For over three decades, Stephanie Byers taught music and band at the largest public high school in Kansas. After seeing how decisions made by state lawmakers affected her students, she decided to trade retirement for politics.
“They saw a bottom line, a number that needs to be worked with, and didn't think about what that means when a student is staring at a textbook that is being held together by duct tape because it outlived its usefulness and the district didn't have the money to replace textbooks,” said Byers, who is running to be the next representative of Kansas House District 86, which includes much of Wichita.
A Democrat who ran unopposed in the primaries, Byers will face off against Republican Cyndi Howerton, a businesswoman, in the November election. While Kansas is largely a conservative state, Byers is a strong contender in Wichita, a progressive enclave that has historically swung left.
If elected, Byers has vowed to fight for increased funding for education and Medicaid expansion in Kansas, one of at least 12 states that have not expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act. She has also made civil rights protections a pillar of her campaign in a state where, according to advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, "there are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections" for LGBTQ people.
When Byers came out as transgender six years ago, she was largely embraced by her students and colleagues, an experience that pushed her to become a trailblazer for trans educators in her school district.
“I realized that when I came out as a teacher that I was blazing the pathway,” she said. “A lot of public educators that are trans may not necessarily come forward and come out during their careers, because the fact that there's the fear of prejudice is going to be there.”
As Republican-backed anti-transgender legislation — including much designed to keep trans students out of public restrooms and off sports teams — proliferated in statehouses across the country, including in Kansas, Byers met with school officials and spoke at community events to educate the public about gender identity.
Last October, she spoke out on behalf of trans educators and students at an American Civil Liberties Union rally outside of the Supreme Court, which at the time was hearing arguments in cases that would determine whether employers had a right to terminate workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, a year before she retired, Byers was named both state Educator of the Year by GLSEN Kansas and national Educator of the Year by GLSEN, the national LGBTQ youth advocacy organization with chapters across the country.
If Byers wins her election on Nov. 3, she will be the first out transgender lawmaker from Kansas. She is one in a "rainbow wave" of at least 574 LGBTQ candidates who will be on the ballot next month, according to a new report by Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for LGBTQ candidates. Byers said politicians who are transgender are seen as novelties, and that’s something she hopes to change.
“It's a part of who we are. It's part of our identity, but it's not the only thing. There's so many other things we are passionate about as well,” she said. “It's just a matter of normalizing that enough that it's no longer a thing, and ... it's just a matter of what can we do to serve the communities that elected us?”
The candidate, who grew up in neighboring Oklahoma, is a wife, parent of two adult sons and a grandparent of nine children. She’s a member of the Native American Chickasaw Nation and has deep roots in the working class. She said her father, a longtime U.S. Postal Service worker, and her mother, who served as national vice president to the American Postal Workers Union Auxiliary, showed her the struggles that working-class families face.
“I'm a parent, I'm the grandparent, and I know the challenges that families face at this time,” Byers said, “and that's who I want to be a voice for — for those families that need somebody who stands up for them.”