The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kansas lawmakers override governor veto to pass anti-trans bathroom bill

Kansas state Rep. Jesse Borjon (R) talks on his phone during a House vote on overriding Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of a transgender bathroom bill on Thursday at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (John Hanna/AP)
4 min

Kansas lawmakers on Thursday passed what critics call one of the most sweeping anti-trans bathroom bills in the nation, overriding Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto as conservative state lawmakers are increasingly embracing culture war policies.

The new law defines a man and a woman by their sex organs at birth and divides the two groups in their use of bathrooms in athletic settings, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, jails and prisons, while also leaving open its application in other areas.

The governor did not immediately respond a request for comment. Her veto was overridden with a two-third majority of both chambers, which are under Republican control.

After the vote Thursday, Kelly said on Twitter that she was “disappointed some legislators are eager to force through extremist legislation that will hurt our economy and tarnish our reputation as the Free State.”

In a statement, Republican lawmakers said they “stand with women and girls in Kansas and their right to privacy, safety, and dignity in single-sex spaces. Trading one group’s rights for another’s is never okay.”

Introduced Feb. 7 as the “Women’s Bill of Rights,” the legislation provides no mechanism or agency for enforcement.

“There’s not really any clarity into how this would be implemented,” said Esmie Tseng, communications director for ACLU of Kansas.

Tseng described it as “one of the most extreme bills in the (country).”

Anti-trans bills have been making their way through state legislatures since January. At least 400 such bills have been introduced this year, and at least 29 bills introduced in the past three-and-a-half months have become law, surpassing the total number for all such bills passed in 2022.

Public schools have been central battlegrounds of anti-trans laws, with legislators deciding where trans children can go to the bathroom and with whom they can compete against in sports. However, the Kansas bill reaches not only into locker rooms and bathrooms but also incredibly sensitive centers where survivors of domestic assault are recovering.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, has said that while Republicans have long-controlled both chambers of the Kansas legislature, the number of more conservative lawmakers who embrace culture war policies has risen over the past three election cycles, providing urgency to such measures.

Republican lawmakers in Kansas have previously criticized transgender people using bathrooms.

Last year, Rep. Cheryl Helmer (R) singled out her colleague, Rep. Stephanie Byers (D) — then the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker — for using the women’s restroom in the Capitol.

“Now, personally, I do not appreciate the huge transgender female who is now in our restrooms in the Capitol,” she said. “It is quite uncomforting.”

Byers told The Washington Post that Helmer’s comments were “harmful for the entire transgender community — especially trans women.”

Byers served from 2021-2022 and did not seek reelection. She said that the recent bills that target transgender rights have been “heart wounding.”

“It’s always about protecting the wee little girls,” Byers said. “Trans people are not going into restrooms to sexually assault people. We are not pedophiles. The accusations are false and hurtful. It’s frightening to think of what’s ahead, as they are rushing now because end of session is approaching.”

The current wave of legislation aiming to curb transgender people’s rights began in 2016, most notably with North Carolina’s H.B. 2 — known as the “bathroom bill” — which was an emblematic early example of the culture war.

The bill passed into law but was repealed in 2017 amid economic pressure.

At the time, those who supported the bills said they are necessary to safeguard privacy and traditional values, particularly in public schools. Transgender students and their parents had told The Post that being forced out of bathrooms that align with their gender identity is discriminatory and a violation of their civil rights.

The Kansas bill, which will take effect July 1, also uses safety and privacy as its basis to define and separate people.

Tseng said the current legislative session in Kansas has sent a clear message to trans people: “We deliberately want to erase you from all these places that everyone needs to access.”

Moriah Balingit, Kimberly Kindy and Andrea Salcedo contributed to this report.