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Kristena Shiflett, a Wichita mom of four, worries about the outcome of next week’s election, particularly the Kansas governor’s race.
She is especially worried about policies that would restrict the rights of transgender students like her child, who attends a public high school in Wichita, and what it might mean to lose the only person in office who has blocked anti-trans policies from taking effect.
Earlier this year, the Kansas Legislature passed Senate Bill 160, which sought to ban youth who were assigned male at birth from playing on girls’ athletic teams. Only Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto stopped the bill from becoming law.
Kelly’s opponent Derek Schmidt has promised to resurrect the bill if elected. Employing anti-trans language, Schmidt’s campaign has repeatedly criticized Kelly on her support of trans student athletes.
In response to that criticism, Kelly’s campaign issued an advertisement in late September that some saw as confusing and inconsistent with her previous support of trans youth. Responses from other Democrats ranged from full-throated support to disappointment at the clumsy messaging.
Schmidt has gone after trans adults as well as children. From spreading falsehoods about who funded a Wichita drag show to campaigning alongside an out-of-state college student athlete who promotes anti-trans politicians nationwide, Schmidt has made it a cornerstone of his campaign to use rhetoric attacking lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Shiflett, the Wichita mom, worries that the anti-trans athlete bill is just the beginning. She fears it will lead to additional laws restricting the rights of children like hers.
“It puts a knot in my stomach,” Shiflett said. “Knowing that (politicians) are opening the door to shut down rights and somehow take steps back to where this next generation would have less rights than we have now.”
The impact of these policies and the rhetoric surrounding them is both tragic and thoroughly researched. More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide in the past year and one in five actually attempted it, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention nonprofit for LGBTQ young people. The number contemplating suicide has increased three years in a row.
That increase coincides with an increase in nationwide debate over the rights of trans youth. More than 150 anti-trans bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2022 alone.
Some suggest Schmidt has effectively turned the governor’s race into a referendum on LGBTQ rights. As he continues to focus on anti-trans policies in the final days of a contentious election, Wichitans are considering what that will mean should he win.
‘A gateway bill’
Samuel Hoover, Shiflett’s child, is a sophomore at Wichita East High School. He isn’t a student athlete — he prefers baking to competitive sports — so wouldn’t necessarily be impacted by legislation that would restrict transgender students in school sports.
But he has an opinion about it.
“You can’t seriously tell me that a bunch of 12-year-olds would be so organized that statewide, they would steal trophies from people,” Hoover said. “No! They’re just kids who want to play sports and happen to not feel comfortable using certain pronouns.”
Hoover also believes a trans athlete ban misses the point of youth sports entirely. “It’s not about winning, it’s about proving what you can do,” he said.
Kelly vetoed the trans athlete ban twice in the past two years. During that time, the legislature voted on the measure seven times; each time a majority of lawmakers supported it – but not quite enough to overturn her veto.
Kelly’s veto has served as the sole procedural roadblock stopping the measure from taking effect. If Kelly loses, there will likely be little to stop anti-trans legislation from becoming law.
Schmidt has promised to make it law. If elected, he’s asked the legislature to send such a bill to the governor’s desk within the first 100 days after he takes office.
As of April, only one student in Kansas would have been impacted by the trans athlete ban if it had passed, Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat, told The Beacon at the time. Byers said the imbalance of the entire legislature against one child showed the policy was never really about athletics. Most of the 95 others who testified against the bill agreed with Byers’ assessment.
Heidi Owens is a trans therapist and licensed professional counselor in Wichita who specializes in working with transgender and gender diverse clients. She describes the anti-trans student athletes bill as “a gateway bill.”
“It opens the door for a lot of bills that are more harmful or equally harmful,” Owens said. The whole thing is causing anxiety in Wichita’s trans community, Owens said.
“They are afraid of whether or not they’re going to be able to get health care or mental health services or continue to receive support from doctors,” Owens said. “I hear people speaking with fear, (asking) this question of, where can I go to actually be myself?”
Trans people have reason to worry. In 2021, Kansas lawmakers introduced legislation that would have criminalized gender-affirming medical care for minors, which includes puberty blockers, despite growing evidence of the psychological benefit to trans youth who desire it. The legislation died without receiving a hearing, but could resurface.
Such bills introduced in Kansas mirror bills that have been introduced nationwide. Experts have said that most of the time, these bills are not introduced to respond to prevalent problems but because they motivate voters from more conservative corners of the electorate to show up at the polls.
Onslaught of negative messages
Political rhetoric has an ongoing negative impact on the mental health of the trans community, research spanning several years has repeatedly shown.
Another survey from The Trevor Project found 85% of trans and nonbinary youth felt their mental health was harmed. Nearly all trans and nonbinary youth were worried about how state or local laws would impact the lives of trans people. Most are scared about the future.
“Human minds were not meant to take in this much negativity for this long,” Owens said. “Our world has gotten so big, and the information is taken in so fast, it’s not just that we’re taking in information about what Kansas is doing, but also what’s happening in Texas, in Idaho, in Arkansas, in Missouri.” The intake of all of that anti-trans rhetoric nationally — and even globally — has a cumulative effect, Owens said.
The volume of negative messaging can be exhausting for those who are made to constantly defend their right to exist.
“I pulled back from following the news as much as possible, still trying to stay connected a little bit, but really limiting that exposure, specifically because there’s a sense of hopelessness and helplessness,” Owens said. “Like, no matter how much you fight, no matter how much you do, no matter how much you try to make things safe and better, there are always going to be people who are trying to fight against you.”
Hoover has paid close attention to political events during past elections, but not this one. He skips over any negative ads on YouTube.
Anti-trans rhetoric doesn’t come up in conversation with his classmates, either. “(Politics) doesn’t really matter (to us), as long as you respect other people and their rights, which all my (classmates) do.”
Shiflett, Hoover’s mom, expressed mixed feelings about the disengagement. She simultaneously lamented and validated those who aren’t more vocal as allies to the trans community.
“I do think it takes those of us who are willing to put our names and our faces out there” to make a difference, Shiflett said. “But I really hate getting involved in politics.”
Finding common understanding
Though she considers herself unaffiliated now, “for a long time, I did identify more with Republicans than Democrats,” Shiflett said. “Most everyone around me will probably be voting for Schmidt and happy about whatever policies he brings.”
Owens said this connection between people of seemingly different backgrounds and beliefs is reason to hope amid a dialogue that often leaves so little room for it.
“My personal belief is that pretty much all hate and division can be solved by trying to understand your neighbors and build a community,” Owens said. “The cure for apathy is connection, and the cure for hopelessness is community. It’s finding people who are working towards common goals that you want to work towards, and making a decision to engage with them, despite fear.”
Shiflett says she’s committed to having the difficult conversations with co-workers, neighbors and others in the community.
“I will keep trying to make time to talk about this without being hell-bent on making someone believe the same thing…,” Shiflett said. “(Sometimes) both sides feel like the only positive outcome is to convince the other side to believe exactly what they do, and that will get us nowhere.”