Published May 18th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
A loud clatter of skateboards, abandoned by riders grinning at a near wipeout, interrupts conversations among friends and new acquaintances.
It’s the first time Late-Nite Bite, a monthly sober and queer event, has set up shop at Goofball Sk8boards in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City, and it’s clearly a success.
Late-Nite Bite is the brainchild of several queer and transgender-led entities, Triangle Head Universe, Spicy Moon Foods and Cauldron Collective. The goal is to foster a creative and queer-led space for folks to gather on a weekend night that isn’t alcohol centered.
“When there are these queer-centric spaces, it gives me space to just really, truly, fully be myself and not have to worry about the way that I’m being perceived or treated,” said Olive Cooke, one of the founders of Cauldron Collective.
The energy is upbeat at the skate shop. Folks circulate with colorful drinks prepared by Spicy Moon Foods and Cauldron Collective. Some decorate coloring sheets designed by Triangle Head Universe while a VHS of the movie “Hook” plays on an old TV.
It’s a moment of joy for members of Kansas City’s trans and gender non-binary community who have been the target of a recent wave of legislation on both sides of the state line.
Kansas City already is considered a place of refuge for many, albeit not perfect. Recently, the city declared itself a “safe haven” for gender-affirming health care and solidified what many in the trans and non-binary community had already decided: to stand their ground.
“It really is the gayest little prairie city. I very affectionately call it Transas City,” Cooke said with a laugh. “They’re going to have to chase us out with torches and pitchforks at this point, because we’re not leaving. What we’re trying to do here is just create the space that we need to feel safe and to feel our sense of community.”
Even with a strong community and a resolute attitude, trans folks are afraid.
This year politicians nationwide have introduced 543 pieces of anti-trans legislation, nearly four times as many as those introduced in 2022, according to Trans Legislation Tracker.
Forty-three of those bills came from Missouri alone, which ended up passing bills targeting gender-affirming health care and school sports participation. The two bills have gone to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who is expected to sign.
In the interim, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey issued a set of emergency rules that would have limited access to gender-affirming care for folks of all ages. The rules faced a lawsuit and were eventually withdrawn by Bailey earlier this week.
In Kansas, legislators overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto and legalized a “women’s bill of rights,” which would restrict access to public spaces like bathrooms, locker rooms and prisons to that of a person’s biological sex at birth. Legislators also overrode a veto and banned transgender sports participation.
The Missouri House and Senate each proposed “Missouri Save Adolescents from Experimentation” (SAFE) acts, one of which passed with several concessions. These provisions would allow minors (under 18) who, prior to Aug. 28, 2023, started receiving gender-affirming care for the sake of a gender transition, to continue receiving treatment. Additionally, the legislation expires after four years.
Under its “safe haven” resolution passed last week, Kansas City declared its intention not to enforce the legislation.
Proponents say the SAFE act is designed to “save” minors from “experimental” gender transitioning practices. Under the act, physicians are barred from prescribing medications (hormones or puberty-blocking drugs) with the purpose of gender transition to minors, and from performing gender transition surgeries on minors.
Medical professionals say gender-affirming care has been misrepresented by politicians.
Dr. AJ Strickland, who practices family medicine, noted that medicine is by definition experimental. The job of a doctor is to be up to date with the latest research and findings of the medical community and to present those options to the patient.
“To pretend that there’s not ongoing research all the time into something so pressing, that affects so many lives, isn’t true,” Strickland said. “Of course there is, and I hope it never stops.”
For Strickland, the current practice of gender-affirming care in adults and minors has “overwhelming support” from the medical community. In many cases, gender-affirming care is lifesaving care.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services holds that gender-affirming care improves the “mental health and overall well-being” of gender-diverse youth — a population it says is prone to increased risk of mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide.
Survey data from the Trevor Project found that more than half of transgender and non-binary youth considered suicide in the past year. Those numbers are even higher among trans and non-binary people of color.
Sindhu Fedosyuk, a therapist based in Overland Park, said the term gender-affirming care is broad.
“Gender affirming, to me, means that you are respecting somebody’s identification and treating them accordingly,” said Fedosyuk, who is certified in gender therapy.
Fedosyuk works mostly with children. The basis of gender therapy, she said, is helping patients to achieve a sense of congruency between their outward and inward selves. Sometimes, that leads to Fedosyuk writing a letter of recommendation for the patient to receive hormones, but every person has unique needs.
“Some kids come in and say, ‘I hate my body’ and that’s all they’ll say,” Fedosyuk explained. “So that takes a lot of work just to get to the point of deciphering what does that really mean. It’s not my place, I feel, to immediately determine what they need, but rather to assist them on their journey.”
That journey will include parents, the child’s school and other doctors. It’s never just one person deciding.
“The goal is not to do anything that’s against a law, but at the same time, the whole purpose of my job … is just to provide a safe place for someone to be themselves,” Fedosyuk said. “How can I do that? If I’m not affirming?”
Fedosyuk isn’t alone. In recent months she’s received an “epic number” of consults from colleagues —other doctors worried about what type of care they can provide.
The fear stoked in the medical community means fewer doctors providing this type of care and longer waitlists for those seeking it, regardless of age.
Organizations like Planned Parenthood and Plume, a telehealth company specializing in gender-affirming care, have stepped up to try and fill some of the gaps in service.
Jerrica Kirkley, Plume’s co-founder and chief medical officer, has dealt with legislative restrictions around the country. As a telehealth company, Plume must abide by state regulations where the patient is located.
“Plume applauds Kansas City public officials who fought to make the city a safe haven for the trans and gender-diverse community simply seeking life-saving care,” Kirkley said. “We look forward to working alongside Kansas City officials to ensure all Missourians receive the best care possible.”
Nationwide, these conversations are dominating staff meetings and whispered among providers.
And while the issues are felt differently — online, in school or at work, for example — Latinx and Black trans youth experienced more hostility and bullying. In health care settings, 68% of trans people of color “reported negative or discriminatory treatment from a doctor or health care provider” compared to 27% of white trans folks, according to a national survey by the Center for American Progress.
“Relatively speaking, Black and brown individuals have higher despair in terms of the access to health care whether it’s regional or socioeconomic or employment status,” said Kendall Martinez-Wright.
Martinez-Wright is a board member for PROMO, Missouri’s LGBTQ advocacy organization. The organization has spearheaded opposition to anti-trans bills as they crop up in Jefferson City.
“Already, individuals in the transgender community, unless they live in Kansas City, or St. Louis, or even maybe Colombia, they have no access to that critical health care,” Martinez-Wright said. “It’s diabolical … that we’re really trying to have additional restrictions.
“It’s a disturbing trend … there’s bigger fish to fry than worrying about a very, very low percentage of individuals that are accessing … something that should be God given, which is access to health care.”
Martinez-Wright knows. She was raised in rural Missouri, where she said churches were the dominant social influence. Although raised in a loving home, she struggled to find a space that validated her identity.
“I like changing the narrative. It does not matter where you come from, what matters is making sure that your voice and our voices are at the table,” Martinez-Wright said, with an emphasis on trans people of color.
Political actions, like hundreds of anti-trans bills and the Missouri attorney general’s emergency rules, set a precedent.
Regardless of the viability of these laws or rules, Martinez-Wright said they normalize transphobia.
“Over the last few years, there have been rampant cases, especially for Black and brown trans individuals, heightened acts of violence towards them,” Martinez-Wright said. “That is because of some of the precedents that our elected officials or even unelected appointed officials are placing.”
The transgender community has become a divisive “political point,” she explained, part of a broader strategy for the upcoming 2024 elections.
This is something Freddie Dolphus, a personal trainer in Kansas City, sees.
He started transitioning five years ago, a decision that he said saved his life.
“It’s just a power play,” Dolphus said. “They (politicians) can’t really control the economy, they can’t control matters that really do impact people in Missouri and the people of Kansas City, so (they’re) going to go after people that they think are easy prey.”
To him, the focus on restricting transgender health care continues to divide the state and divert energy from other, more important issues.
He pointed to some contradictory points in legislative efforts, such as the “Women’s Bill of Rights” in Kansas, which would force him to use women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.
“Y’all want me to be up in your daughter’s bathroom? Looking like this?” Dolphus said. “They forget that there are not just trans women — there’s non-binary, but you’ve also got trans men here.”
To Dolphus, the goal of these bills, the attacks on his community, are aimed at driving them away from the state.
But Kansas City is Dolphus’ home.
“They want us to leave … and then they can shore up Missouri and make it a Republican stronghold,” Dolphus said. “I’m not just going to give that to them. They’re going to have to fight for that one.”
He’s not alone in the fight.
For local leaders like Imije Ninaz, changing the narrative and building safe spaces is critical for trans folks living in the region. Ninaz is a leader at the Nafasi Center, which engages queer and trans people of color.
Ninaz is focused on teaching folks in the community to build resilience.
“Instead of putting our focus into that of the places where we can’t go, what we can’t do,” Ninaz said. “We … pour that energy into what we already have. Because the more you pour your energy into what you have and what you are protecting, … the larger those spaces grow. And so you crowd out that oppression.”
Across the city, folks are working to create the Kansas City in which they want to live.
A series of Trans Joy Picnics started. A queer, BIPOC social club has formed. Transformations, a local organization supporting trans women of color, will host a Liberation Camp this fall. Cooke and the rest of Cauldron Collective are looking for a brick-and-mortar location. Late-Nite Bite will continue to bring folks together once a month. Goofball Sk8boards persists as a safe place for trans kids to play.
“A big thing for us is just showing trans youth that there are trans adults that are thriving,” Joan Rose said.
Rose, who owns Goofball with their wife, wonders if they’ll walk in to work one day with a brick thrown through the window.
Their safety is a concern, but the pair want to stay and continue providing this space, especially for the kids who say it’s their favorite place to be.
“Our lives are being a lot more politicized than they actually are,” Rose said. “Kids just want to play, we just want to be productive members of our community, and we want to make our community more vibrant.
“I don’t think these laws are really recognizing the fact that we have things to contribute, and that we’re not a drain on society.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs and leads the journalism engagement series, curiousKC, for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a multimedia producer for Kansas City PBS and the producer of the Flatland in Focus.