TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposal aimed at keeping transgender students out of girls' and women's sports is attracting enough interest in the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature to worry LGBTQ advocates.
A conservative Republican lawmaker introduced the measure this week in the state Senate. An Education Committee hearing hasn't been set, but the committee chair said the bill is designed to ensure "the playing field is fair" in girls' and women's sports.
"It's been a hot topic," said Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican. "There's a great interest in that by a large segment of the Republican caucus."
The Kansas State High School Activities Association, which oversees sports and other activities, has been notified of five transgender students who are active in middle school or high school activities.
Bill Faflick, its executive director, said Friday that he assumes most or all are athletes, because other activities are gender-neutral.
The association does not track the individual students' performance, and there's no record of a transgender athlete winning a championship.
Kansas is among at least eight states that are considering banning transgender girls and women from competing in girls' or women's sports in K-12 schools and colleges.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that allowing participation by transgender students "will destroy women's sports."
An executive order from Democratic President Joe Biden prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in school sports and elsewhere sparked a backlash from conservative groups.
In the U.S. Senate, Kansas Republican Roger Marshall is also backing legislation that would keep transgender athletes from participating in girls' or women's sports.
"I just want to ensure that women have the same opportunity that I had a college athlete, to have a fair and equitable playing field," said state Sen. Renee Erickson, a former college basketball point guard, the Wichita Republican behind the measure. "It's protecting discrimination against women."
Proposals to criminalize medical treatments that help transgender minors transition to their gender identities also have been introduced in the Kansas House and Senate but appear unlikely to get hearings.
Equality Kansas, the state's leading LGBTQ-rights group, has in recent years fought to keep such proposals from getting even a committee hearing, arguing that greater visibility for them spurs more harassment of kids who already face a high level of bullying. A similar House bill on transgender athletes last year never got a hearing.
Tom Witt, the group's executive director, sees such measures as conservatives' reaction to being unable to bar gay marriage since a 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Almost every single anti-LGBT bill that's been introduced since marriage was legalized has been targeted at children," Witt said. "They're schoolkids - they're in school. They can't be up here fighting this stuff."
Freshman Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, the Legislature's first transgender member, said the dearth of transgender champions in girl's and women's sports shows that there's no fairness-in-competition issue.
The Kansas activities association has for about a decade had a policy under which schools can allow transgender students to play on teams associated with their gender identities. Schools are supposed to notify the association when they do.
Byers said the push for the measure contrasts with lawmakers' concerns about how K-12 schools' move to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has potentially damaged kids' mental health because, among other things, some have restricted sports.
"Now, we see them intentionally trying to prevent kids from participating in athletics because of gender identity, completely unaware that it's going to cause mental health issues that are completely unrepairable," Byers said.
Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers, but some GOP lawmakers have misgivings about pursuing the measure on transgender athletes, including some conservatives.
At least a few worry that allowing a debate could spark a broader fight over LGBTQ rights - and force lawmakers to discuss expanding the state law against discrimination in employment and housing, which doesn't specifically bar bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Might not like it - careful what you ask for," said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.