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‘Nobody else for them to pick on’ KS Senate candidates scuffle over transgender rights

Kansas City Star
Bryan Lowry
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Three of the Republicans running for U.S. Senate in Kansas have launched ads in the last week attacking transgender rights, a strategy intended to galvanize social conservatives in the competitive August primary.

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Tuesday that if elected he would offer legislation to withhold Title IX federal funds from institutions that allow transgender students to participate in women’s sports.

“It’s important to remember these trans athletes destroyed the dreams of female athletes who trained their whole lives for the honor of winning that championship only to have it snatched away by a biological male,” Kobach said in a nearly 5-minute web video on his campaign YouTube channel.

Kobach offered the proposal a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that workers are protected from discrimination by employers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said the ruling made the issue more urgent.

Kobach’s video focused largely on a Connecticut lawsuit brought by three female high school track athletes who allege that a policy letting transgender students participate in sports based on their gender identity creates an unfair advantage.

“It’s time to take a stand for what’s right and what’s fair. Let’s face it. People who won’t stand up for their own daughters won’t stand up for yours,” said Kobach, who has five daughters.

LGBT advocates slammed Kobach’s proposal and his decision to focus on high school students in the video.

Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT organization, said it was part of a pattern by Kansas Republicans.

“In the past four years we have had five bills introduced in the Kansas Legislature that single out transgender and gender non-conforming children… and now Kobach is taking this attack on little kids national,” Witt said.

“He is clearly hostile to LGBT people and has no place making laws for us.”

But Kobach’s proposal follows an exchange between two of his top Republican rivals over transgender issues.

Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican who represents western Kansas, attacked Miami County businessman Bob Hamilton in an ad that claims Hamilton “bankrolled a transgender rights group.”

The claim is based on Bob Hamilton Plumbing’s past membership in the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce, a group that represents LGBT-friendly businesses in the Kansas City region. Hamilton’s company joined the chamber in 2016. He sold the company the following year.

In his own ad, Hamilton calls Marshall’s ad false. “I’m a plumber. Public bathrooms stay separate,” Hamilton states in the ad as a graphic appears on the screen saying, “NO TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS.”

In a statement to The Star, Hamilton reasserted the comments from his ad without addressing a question about his company’s membership in the chamber and whether he stands by the decision to join.

Marshall’s campaign said that Hamilton’s ad “doesn’t offer one bit of evidence to refute anything in our ad.” The campaign said it was seeking to clarify Hamilton’s record, but it didn’t answer directly about why transgender rights should be a topic of debate in the GOP primary.

Suzanne Wheeler, the executive director of the chamber, said Marshall’s ad overstates the level of financial support Hamilton’s company gave the chamber. “Their bankroll of the chamber was like $300 a year.”

Business members pay annual dues of $295 for access to networking events and being listed on the chamber’s website so that members of LGBT community know they can safely use the business’ services.

Wheeler pulled the company’s name from the chamber’s website when Marshall’s ad began airing after learning that the plumbing service was more than a year behind on its dues. Wheeler criticized Marshall’s campaign for portraying membership in the chamber as a negative.

“Almost every employer across the country has LGBT+ individuals working for them. Attacks like that just show folks like that aren’t supportive of an inclusive business environment,” Wheeler said.

Stephanie Byers, a trans woman who is running for the Kansas House as a Democrat, said the GOP candidates are trying to use transgender rights as a wedge issue in the way that same-sex marriage was used in past elections.

“There’s nobody else for them to pick on to unite their base together, so now they’re looking at trans people,” she said.

“I think the majority of people are like, why are they doing this? Is this because they have such a weak campaign that they don’t have any actual issues?” said Byers, who spoke at a rally outside the Supreme Court court during last year’s oral arguments in the case about employment discrimination.

“I mean, really, seriously, you’re going to attack kids?” she said of Kobach’s video.

A retired Wichita public school teacher, Byers would be the first transgender legislator in Kansas if elected and first trans woman of Native American descent elected to any state legislature. She is the only Democrat running in Wichita’s Democratic-leaning 86th Kansas House District.

Byers said Kobach’s video exaggerates the dominance of transgender athletes in women’s sports. She noted that one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit Kobach mentioned has beaten one of the transgender athletes in multiple races.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, the likely Democratic nominee in the Senate race, praised the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling. She said in a statement that she has always “supported the fight to end discrimination of any kind” and said “Kobach and the Republican candidates want to divide people — even in the middle of a pandemic that has killed over 100,000 Americans.”

Bollier praised the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favor of LGBT workers.

The court’s majority opinion was written by one of President Donald Trump’s nominees to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who faced a backlash from many conservatives who championed his nomination three years ago.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, bemoaned the ruling as “the end of the conservative legal movement” in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday. Hawley warned of repercussions for religious conservatives, but did not make specific references to the gay or transgender communities.

Kobach tied the the fight over transgender rights to the previous battle over same-sex marriage, which conservatives lost, and said Republicans need to take action to prevent a similar societal shift.

“Progressives ‘progress.’ Like the sharks of our imagination, they have to swim forward or they die,” he said.

Kobach’s proposal to withhold federal funding based on rules surrounding transgender athletes would have a major impact at both the high school and college level.

NCAA rules allow trans women to compete on women’s teams if they have completed one year of testosterone suppression treatment. Trans men taking testosterone may participate on men’s teams, but transgender students who have not undergone hormone therapy are restricted to in sports in accordance with their birth gender.

Kyle Velte, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, said Monday’s ruling “would be fatal” to Kobach’s idea.

If Kobach’s legislation became law, it would be immediately challenged in court based on Monday’s ruling, said Velte, who specializes in law related to gender and sexuality. Title VII cases are often referenced by courts in Title IX cases since both laws deal with discrimination, she said.

“I think as a matter of law on what sex means in federal statute, he’s got a tough road… The analysis would be identical,” Velte said.

Faculty name: 
Kyle Velte