Stephanie Byers, a retired public-school teacher of nearly three decades, is many things. She is passionate about expanding Medicaid and funding public education. She is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. And she could become the first transgender lawmaker in the state of Kansas’ history.
Byers, who ran unopposed, won her district’s Democratic primary earlier this month. Come November, she will go up against Republican businesswoman Cyndi Howerton. Byers’ district, which encompasses much of Wichita, has traditionally leaned liberal.
“I think Kansas surprises a lot of people,” Byers said in an interview with CNN. “When you drill down a little bit, it leans a little more purple than a lot of people realize.”
Her community’s support of her public transition, which happened while she was a music teacher, may also surprise those who view Kansas as a socially conservative stronghold.
“I was able to make that transition with the full backing and blessing of my school board, of our superintendents, of my building principal, who was really just fantastic with it. My fellow faculty, with maybe one exception, were great, too. And that one exception, he struggled a little bit, but two years later, we had no problems with each other, you know?” Byers said to CNN.
She added that her coming out coincided with the Obama administration, and the different guidance coming from the Department of Education — particularly regarding transgender students and teachers.
“I wish I could say I didn’t lose any of my students,” Byers said. “I did lose one, maybe two kids because of it. Otherwise, though I had hundreds of kids and they were all very accepting and very supportive. … And it was kind of like ‘hey, it’s a good band, just keep making us a great orchestra.'”
Although one study from UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, there are zero transgender members of Congress. With few exceptions, that also holds true at the state and local level.
Slowly, though, that reality may be beginning to shift. According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, there are currently 26 transgender elected officials in the United States. In Vermont, three transgender women are running for state legislature. Two trans women were just elected to Democratic district leader positions in New York. Even in West Virginia, long considered to be a deep red state, voters elected the first trans woman to the city council in Wheeling.
The urge to enter political office came to Byers when she retired in 2019.
“I found myself in a position where I was thinking about those things that I was really, truly passionate about and realized that politics would give me the opportunity to use my voice actively,” she told CNN.
Byers has been an outspoken voice for LGBTQ issues in the state, like when former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said that, if elected, he wanted to bar Title IX funding from schools that allowed transgender students to play women’s sports, according to the Kansas City Star.
Speaking at a rally outside the Supreme Court last year, Byers responded, “I think the majority of people are like, why are they doing this? Is this because they have such a weak campaign that they don’t have any actual issues?”
Last week, the ultra-conservative Kobach was defeated by Rep. Roger Marshall in the Senate GOP primary.
Before Byers transitioned, she explained, “I was very good about not letting people know. One of the things about people who are transgender, you can have someone who is transgender sitting right next to you, that you’ve known your whole life.”
Byers’ win has sent ripples of hope to other members of the trans community, particularly those in traditionally red states.
“At a time when trans people are targeted with hateful policies and legislation by the Trump administration and in so many state legislatures, Stephanie’s race is a powerful reminder of where our country is headed,” Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement following Byers’ win.