The Neiss family drove from St. Louis to Jefferson City on Tuesday, a trip they’ve made many times over the past four years.
The reason is always the same: Legislation they fear will harm their transgender son.
On the agenda Tuesday night in the House General Laws Committee were a litany of bills aimed at limiting transgender students participation in sports and banning gender-affirming health care for minors.
When he testifies, like he did Tuesday, their 11-year-old is quick to tell lawmakers about his magic tricks, his unicycle — and his desire to play sports with his friends.
“People keep talking about how it’s unfair. But we’re talking about kids,” he said. “Adults are always telling us it’s not about winning; it’s about having fun. And how fun would it be if you couldn’t play sports?”
Sweeping education bill clears Missouri Senate committee without anti-transgender provision
His father, Russel, was much more direct with lawmakers. The family had to arrive for an 8 a.m. hearing in the Senate, then stuck around for a House hearing Tuesday night that started at 4:30 p.m.
“I love my son and care for him,” Russel Neiss said. “His school loves and cares for him. His camp loves and cares for him. His friends love and care for him. In fact, the only people who bully my son and make him feel he is not loved and cared for sit in this [legislature].”
With just 25 hours of notice and reports of an impending snowstorm, dozens of LGBTQ advocates rallied in the Capitol rotunda and stomped into packed hearing rooms Tuesday afternoon to stay through until the committee adjourned around 2 a.m.
Some voiced a feeling of invisibility after they had testified in opposition to similar bills for years.
This year, however, they saw at least a glimmer of change sparked by their advocacy.
State Rep. Chris Sander, a Republican from Lone Jack, decided to remove his name from a bill he had co-sponsored that would place restrictions on venues that host drag performances.
He told The Independent his friend Jordan Braxton was testifying in opposition of the bills, and that caused him to reconsider his position.
Katy Erker-Lynch, LGBTQ advocacy organization PROMO’s executive director, told The Independent she hopes Tuesday’s testimony will change the minds of other Republicans in the legislature as well.
“I couldn’t be prouder of how the community showed up,” she said. “I hope those who testified began to change the hearts and minds of lawmakers and they’ll focus on the real issues facing Missouri instead of forcing a culture war.”
Three bills debated Tuesday night seek to restrict transgender athletes to participating as their sex assigned at birth.
Lawmakers proposed nearly identical legislation last year but could not get a bill to the governor’s desk by the end of the legislative session.
Republican Reps. Jamie Burger and Bennie Cook, who filed the same legislation last year, joined Rep. Brian Seitz, a Branson Republican, before the committee Tuesday.
Seitz argued his bill “protects women and girls from being taken advantage of by men.”
“Medals that should belong to biological female athletes are instead held by biological male athletes. Girls’ opportunities are being taken away from them by biological males,” he said.
He spoke about Lia Thomas, a transgender woman and former University of Pennsylvania swimmer who stirred controversy after her success in the pool. He referred to Thomas by her name prior to her transition, also called a “deadname.”
“The hopes and dreams of our daughters and granddaughters are being sacrificed on the altar of inclusivity,” Seitz said.
Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat, pressed the three sponsors of the transgender sports bills about the Missouri State High School Activities Association and National Collegiate Athletics Association rules surrounding transgender athletes.
None of the sponsors knew the policies.
MSHSAA requires transgender athletes to be taking puberty-suppressing medication or hormones for at least one year for them to compete according to their gender identity.
In the 2021-2022 school year, only five transgender students were eligible to compete according to their gender identity, having completed MSHSAA’s process.
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Mayor of Kansas City Quinton Lucas said the five children are “important,” but the bill would hurt an entire community.
“We deal with a high number of suicides of trauma of depression for our trans children in Kansas City, Missouri,” he said. “Fundamentally, that’s in many ways all that we need to discuss today.”
“I want to make sure they have places where they don’t feel like they need to hate themselves or feel marginalized or feel that there is no reason to be alive,” he said. “And that’s what happens with legislation like this does.”
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified in support of the bills as a private citizen, he said, not as a representative of his office.
“I’m a father of a 10-year-old girl,” he said. “I want to make sure that she has the opportunity to compete and do the best that she can do and compete in a somewhat fair arena.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she was surprised to see Ashcroft.
“Traditionally, when you come into this building to testify, what types of bills are you here for?” she asked.
He listed various issues, like election law and prevailing-wage legislation.
Quade remarked that it seemed outside of his job as Secretary of State.
“Can you commit to us that this won’t be used in any sort of campaign?” she asked.
“What I can commit to you is that this is the way I’ve always felt about it,” Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft told The Independent in April he was not intending to seek re-election as secretary of state in 2024, though he is widely considered a likely candidate for governor.
Despite presence from officials and lobbyists, most of the people who testified in support or opposition were private citizens.
