'I'm not going to let my kid be a statistic': Kansas bill on transgender girls in holding pattern

Andrew Bahl Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal

EMPORIA — The most important thing to know about 12-year-old Ashley Brooks is that she loves trains.

Her favorite walks are down to the railroad-adjacent Fremont Park in downtown Emporia, where the seventh-grader often records and uploads trainspotting videos to a YouTube channel and a following of almost 600 viewers.

Few are the immediate cares in Ashley's world, or at least none that would be much different from any other middle schooler's worries, like homework and fitting in.

In her mother Ryann Brooks' world, though, her biggest worries for Ashley are in the Kansas Statehouse.

Ashley is transgender, and under a bill passed by the Kansas Senate and under consideration in the House, girls like her would be banned from participating in Kansas interscholastic girls' sports at the middle and high school levels, as well as in college.

In her daughter, Brooks sees a regular 12-year-old girl who loves trains and tornado sirens, with the two even traveling the state to map them out on a custom Google map.

After her daughter Ashley came out to her as transgender, Ryann Brooks, of Emporia, knew she had to speak out and advocate for her 12-year-old daughter.

Ashley, in other words, is not what the proponents of the bill make her and other transgender girls out to be, Brooks said.

"She’s funny, she’s got a sharp sense of humor," Brooks said. "We just happened to be mistaken when she was born about who she was. She had to tell us. I think that’s just how it is sometimes."

Trans youths find themselves in national debate

In Kansas and across the country, transgender youths have been dragged into a new front in the so-called culture wars, with similar legislation in three dozen states, as well as Washington, D.C.

Proponents of the fight, including a bevy of Kansas legislators and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who introduced the federal legislation, argue it isn't about LGBT rights but rather ensuring a level playing field in interscholastic athletics.

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Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, compared it to having age and weight classes in sports like wrestling.

"I've seen emotional pleas that are disconnected wholly ... from basic fact about the bill, let alone well-established science," he said during debate on the Senate floor last week. "I know there are emotions that exist in modern identity politics and in the political battlefield, if you will, that easily take us far, far afield when we discuss a subject like this.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill would be a noncontroversial one if emotions were taken out of the equation.

"And without those things, quite frankly, this would be a very simple, non-controversial bill." 

If a transgender child wishes to compete in school sports, current Kansas State High School Activities Association protocols request a student and family contact their school, which would make an assessment as to the team that child should play on and inform KSHSAA of the move.

The guidelines encourage schools to be proactive in ensuring that facilities are accessible and that coaches and teammates are sensitive and informed on issues like using the proper pronouns.

More:Senate bill banning transgender youths from Kansas sports is a bad solution looking for a problem

Proponents point to examples in other states where transgender athletes won state championships over their cisgender peers, but there is no indication that similar events have played out in the Sunflower State. KSHSAA has a record of five transgender students who are playing interscholastic sports in the state. 

Legislation remains in a holding pattern 

A hearing on the bill was scheduled for this week in the House Education Committee but was pulled at the last minute.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said the issue remained in flux and noted that it could wind up being added into a separate bill that is being negotiated between the two chambers, a process known as a conference committee.

After her daughter Ashley came out to her as transgender, Ryann Brooks of Emporia knew she had to speak out and advocate for her 12-year-old daughter.

"It is not a dead issue, but, at this point in time, I don't see something being scheduled this week," Huebert said.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said Wednesday the bill was still "being talked about among the parties." He was blunt when asked if it was true that leadership in his chamber was skeptical of moving forward with the bill.

More:Kansas Senate passes ban on transgender youths in girls sports, despite boycott fears

"That is not true," Hawkins said. "A lot of rumors around here, most of them are not true."

But Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said the House has historically been less open to "legislative gay-bashing."

"There is a pretty big plurality in the House, period, that is not excited about this kind of legislation," Witt said. "The people of Kansas have moved on, for the most part, from targeting LGBT people for discrimination."

More:Bill restricting transgender youths in sports faces uncertain future as activists clash in hearing

Megan Paceley, an assistant professor and Coordinator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, said transgender advocacy has been a part of the broader civil rights movement since at least the 1960s in the U.S., but transgender people themselves have been around forever.

Ryann Brooks testified in front of the Kansas Senate committee because she wanted them to see a more personal side to the transgender sports issue.

The main reason the issue has come up in recent years, then, has been because of bills like the one in consideration in the House looking to limit transgender people's participation and access to public services and spaces, she said.

"Transgender people are people," Paceley said. "In debates about whether transgender people should be allowed to exist in certain spaces, I see a lot of people forgetting this. Also, numerous prominent medical and mental health organizations have stated that being transgender is not an illness — not a mental illness — and that gender exists in a continuum rather than a binary. There is research to support this."

'Nobody should feel that way, especially not a kid'

Speaking to the Kansas Senate committee in February, Ryann Brooks shared her story with the legislators, wanting them to see a more personal side to the transgender sports issue.

Even though her daughter Ashley, a middle schooler, doesn't participate in school sports, the bill's mere purpose and intent is harmful to children like her, Brooks said.

Ryann and Ashley Brooks Fremont Park train

"I wanted them to see someone it would directly impact, and my daughter is someone who is directly harmed by this legislation," Brooks said. "She sees stuff like this on the internet, or on the news, and she feels like she doesn’t matter. And that’s not OK with me. Nobody should feel that way, especially not a kid."

More:Lawmakers, activists push back as conservatives introduce bills on transgender youth

Ashley came out to her family last summer around her 12th birthday, Ryann said. But the family wasn't necessarily surprised by the revelation. Ashley had been questioning her gender identity for a few years, occasionally wearing traditionally female clothes.

