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Kansas law puts wide restrictions on transgender residents starting July 1


On Saturday, a new Kansas law that puts broad restrictions on the state's transgender residents takes effect. The state is one of the first to define male and female according to biological characteristics. That's expected to bring a host of changes. And there's uncertainty about how the new law will be enforced. Rose Conlon of the Kansas News Service reports.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: Thea Howard worried that coming out as transgender would cost her the job she's held for six-plus years.

THEA HOWARD: My plan was to wait until this year, so that way I could find another job, save some money, because that was my fear, is that I would be fired when I came out.

CONLON: She ended up telling the board members of the El Dorado, Kan., nonprofit she directs last year after it became unbearable to keep hiding who she was. They were supportive. But the new law has brought new concerns for Howard and other transgender Kansans.

HOWARD: I've seen parents of trans kids break down and cry for fear of their kids. I know a couple of friends are very seriously looking into moving out of Kansas if they haven't already.

CONLON: The law tethers the legal definition of male, female, man and woman to the sex a person is assigned at birth. It could restrict transgender people's use of a wide range of facilities beyond bathrooms and locker rooms. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly vetoed the legislation. But she was overridden by conservative lawmakers, including State Rep Brenda Landwehr.


BRENDA LANDWEHR: The idea that my 4-year-old granddaughter would have to go into a bathroom and possibly be exposed to a male, is that right?

CONLON: Supporters call the law a women's bill of rights, but opponents say it's an attack on transgender people. In the weeks after it passed, hundreds turned out to legal aid sessions held across the state.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whoever is ready for their notary, you can line up here.

CONLON: People were rushing to update the gender on their driver's licenses and birth certificates in case state officials stopped allowing it. Ellen Bertels, an attorney with Kansas Legal Services, says having an inaccurate ID can make it harder to use a credit card or board a plane.

ELLEN BERTELS: Because it seems like just this tiny, little thing on this one piece of paper. But it has a huge impact on someone's life.

CONLON: In 2019, a federal judge said Kansas must grant ID changes. But Republican Attorney General Kris Kobach is now seeking to undo that order. And in a surprise move this week, he asked officials to reverse all changes that have already been made.


KRIS KOBACH: The legislature chose to have our laws reflect biological fact rather than a person's chosen expression of identity.

CONLON: It's unclear whether officials will comply. Supporters said the law would keep transgender women out of women's spaces. But it doesn't outline any enforcement measures or create a crime for not obeying. Micah Kubic is executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

MICAH KUBIC: To some extent, I think that the lack of clarity may have been intentional in the sense that it still sends the signal of fear and harassment that many of the sponsors wanted it to.

CONLON: That's fueled confusion among businesses and local officials and left trans people scared they could become bigger targets if they're forced to use facilities that don't match the gender they present as. Wichita nurse practitioner Amanda Mogoi says many trans people already avoid using public bathrooms. And that causes medical problems.

AMANDA MOGOI: You know, the truth is that we do see a higher propensity of urinary tract infections that progress to be bladder infections or kidney infections because of people holding their urine. It's really dangerous.

CONLON: Several of her trans patients are now planning to leave the state. Others, she says, are so scared of the harassment the law could bring that they're considering halting their transition.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rose Conlon