Friday, June 26, 2015 was a historic day, for this country and for Kansas. On the same day that the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the fifth-floor room of the Kansas State Capitol was packed with people from all over the state who’d come to show their support for state representative Dr. Valdenia Winn of the 34th district in Kansas City, Kansas, as she underwent disciplinary review by an investigative committee of the legislature.
Rep. Winn was brought before the committee, chaired by Rep. Erin Davis, in response to a complaint alleging that she had made “offensive and reprehensible” remarks during a House Education Committee meeting held in March to discuss the proposed denial of in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. Rep. Winn called the bill in question, House Bill 2139, a “racist, sexist, fear-mongering bill.” In response, nine of Winn’s male colleagues brought a complaint against her. The committee that met on Friday to consider the complaint could have recommend that the full House censure or even expel Rep. Winn. (Meanwhile, the bill to which Winn had objected, one that would have repealed a 2004 law allowing children of undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition, was tabled, and it has not been brought up again for consideration.)
Here’s part of what Rep. Winn said that had gotten her in hot water with her Republican colleagues:
“This [H.R. 2139] is an example of institutional racism, not individual racists….institutional racism, because it deals with societal structural changes. It stifles growth, it stifles prosperity, it’s targeted to individual identifiable group of students….It does not promote Kansas growth….But the most important thing is that you’re stealing the lives and the future of these students….this bill is bad, it’s racist, sexist, it promotes institutional racism….I would proudly vote against this bill.”
Earlier this month, Rep. Davis, the chair of the committee investigating Winn, sent an email to her attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, stating that he would not be allowed to represent his client at the Friday hearing, and that Rep. Winn would be allowed only 10 minutes to rebut, the same amount of time allotted to each of the nine complainants.
Before deliberating behind closed doors, the investigative panel, which consisted of six House members – three Democrats and three Republicans – heard testimony from Rep. Winn, and from two of the complainants: Republican lawmakers Ron Highland of Wamego and Tony Barton of Leavenworth.
During her ten-minute testimony, Rep. Winn said,
“A legislator’s free speech must be protected if our democratic process is to survive…..During the March 19, 2015 meeting of the House Education Committee, I exercised my freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Kansas….It is not accidental that the First Amendment protects speech, even unpopular or abrasive speech. For without free speech, one is not free. In declaring my opposition to House Bill 2139, some may not have appreciated my words; many others did. I chose to tell the truth as I saw it. And I will continue to do so as long as I am given the great privilege of representing the people of the 34th District. In conclusion, my words during the March 19th, 2015, House Education Committee hearings regarding House Bill 2139 were not directed at any particular member of the House Education Committee. Rather they were intended to address in general supporters of a bill that I sincerely believed to be motivated by racist, bigoted attitudes, not by economic necessity or reasonable legislative purpose. I did not during the debate single out a fellow member….We are the home state of Brown vs. Board of Education. As a Ph.D. and a college history professor, protecting education is of great importance to me. Fortunately House Bill 2139 was tabled.”
Rep. Barton testified that he was a supporter of House Bill 2139, and that he found “her remarks offensive and disrespectful,” and that she “resorted to the tactic of choosing her target….I was one of those targets.” And Rep. Highland for his part said, “The inflammatory tone and words used in the speech were taken personally by several members of the committee, to include me.” Neither explained why he assumed that when Rep. Winn mentioned racism and bigotry she was referring to him.
Later that afternoon, five of the six panel members voted to drop the case against Rep. Winn; the chair, Rep. Davis, abstained. The complaint was dismissed. But afterward, Rep. Winn told me, “This isn’t over yet.”
That same Friday, another victory–the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court–was making national, colorful waves. By wonderful coincidence, this was the last day of the Legislative session, and Equality Kansas had called for a Dignity and Equality rally in the Capitol Rotunda. Notwithstanding this historic Court ruling, does Winn’s gut feeling and vocal admission that “this is not over yet” also apply to systemic concerns facing the LGBT community? According to Samantha Allen, writing for The Daily Beast, “[The] level of anti-LGBT violence—as it occurs at the intersections of race, gender identity, and citizenship—was a central preoccupation for the organizations . . . Many seemed less concerned with LGBT people getting married than they were with simply keeping LGBT people safe and alive.”
The important distinction here is the difference between elite personalism vs. personal attacks on minority or marginalized people. One is imagined and hyperbolic, while the other has real-life consequences on communities as a whole. As a character in Robert Stone’s novel Damascus Gate said, “The self-pity of the mighty – it’s so pathetic.”