It wasn't until Brooks and Ashley were in the car together — possibly because Ashley felt more comfortable with Brooks distracted to bring up the sensitive matter, Brooks said — that Ashley announced she was a girl.

"It was kind of surprising at that point, but at the same time, it wasn’t surprising because she was so depressed and so anxious," Brooks said. "We knew it was something deeper, but she didn’t have the words to tell us what was wrong."

More:Lawmakers, activists push back as conservatives introduce bills on transgender youth

"As a parent, when you know there’s something wrong with your kid and you can’t fix it — it’s the hardest thing in the world, and it’s terrible," Brooks added. "Especially when they’re in such a dark place, and you don’t want someone that young thinking about the dark thoughts she has had in her head before."

Brooks said she knew she had to testify for young children like her daughter, who may not be ready to stand up and use their own voices.

"You can dress it up with arguments like ‘look at the science,’ but at the end of the day, what you’re saying is that trans girls aren’t real girls, and that’s just not true," Brooks said. "If I need to, I’ll just say it louder for the people in the back. Trans women are women, trans men are men, trans girls are girls and trans boys are boys."

South Dakota's trans bill booted due to legal concerns

In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem opted to push for a rewrite of a similar bill related to transgender athletes, despite previously saying she supported it. Her decision, she said, was begrudging and came in the face of a likely legal challenge, as well as opposition from business groups in the state.

The Kansas Chamber hasn't rendered a position on the bill, according to spokesperson Sherriene Jones-Sontag. Critics, however, are already raising the prospects of an economic and sporting boycott as an argument to ward off the legislation's passage.

More:Gov. Noem creates 'Defend Title IX Now' coalition to fight for 'fairness in women's sports'

And then there is the legal risk feared by Noem when she rejected the South Dakota bill.

Idaho, the first state in the country to pass such legislation, has been taken to court over the matter, with a federal judge ruling in August that it was unconstitutional. The matter is pending appeal, but the ACLU of Kansas has already vowed a similar legal fight in Kansas.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in support of a modified version of HB 1217 — what she refers to as a "fairness in women's sports bill" — Monday in Downtown Sioux Falls.

The University of Kansas and Kansas State University urged the Senate to oppose the bill in written testimony submitted by attorneys representing the two universities, warning it "puts higher education on a certain path to numerous litigation situations."

"The guidelines for competition standards and competitor allowances is best left to those respective athletic governing bodies to establish its own competitive environment that works for its student-athletes and communities," the joint testimony read

Paceley, the KU professor, said even if the bill were to only affect five students in Kansas, those five students still matter, and the bill is sending a message that transgender children are somehow unwelcome or flawed.

As many as 1.8% of U.S. youth identify as transgender, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and those children face substantially higher risks for depression and suicidality, as well as victimization at school.

More:Topeka City Council to discuss banning discrimination against gay, transgender people

"Importantly, the impact of these proposed policies is harmful even before a policy is passed — even if it is never passed," Paceley said. "Legislation and policies that aim to limit or restrict transgender youth from spaces and services that other youth have access to is related to increased mental health issues, including suicide attempts.

"Transgender youth in Kansas are already being harmed by this proposed legislation."

In supporting her daughter Ashley's interest in trains by taking her around the state's railroads, Ryann Brooks said she's helping support her future, which is especially important for at-risk transgender children like Ashley. "I want her to be able to explore the same opportunities that every other kid in the world has," Brooks said.

At a bare minimum, the state Legislature should treat transgender people as people, Paceley said. Rather than focusing on bills prohibiting them from participation in certain activities or spaces, she said the Legislature should create bills to promote inclusion and nondiscrimination, as well as support funding for transgender organizations.

Whitt, the Equality Kansas director, pointed to years of work in bullying prevention — which he believes would be undone with SB 208.

"We know that these kids are exposed and vulnerable," he said. "This kind of legislation, it just paints a target on their back."

'We just have to let kids be who they are'

At Emporia's Fremont Park on Saturday, Brooks took Ashley to watch and record trains, before a longer trip heading west on the railway to Strong City to do the same.

In those trips and efforts, Brooks said she is hoping to encourage and support Ashley's future.

"I hope for what any parent hopes for (their kids' future)," Brooks said. "She has, since she could talk and knew what trains were, talked about working for the railroad. She wants to be an engineer one day. I want her to be able to explore the same opportunities that every other kid in the world has."

It's for that same reason Brooks said she can't be quiet about what she sees as not only a deeply personal issue, but one about basic rights. In her role as the news and online editor of The Emporia Gazette, Brooks — with her daughter's permission — posted a column as a contrast to an earlier column by Gazette editor Ashley Walker questioning if allowing transgender girls in athletics would be "making our girls pay the price."

Brooks said she is by no means yet an expert on transgender youths, and maybe she never will be.

But for her and other parents working to better understand their transgender children, it's been encouraging to see a recent wave in acceptance among the Kansas community, especially in receiving what Brooks called an "incredibly positive" reaction when Ashley first enlisted her journalist mother to share the news she was transgender.

"In a lot of ways, we’ve come a long way as a community, but stuff like (the Senate bill) show we still have a long way to go," Brooks said. "We just have to let kids be who they are. That’s just my whole thing. Ashley just wants to be who she is. Trans kids have such a high rate of suicide, but that risk goes down when they have supportive adults in their world.

"I’m not going to let my kid be a statistic, and if that means being as loud as possible, then that’s what it will be."