreach for Marco Rubio during his presidential campaign, is a known advocate for condemning all sexual identities that are not straight and heterosexual. He is also, interestingly, the son-in-law of ex-Governor Sam Brownback.

Yes, Kansas is home to many people like Eric Teetsel, people who condemn lifestyles different from their own and react fearfully to the unknown. Thankfully, Kansas is also home to many people like Jay Pryor. Jay is a trans man and Kansas native who works tirelessly to educate people on the daunting issues facing trans youth. Not long ago, Jay was a gender-questioning youth in rural Kansas. He knows firsthand the negative impact that marginalization and lack of support can have on young people.

Jay’s passion is now to empower trans youth through education. He currently works with other trans activists on the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project or K-STEP. Their approach is clear. “People are so ill-informed that they’re reactionary. It’s not just Kansas, it’s everywhere. If we want to keep these kids alive and well, we need to get them support. Our goal is to educate, be fact-based, be accurate, and let people get to know us.”

With K-STEP, Jay offers trainings to help organizations in Kansas navigate gender diversity. In a world where 32%-50% of transgender persons attempt suicide, this training is vital. Jay is candid about his story and what he’s trying to do. “I was a suicidal youth who was hospitalized at the age of 19. A year ago, I got to go back to that same hospital to do a training with the staff there so they can help trans youth who are suicidal. If just one young person is saved, it’s worth it.”

The result of education around transgenderism can be seen in the life of Stephanie Byers. Stephanie is the Fine Arts Department Chair and Director of Bands and Orchestras at Wichita North High School. She has worked at the school since 1991 and made her transition there. “From 1991 until July of 2014, that high school knew me as Mr. Byers. Starting in 2014, they knew me as Ms. Byers.” Stephanie’s transition experience is an unusual one because she was so visible within her community. At sports events, parades, and orchestra concerts, she was right in front of the crowd, directing her students. As she puts it, “When you transition, you don’t transition alone. Everyone around you transitions with you.”

When Stephanie announced her transition, she found support, not only from those who knew her, but from hundreds of colleagues and students whom she’d never met. This support is a result of good education. Wichita North High School is one of the most accommodating Kansas schools for gender questioning youth, even as it has become more difficult to support these youth since President Trump’s educational guidelines went into effect.

Stephanie knows that the Kansas GOP only represents a fraction of people in Kansas. “It’s not everyone. There are affirming and welcoming people, sometimes in the most striking places. Within any community you will find people who think and feel like you do. And in every community, you’ll find people who are opposed to you. Sometimes you have to keep looking. Eventually you will find your tribe. And in Kansas, that tribe is here.”

In spite of this beautiful story of acceptance, we know there is more work to be done. Although she found acceptance with her peers, Stephanie found resistance in other areas. The Kansas Department of Education would not change her name on her teaching license and her local bank refused to change her name on her car loan. Micro-aggressions like these are a reminder that the State of Kansas is not supportive of trans identities.

Less than fifteen miles away from Stephanie, another Kansas high school revoked transgender students’ access to the bathroom of their choice in February of 2017. Policies like these create an environment in which young trans people feel both unaccepted and unsafe. The influence of these policies — both physical and emotional — is often seen by An Sasala, a second year Women, Gender, and Sexuality PhD candidate at the University of Kansas.

An currently teaches a trans-inclusive Intro to Women, Gender, and Sexuality course and notes that many of the students in zir class have never heard trans identities discussed in a positive context. “Classes like mine are often students’ first opportunity to talk about these things in a safe space.” As is to be expected, policies and politics like the Kansas GOP’s resolution “make it hard to find or create that safe space.”

The extra work of creating a safe space for gender-questioning youth goes to schools and parents — both of which often find themselves unprepared for the task. Ericka was one such parent. She moved her family back to her rural Kansas hometown with the idea that her child would walk the same school halls and be an all-star athlete like she was. Instead, she realized that her child is an artistic, creative, transgender male.

The decisions that followed this revelation were vital. After wrestling a bottle of Tylenol from her son’s hands, Ericka knew for certain that she would lose her son if he were not empowered to live his most authentic life.

Unable to find support in their rural town, Ericka’s son now attends high school and thrives in Lawrence, KS where support and acceptance are readily available. As a lifelong Republican and a past lobbyist, Ericka understands the inner workings of the politics behind a resolution like this; and as the mother of a transgender son, she understands the depth of damage it can do to young people. “This resolution makes it possible to treat some humans as less than others. It contradicts itself in its own language, offering dignity while disapproving of the means by which transgender people can live authentically. These kids aren’t mentally ill. They’re not a byproduct of sexual abuse. Why are they less human because they don’t fit into these small, binary boxes?”

Liz Hamor, chairperson of the Greater Wichita chapter of GLSEN, echoes the confusion about the resolution’s language. “You cannot invalidate anyone’s identity and respect their dignity at the same time.” GLSEN is a national organization whose mission is to “create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” GLSEN Greater Wichita is working diligently to establish partnerships in rural Kansas, including Ericka’s town, to bring resources that help schools become safe affirming places for trans youth.

These five incredible people are only a few who passionately believe in the identity and dignity of trans people. They are joined by others who have devoted their lives to building a safe Kansas for people of all identities. As a Kansan, it gives me great hope to see the work they’re doing and hear their stories. Archaic, religious ideas about gender identity have no place in politics. Young people have a different perspective on gender identity and they’re bringing about change. As Jay so aptly pointed out, “Young people don’t care about gender — they want a world in which they tell you their gender, not one where you assign it to them.”

Kansas is often behind the national curve on progress and we know it. But we’re not as backward as the Kansas GOP would have the world think. There is still much disparity across the state regarding the resources and supports in place for trans youth, disparity that we are working diligently to remedy. But there is also compassion and community. This resolution is only going to propel us forward in our pursuit of equality and safety for all people.

When you think of Kansas, please think of this. When you have the opportunity to vote, think of the 32%-50% of trans people who have attempted suicide and how politics like those in the Kansas GOP’s resolution affect them. Join the teams of people working to make our world a more compassionate, affirming place.

To gender questioning young people, you are absolutely not alone. There are so many people who share your experiences and are working to ensure that your voice is heard. In the words of Ms. Byers: if you haven’t found your tribe yet, keep looking. They’re out there.