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For America's 1st Indigenous transgender lawmaker, Pride is 'a statement of survival'

Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Byers on politics, transgender youths and the significance of LGBTQ Pride Month.
Image: Stephanie Byers.
Stephanie Byers.NBC News; AP

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit]

When state Rep. Stephanie Byers, a former high school music and band teacher, decided to run for office to represent Kansas' 86th District as a Democrat in the Republican-majority state House, she didn't know what to expect. The district, which includes much of Wichita, was nearly evenly divided among Democratic, Republican and independent voters, said Byers, who also happens to be transgender.

After her win in November, she's now Kansas' first transgender elected official and the country's first trans Native American elected official. (Byers is a descendant of the Chickasaw Nation.)

"When you add in the uniqueness of myself as a candidate, being a trans woman, nobody really knew how this district was going to play out," said Byers, 58. "There was uncertainty the whole time."

So when she found out that she had fended off her Republican opponent by 11 points, she was elated, she said. Her win, she said, was "indicative of where the people of Kansas are."

"We're more of a purple state than people realize — we're just a purple state that always seems to go red," she said. "It really is that the people are more accepting than the politics are."

Image: Stephanie Byers
Educator of the Year honoree Stephanie Byers accepts her award at the GLSEN 2018 Respect Awards in New York on May 21, 2018.Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for GLSEN file

Several policy proposals targeting LGBTQ Kansans have come up since Byers took office: In February, four House Republicans introduced a bill that would have made it a felony for doctors to provide gender-affirming surgery or other transition-related treatments to minors. And in April, the Legislature voted to ban transgender athletes' playing on girls' and women's school sports teams — one of the dozens of bills targeting transgender youths introduced in statehouses across the country. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, called the bill "regressive" and vetoed it; legislators came one vote short of overriding the veto in the Senate.

Byers testified against the bill at a hearing in February, saying the school district where she had taught provided a welcoming environment for transgender students. The district also lost trans students to suicide, she said, adding that she feared it could happen again if the bill were enacted.

"When my trans students would hear their names called and their pronouns used, they would beam," she said at the hearing. "It's a tremendous feeling to not be invisible but rather be seen for who you truly are."

It was one of many moments in Byers' new political career when she relied on communication strategies she honed in more than two decades teaching at Kansas' largest public high school.

"When you teach, it's not necessarily what you're trying to say — it's how it's received. When dealing with politics, you sit there and consider, 'What I'm going to say, how it's going to be received, how can I make those connections so that the message gets through?'" she said. "I'm a physical embodiment of what they're talking about — even if they see me as a 58-year-old woman and not a 16-year-old girl — but they realize this is who a trans person is."

While she has faced her fair share of challenges in the state House, Byers' students and school community were "overwhelmingly supportive" of her identity since she came out as transgender in 2014, she said.

By the time she retired in 2019, she had begun to be recognized nationally as an advocate by LGBTQ organizations. In 2018, she was named Educator of the Year by the national LGBTQ youth advocacy group GLSEN. In October 2019, she spoke out in behalf of trans educators and students at a rally sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union outside the Supreme Court as its justices were hearing arguments in cases that would ultimately forbid job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Speaking out that day, Byers said, catalyzed her decision to run for office.

"I thought, 'Here's a chance being handed to me to not just give speeches but to maybe actually change law,'" she said.

While Byers hasn't gotten any bills passed in her first term, she has made a point of prioritizing issues affecting LGBTQ people. She introduced a bill that would amend an outdated section of the state constitution so it no longer defines marriage as solely between people of the opposite sex, and she proposed another bill that would repeal the 2018 Kansas Adoption Protection Act, which allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject single and same-sex parents seeking adoptions in Kansas.

In the House's next session, Byers hopes to continue to propose policies protecting LGBTQ Kansans. She wants the state to ban gay and trans conversion therapy and amend the Kansas Act Against Discrimination to include explicit protections on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity. She also wants to better fund public schools, expand Medicaid in the state and increase broadband access in rural areas, she said.

Byers said that during Pride Month, she will speak at an LGBTQ celebration in McPherson, about 60 miles north of Wichita. Many of the state's Pride events, including Wichita Pride, are held in September, when the weather cools down, she said.

To Byers, Pride "is a statement of survival, it's a statement of embracing, it's a statement of identity, and it's a statement of acceptance."

She hopes her position in office will help pave the way for future acceptance of more trans women of color in Kansas politics.

"Part of what I realize that my responsibility is is not just legislating for the moment but also making sure I'm opening a door and I'm holding that door open for the next trans woman of color to step into office," she said. "I may be the first trans woman of Indigenous descent, but I shouldn't be the only."

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