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Will strict new anti-trans laws in Kansas keep people and companies away?

The "women's bill of rights" will bar transgender women from women's bathrooms, locker rooms and other public spaces.
Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service

Kansas passed one of the country's broadest laws restricting transgender rights in public spaces. Critics say the economic fallout could be vast.

WICHITA, Kansas — Ophelia Quayle grew up in Wichita, but when it was time to pick a college, she decided to go out of state.

Now that Kansas is enacting some of the country’s most burdensome restrictions on transgender rights, Quayle — a transgender woman — says she’s not coming back.

“I’m building a life where my community is safe and my intrinsic humanity is valued,” she said in an email. “The Legislature where I now live has passed laws to protect transgender people, so I’ve decided to stay.”

Being able to socially transition, including legally changing her gender marker on her driver’s license, has been life-saving for Quayle, her mother told Kansas lawmakers during hearings over the new law.

“My child is alive now because of the ability to live authentically,” she said.

Come July 1, the estimated 2% of Kansans who are transgender will live under a landmark “women’s bill of rights.” It essentially blocks legal recognition of their gender identity and forces them to use the bathrooms, locker rooms and other public facilities of the sex they were assigned at birth.

Critics say the fallout will extend far beyond the transgender community — pointing to potentially profound economic implications for a state vying for business development and workers.

The Kansas law is one of the most expansive of its kind. Several other states have imposed restrictions on school bathroom use, but the Kansas law moves far beyond that. It extends to prisons, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis shelters and anywhere else “where biology, safety or privacy are implicated that result in separate accommodations.”

It places Kansas at the center of a bitter national debate over transgender rights, which Republican-led statehouses have increasingly moved to restrict in recent years.

The Kansas law was based on model legislation authored by a national group that opposes transgender rights. The people who testified to lawmakers in support of it all hailed from out-of-state.

It comes as neighboring Missouri sits on the brink of enforcing one of the most significant limits on gender-affirming medical care for transgender adults and minors in the country. (Kansas lawmakers narrowly failed to override the governor’s veto of a bill that would have restricted that care for minors.)

At the same time, some states — including Minnesota, where Quayle now lives — have enshrined certain rights for transgender people.

‘Women’s bill of rights’

The new law legally defines a woman as someone whose reproductive system is designed to produce ova, and a man as someone whose reproductive systems are designed to fertilize ova.

Experts say the wide-reaching fallout will include preventing people from changing their gender marker on state identification and barring transgender women from women’s restrooms, locker rooms, prisons and domestic violence shelters.

Supporters say keeping transgender women out of female-designated spaces will make cisgender women safer. An earlier version of the bill stated that “immutable biological differences” between males and females “leave female individuals more physically vulnerable to specific forms of violence, including sexual violence.”

That idea was repeatedly echoed by Republican lawmakers in hearings and debates over the law.

“Little girls should not have to be exposed to a man in a female bathroom,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican.

But Democrats characterized it as hateful and discriminatory. They said it could harm LGBT youth, who already struggle with elevated rates of mental illness.

“This has been deemed the most anti-LGBT, the most anti-trans bill in the entire country,” said Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Democrat from Lenexa. “I thought we were better than that in Kansas.”

They said it could also weaken organizations that support survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence by jeopardizing their federal funding.

Practical effects

The law will take effect July 1.

It doesn’t lay out how the new rules will be enforced. While restrictions on prisons and shelters might be more readily enforceable, it’s unclear how the bathroom restrictions will be enforced, if at all.

But some critics fear the bill could embolden people to harass transgender people in public and lead to potentially dangerous confrontations.

“Just the existence of the law serves to exacerbate existing negative attitudes toward trans people,” said Jaelynn Abegg, chair of the South-Central region of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Kansas.

She said the group is also worried about increasing harassment and assault of transgender people who will now have to share public spaces with those of a gender they don’t align with.

“Trans men who now have to use the women’s restroom will be labeled as a man in the women’s restroom,” she said. “If you have a trans woman in a men’s jail, that comes with its own likelihood of harms.”

