Kansas Gov. Kelly clarifies position on transgender athletes

Kansas

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions from The Kansas City Star editorial board Thursday at The Star in Kansas City, Missouri.

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The day after releasing an ad declaring “men should not compete in girls sports,” Gov. Laura Kelly clarified that she believes the participation of transgender student-athletes in girls and women’s sports should be considered on a case by case basis, as it already is.

“We already have a structure in place, the NCAA has a structure in place to deal with issues like this on a one by one basis and I don’t think there’s any other way that you can really deal with this,” Kelly said in an interview with The Star’s editorial board.

Kelly’s ad created swift blowback this week. Republicans, who had made a campaign issue out of Kelly’s duplicate vetoes of a bill that would ban transgender athletes from sports girls, promptly accused the governor of lying.

The Republican Governor’s Association released a video Thursday mashing the governor’s ad together with news reports of her vetoes.

“Democrat Laura Kelly and her campaign are trying to have it both ways: running a false TV ad claiming Kelly wants to protect girls and women in sports while also refusing to say just how she’ll do it after twice vetoing bills that would have, RGA spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement.

Kelly denied that her ad was specifically targeted at transgender student-athletes when given the example of a 16-year-old high school student.

Instead, she claimed her ad was talking about “a male over the age of 18” who wanted to compete with girls — implying that her comments were about age rather than just gender identity.

“The ad that I put out was to respond to the misleading attacks that my opponent has put out that I favor letting men play in girls’ sports,” Kelly said. “I have never said that.”

Kelly’s campaign released her ad after Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly’s Republican opponent, held a campaign event earlier this month with Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who objected to the NCAA’s decision to allow Lia Thomas, a transwoman, to compete in Division I women’s swimming for the University of Pennsylvania.

Gaines also appeared in an ad attacking Kelly that was paid for by the RGA. Both Gaines and Thomas were above the age of 18 when they faced off in competition at the collegiate level. Kelly said she agreed with the NCAA’s case by case policy that allowed Thomas to compete.

Kelly reiterated arguments she made during legislative debates on the topic that the NCAA and Kansas High School Sports and Activities Association should be left to set policies and that blanket bans were discriminatory and bad for economic development.

“The bills that I vetoed were discriminatory. They were also designed by politicians. If this had come from the Kansas High School Activities Association, which is the governing body for sports in our schools, I would have addressed it differently,” Kelly said.

Schmidt has promised to sign the legislation restricting transgender athletes from competing in girls and women’s sports if elected.

Kelly’s ad has prompted mixed reactions from the LGBTQ community in Kansas.

Brenan Riffel, a graduate student at the University of Kansas who identifies as trans and non-binary, called on the governor to reconsider her rhetoric following the release of the ad.

“You either support trans kids or you don’t,” Riffel, who still supports Kelly over Schmidt, said in an email. “This rhetoric is worrisome and sends a message to trans kids in the state that they aren’t cared about or are only cared about when it is politically advantageous for someone.”

Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT rights group, said Kelly is trying to address scare tactic language deployed by far-right Republicans to “beat up on transgender children.”

“That language, men playing against girls, that is far-right extremist language meant to put an image in people’s mind of big, grown hairy men beating up on 5-year-olds playing kickball,” Witt said. “And of course, no one agrees with that because that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that trans kids go to school and they play sports with their classmates.”

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star as a breaking news reporter in May of 2019 before moving to the politics team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.

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