A Kansas judge says barring driver’s license changes doesn’t violate trans people’s rights

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TOPEKA, Kan. — A Kansas judge ruled Monday that the state isn’t violating transgender residents’ rights under the state constitution by refusing to change their driver’s licenses to reflect their gender identities.

District Judge Teresa Watson kept in place indefinitely an order she first issued in July 2023 to prevent the Kansas Department of Revenue from changing the listing for “sex” on transgender people’s driver’s licenses. Attorney General Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican, sued Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration to stop such changes in line with a 2023 law that ended legal recognition of transgender people’s identities.

Watson allowed transgender Kansas residents to intervene in Kobach’s lawsuit, and the American Civil Liberties Union argued on their behalf that the no-changes policy violated rights protected by the Kansas Constitution. The Kansas Supreme Court declared in 2019 that the state constitution grants a right to bodily autonomy, though the decision dealt with abortion rights, not LGBTQ+ rights.

Watson said invoking the right to bodily autonomy to require the state to change driver’s licenses would be “an unreasonable stretch.” She said Kansas residents do not have a fundamental right under the state constitution to “control what information is displayed on a state-issued driver’s license.”

“Information recorded on a driver’s license does not interfere with transgender persons’ ability to control their own bodies or assert bodily integrity or self-determination,” Watson wrote in her 31-page order, issued in Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka.

Kelly supports LGBTQ+ rights. After she took office in 2019, her administration allowed transgender people to change their driver’s licenses and birth certificates to reflect their gender identities.

The Republican-controlled Legislature overrode her veto to enact the 2023 law, and transgender people can no longer change either identity document, thanks to Kobach’s efforts.

It’s not clear whether Kelly’s administration or transgender Kansas residents will appeal Watson’s ruling. D.C. Hiegert, an ACLU of Kansas LGBGQ+ legal fellow who is trans, predicted that Watson’s ruling will lead to transgender people being harassed and denied services.

“What possible reason can we articulate to deny our transgender population peace of mind?” added Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing the Kelly administration. “Why this vindictive attitude towards this class of individuals?”

The Kansas law was part of a wave of measures from GOP-controlled Legislatures across the U.S. to roll back transgender rights. Montana, North Dakota and Tennessee also enacted laws defining man and woman, and Republican governors issued executive orders in Nebraska and Oklahoma, where nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict was bullied and died after a fight in a girls bathroom at a school. Similar measures have been proposed in at least 13 other states.

The Kansas law doesn’t mention driver’s licenses or birth certificates but says for the purposes of any state law or regulation, a person’s sex is “either male or female,” based on their “biological reproductive system” identified at birth. Watson ruled that the law’s language is clear and “there are no exceptions.”

Kobach said in a statement: “This decision is a victory for the rule of law and common sense.”

Watson’s ruling came the day before the Kansas House planned to debate a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors, something at least 23 other states have done. A final House vote was expected Wednesday.

“We will continue working toward a vision of our state that allows all of us to live in peace, free from government persecution and impositions on our core identities,” Hiegert said in a statement.

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