Three and a half hours into the hearing, PROMO members agreed to stop speaking on the transgender-athlete legislation to get to the other topics on the agenda.
Three bills under the committee’s purview sought to stop gender-affirming care for transgender minors, both hormonal treatments and surgical procedures.
Rep. Brad Hudson, a Cape Fair Republican sponsoring one of the bills, kicked off comments with a list of age-restricted activities, like drinking alcohol.
“We recognize that there are certain substances and activities that students can not engage in,” he said.
Rep. Mazzie Boyd, a Hamilton Republican, made the same argument.
“The realization that children need time to develop is not new,” she said.
They, alongside the third bill’s sponsor Justin Sparks, quoted from a study that has been misrepresented by conservative news outlets and legislators. They pointed to the study’s finding that people that underwent sex-reassignment surgery are more likely to die by suicide, but they didn’t acknowledge that the study compared these individuals to the general population.
“The community that goes and gets these kinds of treatments already has a higher rate of suicide than the general population,” state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, told the bills’ sponsors, arguing that the treatments do not cause suicidal ideation.
Lobbyist Garrett Webb spoke in opposition of the bills on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which he said represents 1,100 pediatricians and practicing trainees in Missouri.
“This is a very complex, complicated decision that is best left to the child and their family and their practitioner,” he said.
Webb said the sponsors’ concerns that children under the age of 18 were undergoing surgical transitions were moot. Doctors don’t perform these procedures on children that young, he said.
Brandon Boulware, father of a transgender girl, asked legislators to consider the social challenges of being a transgender child.
“Being transgender is an enormously difficult act. It comes with tremendous sacrifices,” he said. “Think of every uncomfortable moment you had growing up; multiply that by 100. That’s what trans kids face every day.”
But those in support of the bills were afraid transgender youth may have regrets even as transgender teens and adults told lawmakers that they had never been happier as a result of gender-affirming care.
“It doesn’t make any sense that we are allowing [children] to make this big of a decision,” Jennifer Houcek said.
Some speculated that the last-minute addition of eight bills to Tuesday’s agenda was the result of controversy surrounding a drag performance at the Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast.
Three drag queens performed what they considered a “G-rated” show to an audience that included middle school students, and Republican politicians statewide admonished their participation in the event.
The performance drew immediate criticism from Republican leaders, including Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Andrew Bailey. By Monday, bills pertaining to drag performances were added to the House General Laws Committee agenda.
Two bills addressed drag shows, one seeking to define drag venues as a sexually oriented business, joining the likes of strip clubs and adult arcades.
“Prior to the madness of the last few years,” Boyd said, “it was assumed we do not take children to drag shows the same way we assume we do not take children to strip clubs.”
She said she wrote her legislation to restrict children from seeing drag shows — but it would also set zoning restrictions and ban drag venues from serving alcohol.
Her bill’s definition of drag is murky, committee members said. It could be interpreted to include any cross-dressing performance, like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and even Shakespearean theater, Merideth said.
The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, adds the definition of an “adult cabaret performance” and seeks to keep minors away from drag shows that contain “prurient interest.”
Baker said he would define prurient interest as “lustful intention.”
Drag performers at Columbia event push back against Missouri Republican attack
Ingle asked if he had seen the drag performance at the Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast and if he would classify it as prurient.
Baker had seen video clips of and did not consider the show obscene and would therefore be allowed in the public eye under his bill.
Boyd, in contrast, wants to restrict children from seeing any drag.
Ingle asked her: “Do you believe that drag is sexual in nature?”
“Yes,” Boyd said. “I believe children should not be seeing that.”
One of the three diversity-breakfast entertainers, David Hall, who performs as Kaycee Adams, came to the hearing dressed in the blue-sequin jumpsuit from the performance.
Hall said he’s a mentor who doesn’t want his kids to see him “in any bad light.” But then the president pro tempore of the Senate shared his image on Twitter.
Hall spun in his jumpsuit, pointing out that nearly all his skin is covered.
“What about this is sexual?” he said.
Rep. Ron Copeland, a Salem Republican, asked him and the other drag performers testifying about another show Copeland alleges has nudity and sexual content. Copeland asked if nudity is appropriate in front of children.
They all said no.
Jordan Braxton, an intersex woman and drag queen Dieta Pepsi, told legislators during her testimony that Sander had pulled his support.
“Chris Sander is no longer backing this bill,” she said. “That’s how absurd it is.”
Sander told The Independent after the hearing that he’s known Braxton for 18 years, having met her at one of her performances.
He had been co-sponsoring Boyd’s bill but thought its language could ban Pride celebrations, so he removed his name.
He was still in favor of keeping minors away from graphic performances, but he has only known them to be in spaces that are already age restricted.
So, he thought writing a bill narrowing on the graphic shows would be “worthless,” he said — mirroring concerns LGBTQ advocates shared in the hearing.
This story has been updated since it first published.