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Trans leaders say bills in Kansas, Missouri targeting LGBTQ community are creating problem that doesn't exist

Trans leaders say bills are dangerous, untrue
Posted: 2:00 PM, May 04, 2023
Updated: 2023-05-05 19:28:45-04
trans leaders on bills
trans leaders on bills

Note: KSHB 41 investigator Sarah Plake is covering the impact of several bills targeting the LGBTQ community. This story will air on May 4 and 5. Watch KSHB 41 and check back on this web story later this week for both parts of the story.

Much of the focus this legislative session across the country is on gender identity, including in Kansas and Missouri.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 400 bills nationwide have been introduced that target LGBTQ rights.

Dozens of those bills are being debated at the Kansas and Missouri statehouses.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is threatening to keep lawmakers in a special session to pass these bills.

"I believe that'll get done," Parson said.

The bills limit the trans community’s access to healthcare, their participation in sports and their right to be in public places.

They also range from criminalizing schools for talking about gender and limiting how a student identifies at school to criminalizing drag shows.

So far, the Kansas legislature has passed a bill banning transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams and a bill that bans trans people from certain gender-specific areas, like bathrooms, locker rooms and even domestic violence shelters.

While we’ve heard from lawmakers all session long, we wanted to talk to the people we rarely hear from — the people who are closest to the issue, but feel these lawmakers don’t value their voices or their lives.

We sat down with Merrique Jenson, founder and executive director of Transformations KC; Kelly Nou, a Transformations KC board member; D.C. Hiegert, the LGBTQ-plus legal fellow for the ACLU of Kansas and JD Besares, the housing commissioner for the LGBTQ Commission of Kansas City.

"I'm super excited you're having this conversation because we have yet to really hear from trans folks about how the bills are affecting us and our younger selves and children," Merrique said.

The group of trans leaders told KSHB 41 Investigator Sarah Plake the dozens of bills in Kansas and Missouri that target the LGBTQ community, specifically trans kids, are full of veiled language.

Below is some of that conversation.

Plake: You hear words like 'protect,' 'help,' 'fairness,' 'age-appropriate,' 'experimentation,' 'mutilation,' 'save.' What does that really tell you when you look at those words? What does that really mean to you?

Jenson: Those are the same words that have been used historically to talk about LGBTQ people. So, to see it in the state capital, for me, isn’t surprising. I think it’s indicative of the larger system at play.

Plake: What are some of the words that come to your mind?

Jenson: Exhausting, alarming, scary.

Nou: Setback.

Besares: I think it’s hateful.

Nou: Triggering.

These leaders believe the intent behind the bills is to limit the community’s entire existence.

"Things like ‘save’ and ‘protect’ and they’re labeling lifesaving healthcare as ‘mutilation,’ so it kind of begs the question of what are they saving and protecting folks from?" Hiegert said. "Well, what they’re doing is trying to eradicate trans folks from public life."

Folks in the trans community are especially concerned with the bills targeting healthcare.

If passed, they would make it a crime for a doctor to provide gender-affirming care to kids, including puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and transitional, gender-affirming surgeries.

Gov. Kelly recently vetoed SB 26, which bans "gender-reassignment service" for kids.

However, Merrique says these bills are trying to create a problem that doesn’t even exist.

"They’re talking about surgeries for trans young people. I mean, who got surgery? No one is getting surgery. Doctors don’t even do that," Merrique said.

There are already limitations on how trans people - minors and adults - can access care.

KSHB 41 looked into the hospitals and institutions in our area that provide gender-affirming care.

They follow WPATH models and the Endocrine Society guidelines, which have been around for decades. Their standards of care do not include gender-affirming surgeries on children.

It was hard to get anyone from any Kansas City-area hospital on camera to talk about their programs, because they’re so fearful of potential attacks that would put their patients in danger.

We were able speak to a physician on the phone who specializes in gender-affirming care for adults and has extensive knowledge on care for minors.

This doctor has worked in internal medicine for 20 years. We are not naming the doctor or the institution because they’re worried about being targeted.

The doctor said no child is getting medication before puberty and no child under 18 is getting surgery; it’s just not something doctors are doing here.

Once a child does reach puberty and has received a gender dysphoria diagnosis, conversations about puberty blockers, which temporarily pause puberty, might begin.

Then they might move on to hormone therapy, which is more permanent and isn't typically an option until at least 16.

The doctor told us this is all an extensive process with a team of doctors, the patient, and their parents over time.

The patient receives counseling and information about possible side-effects and fertility, and this guidance is catered to the individual.

The doctor said many times, kids are not approved for these treatments but continue to receive counseling.

"It’s so clear the folks writing these laws aren’t even connected to professional healthcare providers and what actually is going on," Merrique said.

Besares said if lawmakers would take time to inform themselves, maybe they wouldn’t stand by this legislation.

"So if you can imagine what kind of trauma you'd feel if you knew someone was coming for you and coming for your healthcare that you depend on to live," Besares said. "For kids that are listening, we're here to support you and we're not done fighting."

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey recently tried to enact emergency orders that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for children and adults.

It was set to take effect on April 27, but St. Louis County Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo issued a temporary restraining order against the emergency order until a lawsuit challenging it is resolved.

Bailey's office set up a "tip line," asking people people to report "questionable gender transition interventions," but took it down after people bombarded the line with false tips and complaints against the tip line itself.

Plake: I know [similar legislation] has been going on the last couple years, the last several sessions, but it’s like we’re seeing so much toward the children. What do you make of that?

Besares: It’s such a negative thing to put upon children because they’re watching this, too.

Hiegert: People saw us starting to live public lives and there was like an immediate bracing, like, 'Oh, we don’t want to let go of the past, we’re not ready for this change.' But trans people have always existed. Just because there's been more visibility, now there's sort of this increased level of hatred that isn't really rooted in anything we're doing, we're just living our lives.

Jenson: It’s actually bigger than that. It's actually about privacy. Regulating privacy and control over people who have stepped out of the box.

Statistically, trans women of color have the lowest health outcomes out of anyone in this country.

"Growing up as a trans youth of color, I didn’t have access to resources," Kelly said. "I didn’t even feel safe. So, with these bills being pushed out, I just feel like it’s going to push these kids back even further."

The Trevor Project's 2022 survey shows that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

In comparison, the report says "LGBTQ youth who felt social support from their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support."

LGBTQ advocates and allies have protested at the state capitol and held walks and rallies, trying to get the message through.

LGBTQ bill protest
LGBTQ bill protest.

Plake: If any of these bills pass...

Merrique: We’re bracing for that. If these do happen, I think the messaging is important for trans young people to know there will be other ways to survive.

Hiegert: We’re still going to be here. All that’s going to happen is they’re going to make it harder to access certain things.

Plake: What do you tell kids right now if they feel unsafe, if they feel their lives are being threatened?

Nou: We love you. Don’t be in fear, ‘cause we are in these roles to help fight the fight.

Besares: I think it’s time to stand up as a city and say we won’t tolerate this behavior here. We are absolutely here to protect kids, and that doesn’t look anything like what’s been proposed in the state legislature.

We reached out to every lawmaker who has introduced a bill regarding the LGBTQ community. Five of them responded:

Sen. Rick Brattin (R-MO)
Rep. Justin Sparks (R-MO)
Rep. Brad Hudson (R-MO)
Rep. Barbara Wasinger (R-KS)
Sen. Renee Erickson (R-KS)

Brattin, Sparks and Hudson sponsored bills that would block trans youth from gender-affirming care and criminalize the doctor.

"I do want to make sure that doctors that prescribe life-altering drugs or who would subject kids to life altering surgeries for gender transition purposes, kids under the age of 18, we want to send a clear message not to do that," Hudson said in an April 13 news conference at the Missouri statehouse, referring to HB 419.

Most of the witnesses who filed testimony for HB 419 oppose it.

Hudson told me over the phone, “If children are provided with proper counseling, many children that suffer from gender dysphoria, will grow to appreciate their bodily sex.”

Sparks' bill is titled "Children Deserve Help Not Harm." He said in an email he doesn't believe it’s “ever appropriate to treat a mental illness with castration, sterilization or surgery.”

Sparks' bill is still in committee. The majority of witnesses who filed testimony oppose it.

It’s worth nothing that while the wording of the bills indicate they want to help kids, none of the bills set aside counseling resources for kids dealing with gender dysphoria.

Sparks pointed to recommended increases for mental health in the 2024 Missouri budget, but it’s unclear where specific funding for trans kids would fall.

Wasinger sponsored HB 2238, which bans trans girls from playing on girls sports teams. It was recently passed into law despite Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.

"It is consistent with Title 9 which has successfully given women opportunities since 1972. Let’s not go back in time," Wasinger said while on the House floor.

Erickson told us parents need to know if their child wants to go by a different pronoun at school, which is why she introduced SB 207. It never made it past committee.

Missouri Republican Senator Mike Moon never responded to KSHB 41's request for comment. He sponsored SB 49, which is also a SAFE Act bill and is like a sister bill to Hudson’s. It recently passed the Senate and is now going through the House. More witnesses who testified for that bill oppose it than support it.

Some lawmakers will point to Jamie Reed, a whistleblower who accused the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital of rushing children and their parents into gender-affirming treatment.

The Missouri Independent published a report in which it says they spoke with "numerous former patients" of the Transgender Center, as well as parents, who say their experience there was nothing like Reed described it.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the parents they spoke with said Reed, who was a case manager, was never in the exam rooms with doctors, patients, and their parents.

Reed provided a sworn affidavit to AG Andrew Bailey's office. Bailey launched a statewide investigation looking into what care certain hospitals provide its transgender patients. Kansas City's Children's Mercy Hospital sued Bailey in response.

If you or someone you know is part of the LGBTQ+ community and is seeking support, you can find resources at these websites: