Greg Razer is the only openly gay member of the Missouri State Senate — the upper chamber of a legislature that, according to the ACLU, by late January led the nation in bills the organization calls anti-LGBTQ. That’s 31 such bills covering a wide range of policies, though most of them are identical or similar and concern one of two issues: banning transgender girls from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity and forbidding health-care providers from performing gender-transition procedures on minors. Another would prohibit public or charter schools from offering instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity — broader provisions than the Florida law critics have branded “Don’t Say Gay” for banning such instruction in kindergarten through third grade. A few regulate drag shows. One, as part of a broader “Teachers Bill of Rights,” attempts to protect teachers from reprisals for the pronouns they use. (As of mid-February, Oklahoma had overtaken Missouri in the ACLU database with 34 bills. Neighboring Kansas had 10.)
Razer, a Democrat representing a Kansas City-area district, does not view all of these bills with equal concern. But as a once-suicidal teen struggling with his sexuality growing up in southern Missouri’s cotton country, Razer, 44, feels a kinship with transgender youth who feel targeted in the state. In an interview with POLITICO Magazine, he said kids who visit his office wonder, “Why are these adults doing this to us?” He says he tells them about LGBTQ history, how people in the community have historically been banned from jobs, marriage, and the military, and how, as a white gay man, he feels he’s won these battles. “They can’t attack me anymore,” he says, “so now they’re coming after kids.”
Razer and I first spoke before news broke that a former case worker at Washington University Pediatric Transgender Center was alleging serious misconduct at the St. Louis-based facility. In both a sworn affidavit to the Missouri Attorney General and an online essay, Jamie Reed alleged that the center’s clinicians had inappropriately prescribed hormones without rigorous assessment or parental consent, and also detailed instances of harmful physical and psychological side effects she said she’d witnessed from puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones. Washington University has pledged to investigate and said it holds “medical practitioners to the highest professional and ethical standards.” The allegations have only intensified the legislative debate. In a follow-up phone call, Razer told me that “if some hospital system is not following standard protocol on treating kids, then that’s hurtful to those kids, first and foremost. It would be hurtful to the whole community, in the long term. So no one’s going to be angrier than me.” He said he is awaiting the results of the investigations. “That being said,” he went on, “sure was convenient timing.”
If passed, a transgender sports ban would not have much practical effect on actual sports in Missouri schools either way: Razer says that of about 311,000 kids playing sanctioned middle and high-school sports in Missouri, about five are transgender. “We’re talking about less than 1/1000 of 1 percent,” he says. (By that tally, Missouri legislators have filed more bills on transgender kids in school sports this session than there are transgender kids in Missouri attempting to participate in school sports.) But to him, to the families he speaks to, such a law wouldn’t really be about five kids. “What about all the other trans kids around the state? What about all the other kids that are different in any way? I mean, really, what the legislature is saying is, ‘You’re different. We don’t understand you. We’ve got to do something about you.’”
This interview combines two conversations and has been edited for clarity and length.
Kathy Gilsinan: Some of [these 31 bills] seem like they’re the same thing, except with different labels. What’s going on there?
Greg Razer: What happens is, there might be eight members of the House of Representatives who all want to go home and say they filed the bill. And so, they all filed the identical bill. And then at some point in the process they mesh all those together and make one bill that’s called House Bill 40, 72, 137 — they’ll list all the numbers. So they can all go home and say, “I kicked a trans kid in the face.”
Gilsinan: If we’re looking at what are likely to be the laws that come out of this process, would that be four such laws? What’s the actual number of policy changes that we’re talking about here?
Razer: Over those bills, various degrees of banning male-to-female transgender middle and high school students’ ability to play sports. I think we are looking at a funding of hospitals that give gender-affirming care. We’d take the license of a physician that provided care to a trans kid. We have a bill to [make it] virtually impossible to change your birth certificate.
Gilsinan: Are all of these likely to pass?
Razer: No, they’re not all going to pass. There will be one bill that passes that deals with the issue. The Missouri Senate is considered one of the most powerful senates in the country because of how our rules are written. Each individual senator’s more powerful than an individual senator in other states. There’s only 34 of us. It’s a very small chamber, and we still use the standing filibuster. So when they bring this up, if I’m going to filibuster, I’ve got to walk out onto the floor and work for it, which I think is great. But there is a procedure to force me to sit down: “moving the previous question” — P.Q. In my two years [in the Missouri Senate], I’ve not seen it used. It’s considered a nuclear weapon being turned on right there in the middle of the chamber. As Democrats, if it’s used against us, we will grind the session to a halt.
So, what do I think? I think they’re going to pass something. They’ve gotten themselves so worked up over this issue, that doesn’t really even exist, that they have to pass something so they can go home and tell their constituents they did. I think most of them would like to pass some sort of sports ban and then never talk about this again. There is a group of two to four in the Senate that want to add all the other stuff as amendments. I believe they just want to make a headline: “We did it all in Missouri. This state passed a sports ban and that state did this to hospitals. We did it all.”
So the question will be in the Senate, you know, do we have 18 — there’s 10 Democrats — can we find eight Republicans willing to vote no on those amendments?
Gilsinan: Do you see any pathway to eight persuadable votes?
Razer: Not on sports. On the medical stuff being added as amendments, you know, I think I can get to eight if it weren’t for reelections coming around the corner. I think a lot of folks that I serve with generally are uncomfortable with male-to-female transgender kids playing in the sport for the gender that they choose. I think they want to do something about that.
However, I think they are highly uncomfortable going beyond that. But if it is brought to a vote, then how do they vote no? Because somebody on the right is going to primary them. And run the ad: “Voted to support gender affirming care for transgender kids.”
Gilsinan: Say it’s the sports ban that’s passed. What is the practical effect? How many people does it impact?
Razer: Currently in the state of Missouri, almost 311,000 middle- or high-school students play sanctioned sports. Of those, five are transgender. Five. We’re talking about less than 1/1000 of 1 percent. To put it another way, you are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be a trans kid on a sports team in the state of Missouri.
Gilsinan: Have you have you spoken to any of these kids or their parents individually? What are you hearing from them?
Razer: What I really hear from the kids, because some of them play sports. You know, they’re 11. It’s just that fear of, why are these adults are doing this to us? Why is this happening? And it’s hard to explain that to them.
Gilsinan: Well, how do you explain that to them?
Razer: First of all, I’ll make sure that they know I’m gay. I’m the only gay one in the Senate. And then I’m not an advocate or an ally, I’m family. And, you know, people are afraid of things that are different. If we’re honest, we’re all different. I like boys. They thought I was going to like girls. You are a girl. They thought you were a boy, you know? Then we’ll laugh. This is a reaction to people being afraid of what’s different.
And then I try to not bore them with a little bit of LGBT history and just say very quickly, they’ve been coming after us since the ’50s, banning us from federal jobs. The ’60s, the ’70s, we were passing nondiscrimination laws in municipalities, with [singer and anti-gay rights activist] Anita Bryant coming in behind to put it on the ballot and take them away. You know, we died in the ’80s and they laughed at us in the ’90s. It’s military, it’s marriage, all those things. They’ve run out of ways to attack me as a gay, white man. I’ve won. But they still have to have a boogeyman. They still have to be able to divide the population. They can’t attack me anymore. So now they’re coming after kids. I’m tired of having to hug crying 11-year-olds after committee hearings. I’m glad I’m there to do it. But I’m tired of it.
Gilsinan: When you when you say “they,” you’re talking about colleagues of yours, Republican colleagues, and you have good relationships across the aisle. What are they saying about their reasoning? And what’s it like to come to work now, given this debate?
Razer: To the degree that some of them would just not like to have to deal with the issue at all, they just try to avoid the issue with me. You know, just, let’s talk about anything but the elephant in the room. I’ve been dealing with that, though, it’s my seventh year in the General Assembly. Did four in the House and now my third year in the Senate. And I quickly made friends on the other side of the aisle, especially the rural guys, being from rural Missouri myself.
And then I would introduce MONA, the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, as an amendment — this is the bill that would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations. So I’m friends with these people, and then I would watch them all very loudly vote an amendment down, that just says, “Greg gets to have a roof over his head.” And last year on the Senate floor, somebody had asked me, like, “Greg, if this comes up, don’t take our votes personally.” And I said on the Senate floor, “Somebody said that to me. And yes, I do take it personally.” I very much take it personally, because it’s personal.
I was told by many people, “Greg, politics is a game. You just got to play the game.” Politics shouldn’t be a game. There’s going to be gamesmanship to it, when you gotta maneuver around somebody to get something passed. But what we do there in and of itself isn’t a game.
Gilsinan: You’ve talked about having been suicidal when you were growing up. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Razer: I grew up in a town of 450 people — outside of that town, actually, in the middle of thousands of acres of cotton. Literally grew up in the middle of the cotton field, down in extreme south Missouri.
Gilsinan: The famous Cooter, Missouri.
Razer: Cooter, yes. Cooter Wildcats. But I grew up in an evangelical church, with very country friends and neighbors. And it’s not exactly a great place for a young, closeted kid to grow up in the ’80s and ’90s. And so, by my senior year of high school, just various things put me into a depression. And on those worst nights it would be, “I’ll never be able to come out. I’ll never know what it’s like to fall in love or to have my heart broken or to be excited about a first date. So what’s the point of moving on?” The couple of times that I came very close, that was kind of what put me over the edge. And who would’ve thought, 25 years later, here I am.
Gilsinan: What stopped you when you were thinking about that?
Razer: I don’t know. I guess just enough of a cool head in the moment. I honestly have never thought of that. I don’t remember giving up on the idea that night. I don’t remember getting up and walking out of that room. Huh.
Gilsinan: So when did you come out and what was it like for you?
Razer: I came out on Feb. 26, 1999. I’d just been dealing with whether or not to come out. I slowly can feel myself inching that way. And my friends laughed that I didn’t come out of the closet, I exploded out. Once I’ve had enough, it was like, enough. Everybody, I’m gay, let’s get the party going again. You know, I was just tired of hiding. I was in Columbia [at the University of Missouri]. I’m a junior in college at this point, 20 years old. I had the greatest group of friends. They were incredibly supportive. Overboard supportive, actually. Quite a few months later, I show up at a little house party that one of my friends is throwing, and they said, “Greg, you’re here with us every weekend. You haven’t brought a boy over yet. Have you been to a gay bar?” And I was like, “No, I haven’t.” They’re like, “All right, we’re taking you to the gay bar tonight.” So all my straight friends made me go to my first gay bar.
Gilsinan: What about coming out to your parents and in your evangelical community? What was that like?
Razer: My parents were divorced. I came out to my mom first, and her overall reaction can be summed up as, “I can’t say that I’m happy. But I’m happy that you’re happy.” Which is not a terrible response. Sadly, one of the very first things she said to me was, “Promise me you’ll never move back home.” Not that she was embarrassed or ashamed. She was afraid. She said, “I will be afraid every time you walk out the door.” And no mother in Missouri should ever have to say that to their kid.
Gilsinan: Why is this such a politically salient issue in Missouri in 2023?
Razer: Hell if I know. Some think tank in D.C. a few years ago said, “Look at this, transgender people are starting to come out in bigger and bigger numbers. Boy, can’t we make this a social war?” And they win those social wars, the battles in the short term. The problem here in Missouri is, I’m sure the polling shows that 80 percent of Missourians agree with [Republicans’] position about sports. I’m sure if you look at the polling in all their districts, 80 percent say no boys in girls’ sports. I don’t think they’ve looked at the election results back in November, because we’ve had two members of the state Senate, who were two of the biggest people pushing the anti-trans bills, run for Congress, both pointing towards their leadership in stopping trans people, and they both got beat. And then Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler [who ran for U.S. Senate] got her ass kicked. And her first statewide ad introducing herself to the rest of the state of Missouri was how she’s going to crack down on the trans kids. So, I think 80 percent is probably a fair number of Missourians who would agree with them. The question is, how much do [voters] care? They don’t.
Gilsinan: What is the good-faith argument, as you’ve heard it, in favor of transgender bans in sports?
Razer: I think there are a handful [of legislators] who truly believe something needs to be done, that aren’t coming at this from a cold or political heart. Their argument is going to be, “Greg, it’s just not fair. If that kid was born male, they’re going to have bigger muscles and etc., etc.,” which isn’t true if you start hormone therapy in time. But that’s their argument. And I think then that gets confused with the process of transitioning. They don’t understand that you can’t just show up school one day, put a wig on and say, I want to be on the girls’ team. It’s at least a two-year process before you start hormones. So this is a commitment. I think there’s some confusion between what is transgender and what is a drag queen.
I think it’s okay to be ignorant on trans issues, to not understand them, for any Missourian. For most Missourians, this is a brand-new issue. But it’s not okay to be a Missourian who doesn’t understand trans folks who finds themselves in the legislature and introduces bills attacking the folks they don’t understand.
Gilsinan: If we’re talking five kids, you could make the “who cares” argument either way. Who cares if they’re banned and who cares if they’re not banned? And why are we spending time on this?
Razer: It’s not just about those five kids. There are those five kids who want to play, and this will directly impact them. What about all the other trans kids around the state? What about all the other kids that are different in any way? I mean, really, what the legislature is saying is, “You’re different. We don’t understand you. We’ve got to do something about you.”
All the kids that struggle with being different, this sends a message to them. And for trans kids in particular, remember that this is just a battle in a bigger war. And they’ve taken on our community many, many times. And they’ve lost the war every single time. And they will lose this one as well.
Gilsinan: Are you able to maintain friendships [with Senate Republicans]?
Razer: I can. Mainly because a lot of them are trying to understand. When we do talk about it, they do sincerely ask questions. In fact, the first six years of my time in the legislature, not one went by where I didn’t have some Republican colleague ask me to come to their office and let them ask questions about LGBT people. And every time, except for one, the person was a rural, white male, 70 or over. And they’re the ones who slowly started becoming our allies. I can’t remember who it was, but I was in the House and one rural representative stood up and said, “Look, I’m 70 whatever years old. We’ve been taught that this is wrong our whole life. We were taught wrong.”
Even though they’re going to vote against me, those folks are having conversations and they’re trying to understand, and I guess I can forgive that. I mean, if you’re still trying.
Gilsinan: Are you saying they’re still learning but they’re legislating as if they already know the answer?
Razer: Exactly. They’re learning, but not there yet. It’s just another message I think we all could take to heart. Something I really try to push for trans kids is if, you know, you’re trying to explain to grandma or grandpa, or aunt and uncle, if they love you, are being sincere in their questions, if they use a wrong term, you don’t have to jump on them. Let them ask their question, because they don’t understand. I think that is a big problem about progressives in general.
Gilsinan: What about you? Are you going to do your filibuster until you collapse? What’s your plan?
Razer: It’s hard to say what the plan is because I don’t know what they’re going to bring to the floor. If they’re sending parents to jail for child abuse and taking medical licenses away, then all bets are off. I can’t have that. I can’t let that go through without them “PQing” me. So we’ll see, what does this bill look like? Is it something I can swallow for the sake of the institution? Or have they just gone too far?
Gilsinan: Is that something under consideration, jailing parents?
Razer: I don’t think it’s been filed in Missouri, but the Idaho State House passed it overwhelmingly last year.
Gilsinan: Do you have any theories about Missouri? Because it is striking — granted that some of these bills are the exact same bill with different people’s names on it — how far of an outlier Missouri is.
Razer: I would say the Missouri Senate has to be one of the most conservative chambers in any state capital in the country. It’s gotten that way for a number of reasons. One, I think, is self-segregation. You know, liberals are moving to the cities, and conservatives to the suburbs and rural areas. A little bit is gerrymandering. And then a big hunk of it is term limits. I was sworn in to the Senate three years ago. I’m almost halfway done with my time in the chamber. By the time you start to figure out how everything works, you’re kicked out. So you put all those things together. You have districts that can’t be won by the opposite party. No Republican can come into my district and win. It was drawn that way. So I have nothing to fear here in the general. I have to worry about somebody running to my left in a primary. And the same holds true for Republicans. No Democrat’s going to win some of these rural districts. They just have to make sure they’re still Trumpy enough, Newsmax enough. So they have to kind of check the box by taking these types of votes.
Gilsinan: What’s your reaction to the whistleblower report about Washington University? And what role do you see for state lawmakers in regulating these kinds of facilities, if any?
Razer: If something like that happened anywhere in the state of Missouri — and I want to see what any kind of investigation entails, how that unfolds — but I promise you I will be the loudest person out there condemning it. If some hospital system is not following standard protocol on treating kids, then that’s harmful to those kids, first and foremost. It would be hurtful to the whole community, in the long term. So no one’s going to be angrier than me. That being said, sure was convenient timing.
Gilsinan: If those allegations are borne out, what would be the legislative steps necessary to ensure the safety of children seeking those procedures or thinking they might want such procedures?
Razer: I don’t want to get into speculation about what we would need to do. There’s one person that has a story out there, and there are two statewide politicians that are jumping on it [Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and U.S. Senator Josh Hawley], and a legislature that is obsessed with what’s between people’s legs. What we need to do is figure out how to keep those kids’ schools open five days a week. We need to figure out how to pay their teachers so we don’t have a teacher shortage.
There are real, honest-to-God issues in this state and this is nothing but pure politics. We’re talking about a tiny fraction of the population. But to these Missourians, this is their life we’re talking about, and it’s being played with. All I can think of is with the overturn of Roe, Republicans have lost their big campaigning point. They’ve lost that. It’s now become an issue that favors us.
Gilsinan: Already, the U.S. Senate race is happening [in Missouri] and [U.S. Senator] Josh Hawley is coming out soon with his book on manhood. I wonder, without having read it, what you think about the notion of manhood itself as a political issue.
Razer: Let’s talk about manhood. I think a lot of folks, especially in the General Assembly, think of a man as somebody who drives a pickup truck, they’re probably rural. They work with their hands. They’re tough. They never cry. They’re John Wayne. And I heard someone refer to another member of the legislature as, “That’s a man, right there.” And that’s what they meant, that’s John Wayne. I pulled that person aside. And I said, “What does that make me?” I didn’t mean it in a mean way. I said, “Because, let me tell ya. You try coming out to your parents and tell me that’s not tough.” Stand up and tell the world that you’re one of the most hated minority groups on Earth. And say it proudly. You want talk about tough as nails? You look at LGBT people. I think that’s manly. To stand up and fight for other people who are getting pushed around.
Gilsinan: What would you rather be working on, on behalf of Missourians?
Razer: We have got to take a serious look at the continual funding of infrastructure in the state of Missouri. And yes, that means I-70, it means roads and bridges, but it also means our I.T. behind the scenes in state government. You’re about to file your taxes, or you have to go and get your license plates renewed, all through the Department of Revenue. Some of the computer systems they use on a daily basis are from the 1970s, because we never updated them. We could be doing so many cool things for Missourians on our phones, have your driver’s license and renew things on an app. We can’t do it because our computer system’s too old.
Our four-year colleges and our community colleges are the only two groups in the state of Missouri, if you go back over 20 years and look at their budget, [that have] actually shrunk in real dollars. In real dollars, what was appropriated, it has dropped 4 percent while inflation has gone up. We’ve got to find a way to get more kids into trade schools, community colleges or universities and be able to pay for it. Why that’s controversial, I’m not quite sure.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the [Republican Governor Mike Parson’s] state of the state. You could make that into a liberal speech, if you wanted to: We’re gonna spend a lot of money on people who need help. Or you can turn that into a very conservative argument, saying we are going to invest on Missourians and then we’re going to get a higher return off of that investment. Either way you spin it. I think it’s good for Missouri.
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