As Kansas nears gender care ban, students push university to advocate for trans youth

University of Kansas students, Chris Raithel, from left, Jenna Bellemere and Raine Flores-Peña, share a light moment outside the university's Memorial Union after an interview, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Lawrence, Kan. The students are part of a push to get administrators to add transgender rights language to university policies. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

University of Kansas students, Chris Raithel, from left, Jenna Bellemere and Raine Flores-Peña, share a light moment outside the university’s Memorial Union after an interview, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Lawrence, Kan. The students are part of a push to get administrators to add transgender rights language to university policies. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — With Kansas poised to ban gender-affirming care for minors, college students are trying to counter Republican efforts to roll back transgender rights by pushing the state’s largest university to declare itself a haven for trans youth.

The GOP-controlled Legislature approved its proposed ban on puberty blockers, hormone treatments and surgeries for minors Wednesday, apparently with the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override an expected veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Kansas would join 24 other states in banning or restricting gender-affirming care for minors, the latest being Wyoming last week.

But the week before — when a ban already appeared likely — the Student Senate on the University of Kansas’ main campus overwhelmingly approved a proposal to add transgender rights policies to the school’s code of student rights. The proposal asks administrators to affirm the students’ right “to determine their own identities,” direct staff to use their preferred names and pronouns and commit to updating student records to reflect their gender identities. Administrators have not formally responded.

The university’s hometown of Lawrence, between Kansas City and the state capital of Topeka, already has a reputation for being more liberal than the rest of the Republican-leaning state. But students involved with the transgender rights proposal said it’s urgent now to show that the university will advocate for LGBTQ youth despite a Legislature they see as hostile.

“The people in charge have made the decision to support some things that are really cruel and unnecessary and unjustifiable,” Jenna Bellemere, a 21-year-old transgender senior, said of lawmakers. “It’s students and the younger generation who have to kind of step up and say, no, we don’t think that that’s OK and fight back against it.”

Republicans in Kansas have been part of a multi-year and nationwide push by GOP lawmakers to roll back transgender rights. Last year, they overrode Kelly vetoes of measures ending the state’s legal recognition of transgender residents’ gender identities and banning transgender women and girls from female K-12 and college sports.

Six months ago, lawsuits by conservative GOP Attorney General Kris Kobach forced Kelly’s administration to stop changing the listing for “sex” on transgender people’s birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

Chris Raithel, a non-binary University of Kansas junior, was among those who worked on drafting the Student Senate proposal since last fall. Their goal wasn’t to create a confrontation between the university and the Legislature that could fuel a budget-cutting backlash, they said, “but we do think it would be a great service to the trans students at the university if these protections were in university policy and students would see that they are understood and that they’re protected.”

Republicans have pushed for a ban even though trans youth, families and medical providers in Kansas opposed it. The move also goes against the recommendation of major American medical groups, though the National Health Service of England recently said it no longer would routinely cover puberty blockers and hormone treatment for minors.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, described his chamber’s approval as a firm stand against “radical transgender ideology.”

Several doctors are among the legislators backing the Kansas measure, arguing that they’re protecting children from potentially irreversible medical treatments with long-term health effects.

“The bias, as some people call it, is predicated on fear — fear of the unknown — and there is still a lot that we don’t know about what we’re embarking on, particularly with minors,” said state Republican state Rep. John Eplee, a doctor from the state’s northeastern corner. “This is not meant to be hateful or hurtful.”

Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, a central Kansas anesthesiologist and pain-management doctor, suggested the proposed ban would protect “troubled children” from “wayward parents and a wayward health care system.”

GOP legislators approved a proposed ban last year but couldn’t override Kelly’s veto. This year, supporters saw a net gain of 12 votes in the House to reach the necessary two-thirds majority there.

In the state Senate, supporters were one vote shy last year but picked it up Wednesday from Republican Sen. Brenda Dietrich, of Topeka, a former local school superintendent. She switched because this year backers added a provision that would give doctors until the end of the year to move patients off puberty blockers or hormone treatments.

Dietrich’s voice shook as she explained her decision to colleagues Wednesday evening, saying it was a difficult vote. She said she’d worried about the potential harm of cutting off treatments suddenly but has always agreed with people in her GOP-leaning district, who “overwhelmingly” oppose gender-affirming surgeries for minors.

“Their anger regarding physicians and parents allowing surgeries on children is palpable,” she said.

Even supporters of the ban have acknowledged that Kansas doctors do few gender-affirming surgeries for minors. Young transgender adults have said in interviews that they’ve gone through months — sometimes several years — of therapy, puberty blockers and hormone treatments first.

And critics of a ban said the provision allowing a gradual withdrawal of treatments that reduce the risk of suicide, while potentially better medically than an abrupt end, doesn’t prevent harm to the physical and mental health of transgender youth.

“Minors and their families are already facing significant emotional turmoil from facing these hateful bills year after year,” Amanda Mogoi, an advanced practice registered nurse from Wichita who’s provided such treatments for eight years, said in an email. “They will not want to stop their life-saving medications.”

While the measure would ban treatments only for people under 18 years old, the college students behind the University of Kansas proposal still see it as a threat to them, in part because they don’t expect GOP lawmakers to stop there. During the House debate Wednesday, health committee Chair Brenda Landwehr suggested that Kansas should consider extending the ban to people in their early 20s.

“If I could ban this until a child’s brain fully developed, I would do that in a heartbeat,” said Landwehr, a Wichita Republican.

Bellemere said that even without a broader ban, doctors might stop treating young transgender adults, fearing lawsuits or other legal problems.

Another transgender University of Kansas student, Raine Flores-Peña, a junior and LGBTQ+ rights activist working at the school’s Center for Sexuality & Gender Diversity, said some friends transferred to other universities after Kansas legislators ended the state’s legal recognition of their gender identities. But he began his transition after moving to Lawrence in 2018, and describes himself as very stubborn.

“I don’t want to get kicked out of my own home,” he said.

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