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Bills targeting Missouri transgender children and drag shows draw hours of testimony

 Missouri Democratic Lawmakers and activists gather for a group photo during a rally on Tuesday, January 24. The group was protesting against a group of bills targeting transgender youth and drag shows that were set to be heard in committee that evening.
Sarah Kellogg
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Democratic Lawmakers and activists gather for a group photo during a rally on Tuesday, January 24. The group was protesting against a group of bills targeting transgender youth and drag shows that were set to be heard in committee that evening.

Missouri Lawmakers heard hours of debate and testimony over eight bills targeting the LGBTQ community during a House committee hearing Tuesday.

The bills heard included some that banned transgender girls from participating in sports that align with their gender identity, barred transgender kids from accessing gender affirming healthcare like puberty blockers and made it a misdemeanor for drag entertainers to perform in front of children.

Last year, the Missouri House passed a bill that barred transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports, but it did not pass in the Senate.

Now, one year later, Missouri lawmakers have again filed more transgender-related legislation. There are more bills filed barring transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports than there are transgender athletes participating in the state, according to the Missouri Independent.

Rep. Jamie Burger, R-Benton, who sponsored one of the three bills related to transgender girls’ participation in sports, said the matter is about fairness.

“Fairness is what keeps coming up in every conversation and this law is ensuring that girls will not have to be concerned about and getting to play their game fairly,” Burger said.

The Missouri State High School Activities Association and the NCAA already have guidelines on sports participation for transgender athletes. During testimony, all three sponsors of the bills said they weren’t familiar with those existing guidelines.

The sponsors of the bills repeatedly said the participation of transgender girls in girls’ sports could lead to cisgender girls from missing out on scholarships or opportunities that result from winning.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, pushed back on the notion that sports were just about winning.

“It's about opportunity to play, opportunity to experience the exercise value, the social value, the competitive value, the teamwork, all of the things that go into sports,” Merideth said.

The bills received testimony both in support and opposition, though more people in the crowd of more than 100 spoke against them.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was among those in support, also citing the fairness argument.

Neon Liebson said as a transgender student, they were unable to participate in some sports like basketball, soccer and baseball, though he has found community in other sports.

“As trans youth we are often discouraged or banned from playing sports with our cisgender peers. Trans kids are kids and we should be allowed to participate in activities and given equal opportunities as our authentic selves,” Liebson said.

In addition to bills related to sports, the committee also heard testimony on legislation that would bar physicians and health care professionals from providing gender transition procedures to anyone under 18.

It would deny access to medication like puberty blockers, which are given to delay the onset of puberty. They are generally considered safe to use, including by the Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Rep. Brad Hudson, R-Cape Fair, said his goal is to protect children from unnecessary surgeries and medications.

“I think it's important that we address it in a way that provides the children that are struggling with gender dysphoria with the help that they need, but does not harm them,” Hudson said.

Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community criticized the legislation, including Brandon Boulware, who is the parent of a transgender daughter.

“These kids are not asking for special treatment. They’re not asking for special laws. They are asking to be left alone. Let them make decisions with guidance from their parents and medical experts,” Boulware said.

Additionally, lawmakers heard bills related to drag performances. One bill labels businesses that host drag performances as a “sexually oriented business.” Another makes it a Class A misdemeanor on a first offense and a Class E felony on further offenses for performing drag on public property or a place where children could see it.

An hour before the committee began, opponents, including Democratic members of the legislature, rallied in the Capitol Rotunda.

Jordan Braxton, vice-president of TransParent, said as a trans woman who performs in drag, she fits into a lot of the categories discussed in the bills.

“What they want to pass is hurting our trans kids and I'm here to let trans kids know that as an adult, transgender woman, I am here to support you. I am here to love you,” Braxton said.

Caitlin Ung with the ACLU of Missouri said all the bills heard Tuesday are intrinsically anti-trans.

“Time and time again in our history, we've confronted the question of whom to include and whom to exclude. Each time we recognize, often after painful, shameful, avoidable acts of discrimination, that exclusion is not in the best interest of our society, or our country,” Ung said.

Ung said the bills violate Title IX, the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and would be challenged in court, if not by the ACLU then by other organizations.

Multiple lawmakers also spoke against the bills ahead of the hearings. Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, D-Kansas City, a member of the LGBTQ community, apologized to attendees for having to do this each year.

“This is a long fight, and as much as we're scared because our humanity is being questioned, they're scared too. That's what a lot of this is coming from, fear from not knowing how the person who doesn't look like me is going to act, fear that if I give them something, that means I have to lose something,” Bland-Manlove said.

Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, the only openly gay member of the Senate, said the LGBTQ community has been used for decades as a political wedge, including opposition to gay people serving in the military or getting married.

“I guess they've run out of ways to use me as a political weapon. So now, they've done something disgusting, and they're using you kids. And I can't tell you how this is gonna end. I don't know if we win or lose this battle. But I know in every one of those circumstances that I just named, we won the war,” Razer said.

The bills must be voted out of committee before moving on. A date for a committee vote has not been set.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.