The transgender-bathroom crusade flushes out Kansas conservatives

Kansans don’t know whether their public schools will remain open beyond July 1. The state’s fiscal foundations are collapsing. And tornados are terrorizing its towns.

State legislative leaders are really, really worried.

About bathrooms.

Conservatives in charge of the House and the Senate have decided they can’t wrap up the 2016 legislative session without making it clear that they — and not President Barack Obama — will decide who uses which bathroom in Kansas public schools.

Senate President Susan Wagle’s office has said she is drafting a resolution that would rebuke the Obama administration for issuing a memo advising schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice.

House Speaker Ray Merrick wants lawmakers to sign a letter opposing Obama’s memo. And some conservatives in the House are pushing for a more formal resolution.

It’s actually surprising that bathroom politics haven’t played more of a role in this year’s Kansas legislative session. Across the nation, the topic has surged as a backlash to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

“It was just weeks after the marriage ruling that I started hearing rumblings about this,” says Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, which advocates on behalf of LGBT citizens. “They couldn’t stop us from getting married, so they’ll pick on our kids.”

Transgender students have been using bathrooms conforming with the gender they identify with for years, Witt says. Equality Kansas has quietly worked with a number of families and school districts to make acceptable arrangements.

But conservative lawmakers in states around the country have suddenly become very concerned about where children pee.

A high-profile North Carolina law limiting students to bathrooms consistent with their biological sex has resulted in boycotts by businesses and entertainers, and a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

Two bills filed in the Kansas Legislature this year proposed even harsher measures than what North Carolina enacted. The companion Senate and House bills would have allowed a citizen who spotted a transgender person using an outlawed bathroom to sue a public school or university for $2,500.

Witt calls that a bounty invitation: Students could manufacture situations in order to have a chance at winning $2,500. Meanwhile, the bills sent a message that the very presence of a transgender student is the stuff of fear.

The bills were filed late in the session and didn’t list sponsors. But, no surprise, a big push came from Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook of Shawnee, the Sunflower State’s self-appointed arbiter of all things having to do with sex.

Pilcher-Cook’s past stunts include a live sonogram performed on a pregnant woman during a statehouse committee meeting. She has attempted to ban surrogate pregnancies and unsuccessfully tried to require that public-school sex-ed classes be offered only to kids whose parents had opted in. It was only a matter of time before she went to the bathroom.

One of the few upsides to Kansas’ perpetual fiscal crisis is that it crowds other matters off the agenda. The bathroom bills didn’t get far during the session.

That might have been the end of the matter, at least until next year, had the Obama administration not issued its “guidance” memo to school districts. But a directive from the red-state-reviled federal government now sizzles on the hot coals of sexual-identity hysteria, which means you’ve got a blazing cause in conservative Kansas.

For the right, the timing couldn’t be better. Legislative elections are coming up in August and November, and the Kansas GOP badly needs to distract the public from its failed tax and budget policies and the state’s deepening morass.

So it’s ready to take a stand at the bathroom door — pretending to defend schoolchildren from a threat that has never existed.

Even in the arsenal of distraction politics, this is a weak ploy. But it’s about all Kansas conservatives have right now.

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