Politics & Government

Legislature likely to act on transgender restroom use on final session day

In a rally on the Capitol steps April 29, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, called supporters of a transgender bathroom bill “neanderthals.”
In a rally on the Capitol steps April 29, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, called supporters of a transgender bathroom bill “neanderthals.” The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Legislature will very likely take up the issue of transgender school bathroom use when lawmakers return to Topeka next week.

Republican legislators said they expect to take some action in opposition to a recent guidance letter from the Obama administration instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their adopted gender.

Supporters of a bathroom bill say it’s probably too late to pass an actual law this session. The only legislative day remaining on the calendar is June 1, the “sine die” day that ordinarily marks the ceremonial end of the legislative year.

But Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said he and other conservative lawmakers will try to run a resolution that would express the Legislature’s displeasure with the federal guidance, to be sent to the Education and Justice departments that issued the letters to school districts nationwide.

He said he contacted the office of House Speaker Ray Merrick and was told there’s significant interest among Republican lawmakers despite the short time frame.

“We’re definitely pushing for it, if not a bill, then at least a resolution,” Whitmer said.

This is at least what we can do in the short term. For me, it has to emphasize the role the state should have in protecting every student.

Rep. John Whitmer, D-Wichita

While schools wouldn’t be legally bound to follow a resolution with action, “this is at least what we can do in the short term.” Whitmer said. “For me, it has to emphasize the role the state should have in protecting every student.”

He called the federal guidance letter “just another example of social engineering at the local level,” adding “Kansans don’t want boys in the girls’ bathroom and vice versa.”

A bill introduced in the Kansas Legislature this year would have ordered schools to do the opposite, to require transgender students to use the facilities corresponding to the sex determined by their chromosome makeup as recorded on their birth certificate.

But that bill stalled in committee. Many lawmakers said they were troubled by language that would have allowed students to sue their school for $2,500 if they encountered a transgendered classmate in the “wrong” restroom or locker room.

A hot-button issue

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said a sine die resolution would be a meaningless gesture and that Republicans are playing politics with a hot-button issue.

He said it would give the conservatives who dominate the Legislature something to put on their campaign post cards for the August primary and November general election. “They can use that to run for re-election and raise extra money,” he said.

Other than that, “I don’t believe it would have any effect at all,” either in Kansas or at the federal level, he said.

Carmichael was the only legislator to stand with transgender individuals on the Capitol steps for a rally opposing the bathroom bill on April 29.

Carmichael said he stood up with the LGBT protesters to try to ensure they have the same civil rights he and his wife enjoy.

During the rally, he referred to supporters of the bathroom bill as Neanderthals for thinking “that child molesters and perverts masquerade as women or men just so they can walk into bathrooms.”

He also likened the bathroom bill to the segregation of restrooms by race, which was common across the South until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Although a transgender bathroom resolution would have no legal effect, it still sends the wrong message, he said.

“I will vehemently oppose that resolution on the floor (of the House) should it be offered,” he said.

Would it pass?

A bathroom resolution would almost certainly pass if it comes to the floor on June 1, said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University and an expert on state government.

“It’s an important social issue for some folks,” he said, shortly after addressing the Wichita Pachyderm Club on Friday.

However, he said he doesn’t think it would have too much effect on the upcoming elections, which he thinks will mainly be decided by the state of the economy and education.

While the transgender bathroom resolution will likely surface in the House, conservative Republican senators say they would probably pass it in their chamber as well.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Wichita, said the issue probably would have gone unaddressed at sine die without the Obama administration’s guidance letter.

I would simply say what President Obama has done changes the discussion. To make an edict on this issue is certainly going to ignite a response.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover

“I would simply say what President Obama has done changes the discussion,” Masterson said. “To make an edict on this issue is certainly going to ignite a response.”

Sine die a challenge

Passing any measure at sine die is a challenge because legislators from the far corners of the state usually skip the day, deciding it’s not worth the long drive just to hear ceremonial speeches.

But this year could draw more lawmakers to Topeka for sine die. There’s a possible move to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill to allow taxpayers who lose cases at the Board of Tax Appeals to appeal to district court. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, led the charge for the original bathroom bill and was glad to see the concept might be brought back at sine die.

She said the Legislature needs to give parents some certainty about what their children might expect at school.

While she would prefer a legally binding bill, “If we just have this one day, and we can pass an impactful statement, that would at least let Kansas citizens know where we stand on the issue.”

Thomas Witt, executive director of LGBT-rights group Equality Kansas, said all a resolution would do is “single out children who are already victims” in school because they’re different. “The Obama administration is trying to protect children.”

“They (state legislators) probably should pick on somebody their own size,” said Witt, who said he was beaten and stabbed in a school bathroom as a gay high-school student.

Whitmer said a sine die resolution would almost certainly lead to a bill next January to set the Legislature’s consensus in statutory law.

“If somebody else doesn’t beat me to it, I will put a bill out,” he said.

Opponents rally at the Kansas Capitol against a bill to require transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender at birth. Video by Dion Lefler / April 29, 2016

The evangelist called for the removal of "pornographic" books from schools and limiting transgender persons' access to bathrooms. Video by Bryan Lowry & Dion Lefler of the Eagle.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas