Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr listens as Montana State Representative SJ Howell speaks in support of Zephyr at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas Rep. Brandon Woodard and Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr pushed back Monday against movement among conservative state legislators to erode non-discrimination protections of LGBTQ+ individuals in a quest to “erase” them from public society.
They objected to legislation, anchored in definitions of gender based on reproductive capacity, that included enactment of transgender sports bans, restrictions on gender-affirming medical care, limitations on use of public restrooms, refusal to modify name or gender on birth certificates as well as barriers to amending driver’s licenses or student identification cards that reflected designations made at birth.
The agenda running deep in statehouses of Kansas, Montana, Tennessee and North Dakota was denounced by the Human Rights Campaign leaders who argued weakening of LGBTQ+ rights in employment, housing, health care and education ought to worry every resident of those states.
Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and among the few gay lawmakers serving in Kansas, said the Republican-led Legislature was narrowly able to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of Senate Bill 180, which advocates labeled the woman’s bill of rights.
The law banned individuals born without the ability to produce eggs for reproduction from using women’s gender-specific areas in prison facilities, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, locker rooms, restrooms and “other areas where biology, safety or privacy are implicated.” Kansas also required transgender girls and women to participate in school or college athletics programs for boys and men.
“This is one of the most extreme measures in the country working to erase trans folks,” Woodard said. “The government is trying to shrink itself small enough to fit into our bedrooms, our bathrooms, sports fields and doctor’s offices.”
He said it was ironic Republicans, primary advocates of the bill in Kansas, thought of themselves as the party of limited government and individual freedom.
Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who supported the override of Kelly, said the law was “essential in protecting the right to privacy, dignity and safety for females.” Meanwhile, Kansas GOP Rep. Brenda Landwehr, also of Wichita, said Democrats were intent on undermining her rights by redefining what constituted a woman.
“What about my rights?” Landwehr said. “What about my comfort zone?”
The Kansas statute didn’t include precise language on how it would be enforced. The breadth of the law raised constitutional questions likely to be challenged in court.
‘Cradle to grave’
Zephyr, a first-term Democrat from Missoula and the first openly transgender woman legislator in Montana, said Senate Bill 458 pending before Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte would preclude legal recognition of transgender people by defining an individual’s “sex” based on reproductive systems.
The measure was flawed, she said, because it made as much sense to define sex in a binary manner as it would to defy science by declaring the earth flat.
“These types of bills begin with a faulty premise,” Zephyr said. “I describe it as discrimination from cradle to grave — birth certificates, driver’s licenses, marriage licenses. Even if you are a trans person who dies, when they inter you in the earth, this bill would require them to use your sex assigned at birth.”
Zephyr has been prohibited from speaking on the Montana House floor since April because she declined to apologize for breaking decorum. Her offense was telling peers who sought a prohibition on gender-affirming medical care for youths they would have “blood” on their hands.
She said the objective of statehouse conservatives in Montana and elsewhere was to eliminate legal protections for LGBTQ+ people, especially transgender and non-binary individuals.
Back into closet
Kelly Robinson, president of Human Rights Campaign, which organizes on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights, said the news conference with Zephyr and Woodard was in response to activism by anti-equality forces in state legislatures attempting to shove LGBTQ+ individuals back into the closet.
Four states — Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Tennessee — either enacted or forwarded to governors legislation labeled “LGBTA+ erasure acts,” she said.
“What’s happening right now is outrageous. It goes beyond efforts we’ve seen in the past. And, if we don’t stop it, it will endanger not just LGBTQ+ people but every American,” Robinson said.
The legislative agenda denounced by HRC could have implications for LGBTQ+ rights in employment, housing, health care and education. It could result in intensification of formal and information discrimination.
“It means every trip through airport security or being carded in a restaurant is a time for potential harassment or danger,” Robinson said. “These reckless efforts by extreme lawmakers will open a big can of worms in the states where they are going into effect.”
Robinson said it was legitimate to connect political fights for bodily autonomy in relation to abortion with arguments about bodily autonomy regarding gender identity. Intertwining these issues can be viewed in context of a “broader assault on democracy,” she said.
Long arm of laws
Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow said a thread among bills adopted in Kansas and the three other states was an “unworkable” definition of sex that was reduced to interpretations of reproductive capacity. The approach disrupted decades of federal civil rights law, she said.
Warbelow said to strategy of the legislation was to convince LGBTQ+ people to conceal themselves from public life. In Kansas, she said, GOP legislators appeared to cast the bill in a manner inviting state courts and human rights commissions to turn aside discrimination complaints.
“If you can’t access proper forms of ID, if you can’t address discrimination that is happening to you, if you can’t access the medical care that you need it becomes increasingly difficult to operate in a modern world,” Warbelow said.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the public ought pay attention to state regulations and legal challenges in the states as the new statutes took root.
In Tennessee, he said, the pending bill was like a minefield posing a direct threat to transgender and nonbinary people.
“It is creating a climate of fear and uncertainty,” he said. “I think it is no accident the LGBTQ community is being erased through this bill at the same time that authoritarian efforts at erasure of representation itself are taking place in some of our states. Representative Zephyr is a palpable reminder that there are major efforts to silence the voices of our community.”
This piece was produced by the Kansas Reflector which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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