Respect Equality

Kansas could elect its first openly transgender lawmaker to state legislature this year

Educator of the Year honoree Stephanie Byers accepts her award at the GLSEN 2018 Respect Awards at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 21, 2018 in New York City.  Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for GLSEN

Story at a glance

  • There are currently four openly transgender lawmakers serving across the United States and 26 serving in elected office at any level of government.
  • Stephanie Byers, who ran unopposed in Kansas’ Democratic primary, now advances to November’s general election.
  • Byers is running on a legislative platform that includes expanded support for education, access to health care and local job creation.

From the young age of 12, Stephanie Byers knew she wanted to become a music teacher, and that’s exactly what she did. 

“When I was a kid I started band practice, in sixth grade, and my band director made life just…wonderful and fun. I kind of grew up in a tough neighborhood and where I went to school there were tons of kids like me that, you know, did not have money,” says Byers. “This gentleman made us all realize that we were somebody, and it didn’t matter how much money we had or didn’t have, what house we lived in — we were somebody special.”

“He did such a good job of it that at 12-years-old I thought, ‘I am going to be a band director when I grow up.’”

Byers continued onto college to get a degree in music education, and, as they say, the rest was history. She went on to teach at several schools around the country, from Colorado to suburban Arizona, before ending up at North High School in Wichita, Kan., where she taught for 28 years and was promoted to band and orchestra director before eventually retiring in 2019. 

It was five years before she decided to retire that she made another important decision: to begin her transition from male to female, a process that she tells Changing America has been a lifelong struggle. “You can’t just sit down and say that there’s one point you’re like ‘well this is what I’m going to do,’ it’s a decision that takes a lifetime and it evolves,” says Byers.

When the time came, her principal, Sherman Padgett, announced Byers’s transition at a staff meeting before the 2014 school year. “He announced who I was and who I would be from now on, and the response was overwhelming from my colleagues,” she told The Wichita Eagle in 2018, when the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) named her Teacher of the Year. “People that I have never spoken to in this building came up and wrapped their arms around me to tell me how much they care for me and love me and were proud of me. It was very, very affirming.”

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Since then, Byers has often spoken out on LGBTQ+ issues, including proposed “bathroom bills” that would restrict restroom access for trans people, but what the aspiring lawmaker seemingly puts ahead of everything else is the importance, and promise, of a quality education, as well as job creation and affordable health care.

“Our state funding is what drives education, and despite the state constitution requiring adequate funding for [it] we’ve seen one legislator after another work out ways to curb the funding for schools,” says Byers. 

“As a teacher, I found myself with a frozen salary so many different times because the funding wasn’t there for teachers to get a cost of living increase. We saw how it impacted students in the classroom — whether you’re going to school and you find textbooks that should have been replaced 10 years ago, still being used and held together with duct tape. Those impacts have always pulled on my heart, but when I was busy working as the band orchestra director there was no extra time to do anything about it, and so when I retired at 56, I realized I’ve been given an opportunity here.”

Her a-ha moment

It was Oct. 8, 2019, and Stephanie had traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) rally. She stood on the sidewalk facing the dome of the Capitol Building — the U.S. Supreme Courthouse behind her, waiting to hear the results of whether the Civil Rights Act would now act as a protection for LGBTQ+ workers.

“I thought: ‘This is the chance. This is my opportunity. I really need to do this. And so I came back and started talking to some folks that helped make that difference.”

Byers is now advancing to the general election after running unopposed in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary, in which she “shattered a long-standing political barrier in Kansas,” says Annise Parker, president and chief executive officer of the advocacy group LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Come November she’ll go head to head with Republican Cyndi Howerton, after Wichita’s longtime representative, Jim Ward (D-Kan.), leaves the seat to run for the state’s Senate. 

If Byers wins, she would join the existing four openly transgender lawmakers serving in other states, including Danica Roem of Virginia, Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker in New Hampshire and Brianna Titone, who flipped a previously Republican district in Colorado to win her seat in the State House. She would be the first openly transgender lawmaker to represent the state of Kansas.