Kansas bill to limit gender-affirming care for transgender minors dies after failed veto override

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Kansas state Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchison, speaks in favor of overriding Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, Monday, April 29, 2024, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Steffen says the state must protect "confused" children from a "confused health care system and confused parents." (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. – A proposed ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors in Kansas died Monday when two Republicans switched their votes and prevented the Republican-controlled Legislature from overriding the Democratic governor's veto of the measure.

The Kansas House voted 82-43 to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of a bill that also would have barred state employees who work with children from promoting social transitioning for kids who question or struggle with their gender identities. But supporters were two votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

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Republicans who backed the bill argued that a ban would protect vulnerable children from what they described as experimental health care that could create long-term health issues. It would not only have banned surgeries for minors but also puberty blockers and hormone treatments. The Senate voted Monday morning 27-13 to override Kelly’s veto, the exact margin supporters needed there.

Since Kelly vetoed the bill earlier this month, its critics have focused on the provision aimed at keeping state workers from advocating for social transitioning, which under the bill included “the changing of an individual’s preferred pronouns or manner of dress." LGBTQ+ rights advocates said it made Kansas' proposed ban more sweeping than other states' laws.

“I can breathe,” Iridescent Riffel, a transgender LGBTQ+ rights activist who worked against the bill, said in an interview after the House vote. “I'm relieved. I know many other families in Kansas are,” the 27-year old from from northeastern Kansas said.

LGBTQ+ rights advocates questioned whether the provision on social transitioning was written broadly enough to apply to public school teachers who show empathy for transgender students. GOP backers rejected that argument, but the bill didn't spell out what constitutes promoting social transitioning.

“I think the fear is the point,” Taryn Jones, vice chair of the LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Kansas said after the House vote. “The people in those professions would be too afraid to do anything that they weren’t supposed to.”

About 300,000 youths ages 13 to 17 identify as transgender in the U.S., according to estimates by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ+ research center at UCLA Law. It estimates that in Kansas, about 2,100 youths in that age group identify as transgender.

At least 200 Kansas health care providers signed a letter to lawmakers opposing a veto override. Transgender youth and parents of transgender children described gender-affirming care as life-saving and argued that it lessens severe depression and suicidal tendencies. The care also has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other major U.S. medical groups.

Republican state Reps. Jesse Borjon, of Topeka, and Susan Concannon, from rural north-central Kansas, said parts of the bill were too vague for them to vote to override Kelly's veto after both voted for the measure last month.

The bill would have given providers until the end of the year to phase out puberty blockers and hormone treatments for existing patients, but Borjon said he was bothered by how the bill wouldn't have allowed those patients to continue their care after that.

In a brief speech explaining her “no” vote, Concannon told fellow House members, “These decisions belong between the team of professionals and the parents.”

“The youth need our help, not government overreach,” she added. “To all who have reached out, I hear you.”

The Kansas measure was part of a broader push to roll back transgender rights from Republican lawmakers in statehouses across the U.S. Kansas would have been the 25th state to restrict or ban such care for minors, and this week, the South Carolina Senate expected to debate a similar measure that already has passed the state House.

Supporters of the Kansas bill repeatedly cited the recent decision of the National Health Service of England to stop covering puberty blockers as a routine treatment for gender dysphoria in minors.

“Unfortunately, in today’s society, the predator in particular is a woke health care system,” said Republican state Sen. Mark Steffen, a central Kansas anesthesiologist and pain management specialist.

Republican lawmakers in Kansas last year enacted laws barring transgender girls and women from female college and K-12 sports teams and ending legal recognition of transgender residents’ gender identities. Transgender residents no longer can change the listing for “sex” on their driver’s licenses or birth certificates to match their gender identities, something Kelly’s administration had allowed.

The Legislature also approved a gender-affirming care ban last year, but Kelly vetoed it, and GOP supporters didn't have enough votes in either chamber to override her action. But support built this year as most previously skeptical Republicans came aboard.

Kansas Senate Health Committee Chair Beverly Gossage, a Kansas City-area Republican, told her colleagues: “We’re on the right side of history on this.”

State Rep. John Eplee, a northeastern Kansas family physician and one-time skeptic of the ban, said people are seeing children start to transition to a gender other than the one assigned at birth “more and more and more.”

“It’s time Kansas said, ‘Enough. We're going to take a break from this,’” Eplee said during the House's debate Monday.

Democrats in both chambers pushed back against such arguments, and in the Senate, Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes urged her colleagues "to show grace and kindness.”

Jenna Bellemere, a 21-year-old transgender University of Kansas student, said after the House vote that she's been frustrated by the efforts to roll back transgender rights and worries that people are becoming “desensitized” to attacks on the transgender community.

“I feel like we should be able to expect better.”

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