The law will also prohibit Kansans from changing their gender marker on state documents. Transgender rights advocates are urging people interested in a change to do so now, so the paperwork can be processed before the law takes effect in July.

Ellen Bertels, who runs the Name Change Project at Kansas Legal Services, is running a series of clinics over the coming weeks to help people meet the deadline.

“Statistically, it’s clear that having an accurate identification reduces the risk of harassment, discrimination, and even physical violence for trans folks in public,” she said.

Imagine, she said, going to the grocery store to buy a six-pack of beer. If you present as a man but your ID describes you as female, the cashier may deny you service.

“It seems like just this tiny little thing on this one piece of paper,” she said. “But when you think of the way that showing your identification accumulates over time — maybe you do it once a day, maybe you do it two, three, four times a day — it has a huge impact on someone’s life.”

Bertels said the law could also create administrative nightmares around school records for transgender kids and employment records for state workers.

Economic impact

Opponents of the law, including Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, have warned it could harm the state’s economy as the state struggles to entice employers and deals with severe shortages of critical workers, particularly in health care and education.

“Companies have made it clear that they are not interested in doing business with states that discriminate against workers and their families,” she said in a statement explaining her veto of the “women’s bill of rights” and several other bills. Republicans successfully overrode her veto last week.

Groups that support the bill say those risks are overstated.

“Every time we present a bill on this topic, our opponents will level these baseless claims about how we’re going to lose competition and employers,” said Brittany Jones, director of policy and engagement for Kansas Family Voice, which backed the law. “They cannot point to a single instance where a an employer pulled out of a state because of one of these bills. It’s a made-up fallacy.”

She said some business owners are excited about the coming changes.

“I talk to everyday Kansans every day who are excited about this bill's ability to protect women's opportunities,” she said.

Yet corporate America in recent years has shown signs of discomfort with states with policies perceived to be unpopular with consumers — over everything from gay marriage to voter suppression.

Hundreds of companies have signed onto a letter by the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign denouncing anti-LGBT laws in recent years.

Another risk is that large event organizers would deem the state too politically risky to host major events.

But experts say perhaps the most immediate ramifications would be to the workforce. Some fear the law will cause many young people to leave the state, contributing to a brain drain.

Suzanne Wheeler, president of LGBT Mid-America Chamber of Commerce, said the law will hurt the state’s ability to attract and retain a competitive workforce — something employers are already battling.

“We hear from a lot of our partners that they’re struggling for workers,” she said. “Our Legislature keeps doing things to chase workers away from our state.”

But Wheeler, a transgender woman, said it’s important to understand the economic ramifications are not the whole story.

“There is also a personal impact here,” she said. “We’re telling citizens of our state, that they are less than — that they no longer exist.”

Trans athletes

The state’s ban on transgender girls and women competing on girls and women’s sports teams is also beginning to ripple through the Kansas education system in preparation for the law’s July 1 start date.

The Kansas High School Activities Association, which sets rules for middle and high school sports, changed its policy last week to comply with the new law. Previously, the KHSAA had allowed schools to consider students’ sports participation on a case-by-case basis.

The law applies to Kansas students from kindergarten through college.

Student athletes will be asked about their sex assigned at birth at annual physicals, which are already required for participation in school sports.

Lawmakers did not outline how the athlete policy will be enforced — fueling critics’ claims that it could ultimately lead to genital inspections of kids. Lawmakers behind the law have said it doesn’t require those inspections. But critics continue to say officials haven’t created guardrails to ensure they won’t happen if a student’s sex is in question.

If there is a dispute over an athlete’s gender, the new KHSAA policy says it would be resolved by consulting a birth certificate or a doctor’s assessment. The association’s director told The Kansas City Star that assessments could include physical exams, hormone testing and other methods, but said genital inspections would not be expected. Sports participation rules for elementary school students are typically handled at the district or school level.

Similar legislation in Ohio and Florida has included genital inspection requirements that were later removed.

Both laws could be challenged in court. In fiscal notes, the attorney general’s office said it expects that they will be. No lawsuits have been filed yet, but the ACLU vowed to challenge the athlete law when it was under debate in the Legislature.

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio 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.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.