ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Missouri legislators debated a number of controversial proposals on Tuesday that would regulate competitive sports, outlaw drag shows for children, and ban gender transition procedures for minors.
Advocates in the LGBTQ+ community rallied against the proposals, calling them hateful, bigoted, and harmful to transgender people.
"We're not going to stand by without a fight," Felecia Kenten said at a demonstration in the Grove neighborhood.
Kenten and a group of activists marched in the streets with signs and megaphones to call awareness to the proposals that were scheduled for debate in Jefferson City on short notice.
"I think that they're targeting the LGBTQ+ because they know that we're trying to change the way the system is working," Kenten said before traveling to the state Capitol. "We're trying to push things and make things happen. We're trying to get people to be out and be loud."
Supporters who testified in favor of the bills before the House panel said gender identity and the role of government itself was rooted in religious texts.
Republican legislators revived the proposals after they stalled in debate last year and argued they would uphold competitive fairness in sports.
The proposals would expand existing child pornography laws to restrict minors from attending drag shows, regulate competitive sports to prevent transgender girls from competing against other girls or women, and would outlaw transgender medical transition procedures for minors.
If the package of bills become law, doctors who provide puberty blockers, gender hormones, or transition surgeries to minors could lose their license, face lawsuits, and serve time in jail.
Medical experts from the only transgender clinic in the region defended their practice from the proposals that would threaten to put them out of business.
"St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine support the medical, emotional, social, and psychological needs of patients under our care in the Transgender Center," a spokesperson said in an email. "The compassionate care we provide is recognized and accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Psychological Association, and other medical societies. That care includes comprehensive behavioral and medical support for all qualifying patients."
In a 2017 podcast recorded for the St. Louis Children's Hospital, pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Christopher Lewis said the hospital treated 43 trans patients in 2015, 74 in 2016, and said, "we anticipate that growth to continue on for the next several years."
Most of the debate in the House General Laws committee revolved around the youth sports proposals. Democrats and witnesses who criticized the proposals said the measure might only apply to five trans students out of tens of thousands of athletes in the entire state.
Business advocates warned the proposals would harm the state's economic attractiveness, and could result in companies or workers avoiding moving to Missouri.
"There is a group of employees who won't come here because they think Missouri is a backwards and bigoted state," Shannon Cooper with the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce said.
Democrats suggested the state should adopt NCAA or Olympic standards for transgender inclusion policies, and warned the GOP proposals could drive business away from Missouri.
Mayor Quinton Lucas told lawmakers on the committee that his city would've lost out on bringing the World Cup to Kansas City in 2026 if the state legislature had adopted restrictions against transgender athletes.
The debate attracted other ambitious politicians eager to put their personal stamp on the debate.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft made a surprise appearance to testify before the committee and faced scrutiny from Democrats who accused him of grandstanding to build political support before a 2024 campaign for governor.
"I'm here to protect women's sports," Ashcroft said. "I also like the idea of protecting children from irreversible operations that they may later regret when they're adults. Hey, that's their decision. And I also like the idea of protecting children from inappropriate adult content, at least while they're children."
"Are your official job duties election related or sports related," Rep. Keri Ingle asked him.
"I have all sorts of different...do you want me to go through all the different [duties] enumerated by statute," Ashcroft replied.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade asked Ashcroft also pressed Ashcroft to explain why he was testifying in a House committee about topics that didn't pertain to his official duties.
"Are you trying to say that I lose my right to have an opinion about things that aren't part of my job?" Ashcroft said.
"Can you commit to us that this won't be used in any sort of campaign for you?" Quade asked. "That this is truly about personal, as a father."
"What I can commit to you is that this is the way I've always felt about it, and we wouldn't even be here talking about it if your side of the aisle wasn't using it for political purposes," he responded.
"Our side of the aisle is not filing legislation, Mr. Secretary," Quade said. "We're here because folks on your side of the aisle are filing these bills time and time again."
"This is not in the realm of what your office does, and here you are anyway," Rep. Peter Meredith (D-St. Louis) said. "On what other issues have you stepped out of what your office does to be here to testify? I'm seeing you here, and that suggests maybe it's actually about the fact that you're running for governor."
The panel was still debating the medical proposals at the time this article was published. Members of the committee had not yet cast any recorded votes.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.