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Kansas Attorney General Sues to Prevent Transgender People from Changing Driver’s Licenses

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Republican attorney general of Kansas sued Friday to block transgender residents from changing their sex on their driver’s licenses and to rebuke the Democratic governor for defying his interpretation of a new law.

Attorney General Kris Kobach went to a state court in hopes of getting an order to stop Gov. Laura Kelly and agencies under her control to stop allowing the changes to transgender people’s licenses. Kobach contends a law that took effect Saturday prevents such changes and requires the state to reverse any previous changes in its records, including about 1,300 made over the past four years.

The new law defines a person’s sex as male or female, based on the “biological reproductive system” identified at birth, applying that definition to any state law or regulation. It also says that “important governmental objectives” of protecting people’s privacy, health and safety justify single-sex spaces such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Kansas is among at least 10 states with a law against transgender people using facilities in line with their gender identities, though the new law includes no enforcement mechanism.

But Kelly’s office announced last week that the state health department, which handles birth certificates, and the motor vehicle division, which issues driver’s licenses, will continue allowing transgender people to change the markers for sex on those documents. Her office said lawyers in her administration had concluded that doing so doesn’t violate the new law. Kelly is a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and vetoed the measure, but the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode her.

In response to that announcement, Kobach said, “She is violating her oath of office to uphold Kansas law.”

The lawsuit filed Friday names as defendants two officials who oversee driver’s licenses. Part of the lawsuit reads: “The Governor cannot pick and choose which laws she will enforce and which laws she will ignore.”

His lawsuit seeks to force the governor to enforce the law as he sees it but did not request to stop changes to birth certificates. The rationale for restricting the lawsuit to driver’s licenses wasn’t immediately clear, nor was it clear how quickly the district court in Shawnee County, home to the state capital, Topeka, would deal with the case. Judges have the option of sending the lawsuit to a trial court to do fact-finding, which could delay a resolution for months.

The new Kansas law was among a raft of measures rolling back transgender rights enacted this year in statehouses across the U.S. But only a few states do not allow transgender people to change their birth certificates. Federal judges last month upheld policies in Oklahoma and Tennessee, and a no-changes rule in Montana is expected to face a legal challenge.

Kelly won her first term as governor in 2018 by defeating Kobach, then the Kansas secretary of state. He staged a political comeback last year by winning the attorney general’s race as she captured a second term, both of them by slim margins.

The governor’s statements about the new law are at odds with descriptions from LGBTQ+ rights advocates before the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted it over Kelly’s veto. The advocates predicted that it would prevent transgender people from changing their driver’s licenses and amounted to a legal “erasure” of their identities, something Kobach confirmed as the intent when he issued his legal opinion.

“For me to go into a bathroom and not have a marker that represents who I am, I was terrified. I was afraid I was going to get accosted or harassed,” said Ty Goeke, a 37-year-old transgender Topeka resident who changed both his birth certificate and driver’s license last month.

Goeke participated in a transgender rights rally last week with his wife, Mallory, who carried a sign made from a toilet seat, calling for the new law to be “flushed.” Ty Goeke said he sobbed with joy in a state health department office when he changed his birth certificate.

“Now that I have the correct marker, I feel much better, feel more confident,” he said. “I feel at ease with myself.”

The legal wrangling is complicated by a federal lawsuit filed in 2018 against Kansas health department officials by four transgender residents over a previous no-changes policy on birth certificates imposed under a Republican governor. That policy also hindered changes in driver’s licenses.

Kelly settled the federal lawsuit months after taking office in January 2019, and a federal judge issued an order to enforce the settlement that requires the state to allow birth certificate changes. The order remains in effect.

Kobach has asked the federal judge to rescind his order but argues that the new state law supersedes it. Others disagree.

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