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Retired Band Teacher Makes History as Kansas’s First Transgender Legislator, Nation’s First Transgender Lawmaker of Indigenous Ancestry

By Asher Lehrer-Small | November 5, 2020

Stephanie Byers, a retired band teacher, made history on Tuesday night as Kansas’s first transgender legislator, and the nation’s first transgender lawmaker of Indigenous ancestry. (Wichita Eagle/YouTube)

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter

For Stephanie Byers, running for office was never the plan. But when, a mere five months after her retirement from a 29-year career teaching high school band, friends convinced her to enter politics, she understood the implications.

“This gives me a chance to use my voice where I can make a concrete difference for people,” Byers, 57, told the Wichita Eagle.

Byers made history Tuesday night as Kansas’s first transgender legislator, and the nation’s first transgender lawmaker of Indigenous ancestry. Byers claimed 55 percent of the vote to win her Democratic-leaning district, according to local outlets.

Currently, there are only four transgender state legislators nationwide. Come January, Byers will join their ranks, along with Sarah McBride who won her race for Delaware state Senate, and Taylor Small who bested her opponent to win a seat in the Vermont state House. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation, Byers’s win makes her both the first transgender person of Native ancestry and the first transgender person of color to win a state legislative seat in the U.S.

Though Byers hoped voters would support her on account of her whole person, not just her gender identity, she also does not shy away from who she is.

“All politics are kind of identity politics,” Byers explained in a video documenting her campaign. “It’s about how much [candidates] can show of who they are and how they operate so that people go, ‘Yes. That’s somebody that I can hire to represent me.’”

After years going as “Mr. Byers” in band class, she came out as a transgender woman in 2014. Her colleagues and students were overwhelmingly supportive of her transition, reported the Wichita Eagle. And in 2018, she was named Educator of the Year by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network after having been nominated by her school’s principal.

Byers conducts her orchestra class. (Wichita Eagle/YouTube)

It was only after she left the classroom that Byers began to think more about the politics of education, like a perennial lack of money for schools. “I didn’t really have much time outside of my class to be able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right,’” said Byers. “And so when I retired, that’s one of the things that kind of percolated around in my head.”

Now headed to Topeka, Byers will advocate for adequate school funding and better working conditions for teachers, including higher pay, according to her website. “First-rate teachers are essential to a beneficial education. Kansas kids deserve the best education possible,” she writes.

Byers speaks with a local reporter in her back year after her historic win. (Jackson Overstreet/Twitter)

On Tuesday evening, Byers monitored election results with her wife of five years, Lori Haas, around a fire pit in their backyard. Video shows Byers taking a phone call after nightfall, presumably from campaign staff. When the first-time candidate realizes she has won, Byers’ eyes grow watery and she reflects emotionally on the race and what brought her here. 

“That was one of the reasons for running, was to make the world change.”

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter

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