Trans, queer and other community members call on leaders to make Lawrence sanctuary city for trans people

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Sylvie Althoff addresses the Lawrence City Commission during its meeting on June 6, 2023.

About 30 people called on city leaders to not enforce a far-reaching transgender bathroom ban set to go into effect in July and declare Lawrence a sanctuary city for transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people.

Those asking the city to take action filled City Hall as part of the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, and spoke passionately about the need for protections in the face of the anti-transgender laws coming out of the Kansas Legislature, in particular SB 180, which bans transgender people from using the bathrooms and other gender-specific areas associated with their gender identity.

Sylvie Althoff, a trans woman, called on the commission to protect her community and her family and offer more than good intentions, because without protections her family will have to leave for their own safety.

“I’m a member of this community, my family owns a house here, I own a business, I have friends, I perform music, I write and babysit,” Althoff said. “And after July 1, I will be breaking the law every time I leave the house and engage in public life.”

Isaac Johnson, a trans man, said when he was at the Kansas State Capitol in March for work, someone noticed him in the bathroom and trailed him. He said he wondered what would have happened if the law had already been in place, and urged the commission to make Lawrence a sanctuary city for trans people.

“He could have reported me to Capitol security, who then could have removed me from the bathroom or the building altogether,” Johnson said. “I could have been questioned, arrested or fined simply for washing my hands after lunch at a public event I was attending for work.”

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Isaac Johnson addresses the Lawrence City Commission during its meeting on June 6, 2023.

As the Associated Press reported, Kansas Republican legislators voted on April 27 to enact what may be the most sweeping transgender bathroom law in the U.S., overriding the Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of the measure without having a clear idea of how the law will be enforced. At least eight other states have enacted laws preventing transgender people from using the restrooms associated with their gender identities, but most of them apply to schools. The Kansas law applies also to locker rooms, prisons, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

The bill is written broadly enough to apply to any separate spaces for men and women, and the AP reported that Kelly’s office said it could prevent transgender women from participating in state programs for women, including for female hunters and farmers. As written, it also prevents transgender people from changing the gender markers on their driver’s licenses — though it wasn’t clear whether that change would occur without a lawsuit. Critics of the new law believe it is an attempt to legally erase transgender people while also refusing to recognize genderfluid, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people. They argued that the bill’s vagueness will prompt harassment of transgender people.

As the Journal-World reported, in just 24 hours after the Kansas Legislature enacted the new law, numerous clients had contacted Lawrence attorney David Brown — who has worked with the LGBTQ community in Lawrence since he opened his law office in 1992 — expressing fear and confusion. Brown said some clients planned to move to other states or countries to escape the discrimination and danger posed by the law, and that for those who don’t have the resources or desire to move, “it’s a very dark time.”

Several people spoke to the impact the legislation has on the community.

Jenny Robinson, a social worker and LGBTQIA affirmative therapist, said that SB 180 is based and fear and not supported by evidence. Robinson said that as a queer woman and therapist who works predominantly with queer and trans folks, she experienced and saw the distress that transphobic and homophobic legislation has, and that she’s had a lot of conversations with people who are considering leaving the state or wish they had the means to do so.

“Our city came alive this past weekend to celebrate pride,” Robinson said. “If you allow this bill to be enforceable in our city, your show of pride is an empty shell. If you allow this bill to be enforced, you’re actively contributing to the erasure of and violence against our trans community members.”

photo by: City of Lawrence screengrab

Jenny Robinson addresses the Lawrence City Commission during its meeting on June 6, 2023.

Specifically, those who spoke to the City Commission called the city to take three actions: to not enforce the new law, SB 180; to create a policy that the Lawrence police department does not enforce, arrest, detain or surveil any individual under the auspices of SB 180; and that the commission create an ordinance establishing Lawrence as a sanctuary city for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people that protects Lawrencians against existing and future transphobic legislation.

The commission does not usually take action on items that come to the governing body outside of its agenda as part of public comment. Commissioner Courtney Shipley, however, took a moment to say that the city’s legal department has been looking into the matter. During the commission items portion at the end of the meeting, commissioners reconfirmed their interest in the topic and that it would come back for further discussion following the legal review.


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