Rep. Stephanie Byers’ new House colleagues were always cordial to her in that Kansas way, even the ones who supported policies that would keep those like her invisible.
In the early weeks of her first legislative session this winter, they made a point of complimenting her daughter-in-law’s paintings, which she’d hung on the walls of her first-floor office in the Kansas Statehouse. How gifted she was, said lawmakers who had just promoted bills targeting the rights of transgender children.
Byers, 58, the first openly transgender woman to serve in the Kansas Legislature, said the interactions were always confusing, given that many of the friendly legislators belonged to a state Republican Party that voted in 2018 to “oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity.” Or, as she put it, to put trans people “back in their place.”
“Do they just compartmentalize that much? Do they look at me and go, ‘But you’re different, but you’re special?’” she asked in a recent interview looking back on her first session. “Or do they go, what I see as the roots of my identity, that it’s fundamental to who I am, and they’re thinking that this is just a choice that I made?”
“But, you know, you can’t get caught up in thinking and guessing what they think. It’s all about what are you gonna do. How are you gonna act on it?”
One of seven transgender lawmakers nationwide, Byers entered office as efforts to ban transgender students from girls sports and limit access to medical care swept the nation. According to CNN, more than 100 bills were introduced in 33 states, passing in three. A U.S. senator from Kansas, Roger Marshall, was a leading voice for the measures in Washington.
Byers, a retired Wichita North High School band director who publicly transitioned in 2014 while still teaching, launched her 2020 campaign with a focus on education policy. Her opponent never once made gender identity an issue.
But heading into her first year, Byers said she knew her mission would not be promoting new legislation but instead warding off measures she viewed as harmful.
Her colleagues in the Democratic caucus say her advocacy was key to defeating a bill banning transgender students from girls and women’s sports.
“I don’t know what the outcome would have been without her voice,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, one of seven freshman Democrat women in the House. “She was uniquely positioned to be the champion for these issues and to fight for the rights of LGBTQ Kansans.”
‘Here we are a century later’
Bills targeting LGBTQ rights are regularly introduced in the Kansas Legislature but rarely get hearings, let alone floor votes. This year, for example, a proposal to criminalize certain medical treatments for transgender children died in committee.
But the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” which banned transgender athletes from girls and women’s college sports, had a powerful champion in Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.
Proponents argued that transgender girls held an unfair advantage over cisgender girls in athletics. But according to the Kansas State High School Athletics and Activities Association, no students in Kansas would have been impacted by the proposed legislation.
In an unusual crossing of paths, the sports bill’s lead sponsor was a former college classmate and Wichita Public Schools colleague of Byers, Sen. Renee Erickson, vice chair of the Senate Education committee. While Byers knew the bill would have been introduced with or without Erickson, she said the connection made it difficult not to take the move personally.
Erickson said Friday she didn’t see the bill as personal.
“I have a lot of respect for Representative Byers, an excellent teacher, always felt we had a positive relationship. For me that has not changed,” Erickson said. “To me this is not a transgender bill ... it’s a pro-women protecting athletic opportunity.”
When Erickson’s committee held its hearing on the bill, Byers spoke of her Chickasaw native American heritage and the history of efforts to erase the culture “all because we were different from mainstream America.”
“Here we are a century later,” she said. “Right now this bill would ban trans girls from affirming their identity through sports, thereby erasing them.”
“It’s a tremendous feeling to not be invisible but rather be seen for who you truly are.”
After passage in the Senate, the House education committee left it to die on the calendar.
Younger Republicans in the House, Byers said, approached her to apologize. They told her their party was split on the issue and they didn’t understand why the measure was being pursued.
But Erickson and Masterson were relentless in their maneuvering, finally getting a version of the measure on the House floor through an 11th-hour procedural maneuver in early April. Language regarding healing arts training was removed from a bill and replaced with the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”
In the Kansas House, chatter between lawmakers is the constant soundtrack. But, according to those in the room, the chamber fell silent when Byers stood to explain her vote late on the evening of April 8.
“I think deep down we all knew that moment was going to come,” Rep. Jo Ella Hoye said. But her friend Byers, who she described as brave, inspiring and a rock star, was prepared.
Video of the debate was deleted in a technical error. Rep. Brandon Woodard, one of the first openly LGBTQ Kansans to serve in the Legislature, said Byers gave one of the most powerful speeches he had seen in his life.
“That’s the power of those of us being here and being a voice for a community,” Woodard said.
As the House prepared to vote, Byers fielded emails from Republican members who said they were not sure what to do and asked her advice.
“I try to encourage them to be true to themselves and I try to encourage them to listen to their constituents,” she said.
The bill passed that night 76-43. Afterward, Byers said, some members asked if she hated them. The answer was no.
“I’m a teacher. I learned a long time ago you can be frustrated with the behavior but realize that who the individual is that’s not necessarily who they are,” Byers said. “I say, ‘I don’t like what you say but I hope to educate you.’”
“They’re seeing how that vote physically manifested on my face,” Byers said about her floor speech. “They begin to understand the impact that it has on other people. Real people. Now it’s not the transgender community. It’s Representative Byers and the transgender community.”
The bill was vetoed weeks later by Gov. Laura Kelly. Senate Republicans were unable to gain enough votes to override. Still, in the final hours of the Legislature’s veto session, there was still discussion of strategies to pass it.
“(Byers) was on top of it all the time tracking it and we were putting out fires all the time,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer.
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said opposition to the bill took a “full court press” from his team as well as the three LGBTQ lawmakers, Reps. Susan Ruiz, Woodard and Byers.
“Having all three has changed my job immensely because I’m no longer fighting an uphill battle alone,” Witt said. Ruiz, Woodard and Byers, he said, are stronger and more consistent voices on the issues than anyone else in the room.
Byers credited the bill’s ultimate failure to the unified Democratic voting block against the bill and handful of Republicans who crossed party lines to oppose it.
“This is not a battle that we fight in singularity,” she said.
Byers, Hoye and Vaughn were among seven freshman Democratic women who worked together and supported one another throughout the session.
Vaughn described Byers as a mom of the group.
“There’s something about Stephanie, she always has something wise to say and she’s always there for you,” Vaughn said
Seven generations ahead
As one of only seven transgender lawmakers in the country, Byers has worked to block such bills nationwide.
As the Legislature reconvened for its ceremonial last day on May 26 she was exhausted, coming off a late night watching as Democrats in the Texas Legislature forced delay after delay until it was too late to vote on the state’s version of the sports ban.
“This is defining my existence. This is not a culture war. This is who I am and whether who I am has a place in this society or not,” she said.
Through her native heritage, Byers said she’s been taught to consider how her actions may impact those seven generations ahead of her.
Heading into 2022, she said she wants to see gender identity and sexual orientation included in existing Kansas anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime law. In addition to her work on LGBTQ issues, she said she was proud to provide an educator’s perspective to school policy and advocate for changing Columbus Day to Indigenous peoples day.
When she was elected, Byers expected the novelty of being a transgender woman in office to wear off within a month or so. Instead the interview requests keep coming.
“It’s just been amazing and at the same time it’s an opportunity to relive that experience over and over again,” she said.
Throughout the process she’s heard from constituents, in her district and outside of it thanking her for her work and her voice.
“It makes me feel like I’m in the right place at the right time,” she said.