BELLE PLAINE, Kan. — A retired music teacher would become the first openly transgender member of the deeply conservative Kansas Legislature if she’s elected from a Democratic-leaning district she’s expected to win.
Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, would join the ranks of other transgender people who have served in legislatures in other states, including four who currently hold such office.
Byers, who advanced to the general election after running unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, “shattered a long-standing political barrier in Kansas,” said Annise Parker, president and chief executive officer of the advocacy group LGBTQ Victory Fund.
“At a time when trans people are targeted with hateful policies and legislation by the Trump administration and in so many state legislatures, Stephanie’s race is a powerful reminder of where our country is headed,” Parker said.
Although Kansas is a heavily Republican state, the 57-year-old Byers noted that she’s is running for an open seat in a district that voted for President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
“As far as Kansas being ready to elect a transgender person, it is kind of about time,” Byers said.
She faces Republican Cyndi Howerton for the seat being vacated by state Rep. Jim Ward, a former Kansas House minority leader who is running for the state Senate.
Byers has “a good shot” of winning, Ward said. While a few voters in the district might have an issue with her being a transgender woman, most people really just care about what a candidate is going to do to improve their lives, he said.
Asked whether her opponent being transgender would become an issue in the race, Howerton said her campaign has been focused on issues important to Kansas voters, such as job creation, quality education and affordable healthcare.
Byers acknowledged that there is some “notoriety” to being a transgender candidate.
“For me, it’s just one aspect of who I am. It is not everything,” Byers said. “It is brought up quite often — usually by people in the media — because, you know, otherwise I would just be one more Democrat running for office.”
Byers, who retired last year after a 32-year career as a teacher, said her passion for education spurred her to run for the Legislature to protect school funding. The political novice also wants to expand Medicaid in Kansas after watching her oldest son and his family struggle to afford health insurance.
“If you look at her campaign, she is very clear what she is about: She is not a spokesperson for the LGBTQ community, she is an advocate for her constituents on things like education and access to health care,” Parker said.
“But we understand that she will also have a broader role just by her presence in fighting back against anti-LGBTQ and particularly anti-trans legislation,” Parker said. “And she will be a role model and an inspiration to queer youth in the state.”
There are currently four openly transgender people serving in state Legislatures: Danica Roem in Virginia, Lisa Bunker and Gerri Cannon in New Hampshire, and Brianna Titone in Colorado.
At least eight other transgender candidates, all of them Democrats, are running this year for legislature seats in Delaware, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Utah, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
“What we have seen as an organization is that putting one LGBTQ member in a state legislature makes a difference in terms of the tenor of the conversation and the types of conversations that happen, but it doesn’t necessarily change the outcome,” Parker said.
The far right has shown a willingness to target the transgender community, from the Trump Administration banning them from military service to state legislators putting forward bathroom access bills, she added.
“It is harder to say hateful, discriminatory things when you have to sit next to somebody in a committee hearing that is the target of your remarks,” Parker said.
Byers was teaching band and orchestra at Wichita High School North when, in August 2014, she publicly, as she put it, “presented as my authentic self” to students and staff. She called the support in the building incredible.
On that first day of class, she sat down with her students and told them: “Here’s the deal, you used to refer to me as Mr. Byers. Now it is Ms. Byers. And most of you just call Byers without any type of salutation and that still works. So now lets talk about what my goals are for class this year.”
“And that was it and everybody went, ‘Oh, OK’ and went with it,” Byers said. “I think there is much more acceptance for people who are trans on a one-to-one basis than what there is when you start looking at large groups of people, when you start looking at political platforms.”