Domestic violence shelters fear new Kansas restrictions on trans people endanger funds

When the Kansas Legislature last month enacted a law requiring transgender people to use restrooms and other single-sex spaces according to their sex at birth, supporters cast the measure as helping protect women who have been abused.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, released a triumphant statement describing the law as pushing back on activists who ignore biological differences between men and women, compromising the safety of “female-only spaces” including domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

But Kansas domestic violence shelters have had a very different reaction. Shelter leaders and their advocates are denouncing the law, warning it will create confusion within the trans community.

They also fear the law, which they emphasize they didn’t seek, could endanger millions of dollars a year in federal funding because of strict federal non-discrimination rules that require them to serve people regardless of sex or gender identity.

“It’s just unethical, immoral,” said LaDora Lattimore, CEO of Friends of Yates, a Kansas City, Kansas, organization that operates a shelter.

The two-page law, known as SB 180, defines biological sex as sex as birth and then identifies “athletics, prisons or other detention facilities, domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, locker rooms, restrooms” as spaces where separate accommodations based on sex are rooted in “important governmental objectives” of protecting health, safety and privacy.

It includes no criminal penalties or other direct enforcement mechanism, and creates no pathway to sue over violations. But those who work in domestic violence services have expressed concern that the statute itself could place Kansas out of compliance with federal non-discrimination rules, which require shelters to serve people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Amanda Gould, senior program manager of the National LGBTQ Institute on Intimate Partner Violence at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said the law is likely the “broadest anti-transgender bathroom legislation” in the nation’s history.

“As it is, transgender survivors often have no trauma-informed, LGBTQ-specific safe spaces to help them escape an abusive relationship. Placing further legal restrictions on LGBTQ people’s access to safe shelter would make it even harder for LGBTQ survivors to exit abusive relationships safely,” Gould said.

For now, providers are in a wait-and-see mode as they seek guidance from lawyers and experts. It’s possible the impact to shelters could turn out to be minimal because many are already gender-integrated, meaning they don’t make significant distinctions between how they serve genders.

Still, nothing is certain yet as shelters try to interpret the law before it goes into effect on July 1. Providers are now scrambling to reassure trans people that regardless of the law, they will continue to have full access to domestic violence resources, including emergency shelters and counseling.

“If it sends a chilling message about how people are going to be accepted into services, then I think that could be really harmful to an especially vulnerable population. That’s far and away my largest concern,” said Mike Trapp, director of the Leavenworth-based Alliance Against Family Violence.

Trans people experience domestic violence at much higher rates than cisgender people (those whose gender identities align with the sex they were assigned at birth), according to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. A 2021 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, also found that trans people are more than four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime, including rape and sexual assault, than cisgender people.

“Because of the social climate, trans people are already some of the most vulnerable, the most in need of support and so in situations like these it’s even worse. It’s worse off than someone who doesn’t face these difficulties,” said Kay Holland, a trans woman from Lawrence who attended a protest against the law at the Kansas Capitol last week.

Lattimore said that despite the law, which she called discriminatory, Friends of Yates is devoted to providing a safety net to all who need it. She estimated about 10% of those receiving services from the organization are transgender.

“We will continue to do what we do and that’s serving all victims, survivors,” Lattimore said.

Federal funding crucial for shelters

Whether the law conflicts with federal non-discrimination rules is a critical matter for shelters, which rely heavily on federal funding. Michelle McCormick, director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, estimated the U.S. Department of Justice alone provides more than $14 million a year to Kansas providers.

The federal Violence Against Women Act, which despite its name provides funding for services to people of all genders, requires programs to assign individuals to groups or services that correspond with their gender identity, McCormick told lawmakers earlier this year.

“Given our programs’ struggle to be adequately funded anyway, sort of scrap and fight for every single dollar, we were concerned this legislation could put that in jeopardy,” McCormick said in an interview.

Kansas and the federal government so far haven’t taken public positions on whether the law will affect federal funding. The Kelly administration, which has previously suggested the measure could affect funding, is currently reviewing SB 180, Brianna Johnson, a spokesperson for the governor, said.

“As soon as we know more about how it will impact policies and federal funding, we will provide guidance to local programs. We have not received any guidance from the Department of Justice or other federal agencies,” Johnson said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Hawkins on Tuesday minimized concerns surrounding the potential effect of the law on domestic violence shelters. In a statement, he said that if the Biden administration attempted to withhold funding “from vulnerable women in need of a safe space away from males based on misreading statutes, we believe Kansas would win in court.”

“Domestic violence shelters exist for a reason: women need a safe place to go after suffering abuse and as a general rule, exclusive from men. Kansas has already challenged the Biden Administration’s unconstitutional interpretations of federal statutes and won,” Hawkins said.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said that individuals who have been subjected to domestic violence don’t want to be around a member of the sex that committed the assault against them.

“They’re gonna have to help the woman find a space or they’ll have to help the transgender individual find a space,” Landwehr said of shelters.

Domestic violence service providers said some supporters of the law appear to have an outdated image of how shelters often operate today.

Because providers that take federal money cannot discriminate on the basis of sex, many shelters don’t maintain separate facilities for men and women. While men also seek shelter and other domestic violence services, they tend to do so at a much lower rate than women, and having separate facilities only for men would prove cost prohibitive, they say.

Trapp, who leads the Alliance Against Family Violence in Leavenworth, said its shelter has largely individualized bedrooms. It hasn’t placed unrelated adults together in the same room since the start of the pandemic — a practice it appears likely to continue.

The “women helping women” model in domestic violence services has shifted to recognize that people of all genders are in need of services, Trapp said.

“People often think of us as the women’s shelter, but that hasn’t been true for a long, long time,” Trapp said.

Additionally, shelters are increasingly moving away from large co-sleeping spaces or dormitory-style accommodations. Instead, they are using smaller bedrooms, sometimes with individual bathrooms, that limit the number of unrelated adults sleeping in the same space – or entirely eliminate the practice altogether.

The Wichita Family Crisis Center opened a new emergency shelter in the past month that includes a bathroom in each client room. No one has to share a room because the new facility has the capacity for everyone to have their own room, said Amanda Meyers, the center’s director.

“Honestly, it’s a more trauma-informed approach,” Meyers said. “Sharing a bathroom after you’ve been sexually assaulted – it’s hard to imagine. Also, there’s a lot of kids, people are bathing their kids, it’s hard to share a bathroom.”

The larger issue, Meyers said, is the lack of evidence for the need for the law.

“We know violence … the violence isn’t coming from our trans clients,” Meyers said.

Creating ‘more barriers’

Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican who voted for SB 180, sits on the Alliance Against Family Violence board of directors. He predicted the shelter wouldn’t have any issues with the law because of its individual facilities.

Proctor also said lawmakers hear concerns about federal funding “every time we have one of these bills.” He noted concerns had also been raised when the Legislature approved a ban on trans athletes in girls and women’s sports.

Opponents aren’t as quick to dismiss those concerns.

With the new law, lawmakers have put domestic violence service providers in a tough place, said Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Lenexa Democrat. The new law is “the most extreme” in the nation, she said, adding that she is disgusted it’s being enacted.

“Do we want to create more barriers, more administrative work, more hassle for getting people in the door or do we want to instantly get them to safety and start helping them?” Hoye said.

So far, no lawsuit has yet been filed against the new law, which also prohibits trans people from changing the gender markers on their birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

McCormick said Tuesday that the coalition has been consulting with national experts and has been setting up consultations with attorneys.

“Our concern still is, can the state of Kansas … can they certify to the federal government that we are following those non-discrimination laws if Kansas has that law on the books?” McCormick said.