Family Leader criticizes Branstad's support of LGBTQ conference

In a letter, the group's president, Bob Vander Plaats, suggests an alternative event

Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader speaks to supporters Tuesday night at Godfather's Pizza in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader speaks to supporters Tuesday night at Godfather's Pizza in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats urged Gov. Terry Branstad to remove his title from the upcoming Iowa Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ ((Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) Youth in an open letter Tuesday, and invited Branstad to instead partner with his socially conservative group in hosting a more “comprehensive” anti-bullying conference.

Vander Plaats wrote in the letter that the Family Leader opposes the governor’s support of the conference, which includes passing out “safe sex kits” and allows transgender youth to use whichever restroom corresponds with their identified gender.

In exchange for Branstad’s removal of “Governor” from the title, Vander Plaats said the group would like to develop a different safe schools conference for all students.

“Instead of passing out ‘safe’ sex kits to students, the conference could provide abstinence-based education, emphasizing healthy behavior and the healthy aspects of preventing unwanted pregnancies, STD’s, depression, and other problems resulting from sexual activity outside of marriage,” Vander Plaats wrote.

The open letter comes after Branstad declared he would not remove his title from the conference and sent a letter Jan. 26 in support of the event to organizer Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools.

“I support the conference and its goal of eliminating bullying and making Iowa schools safe for all students,” Branstad wrote in the letter. “I do not object to you including the word ‘Governor’s’ in the conference title.”

Branstad, who said he’s unable to attend the conference due to scheduling conflicts, also wished Monson success in future years of the event. According to Monson, Beth Townsend, executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, will speak on Branstad’s behalf and read his proclamation that Sept. 1 is “Safe Schools Day.”


The conference was founded in 2006 with support from then-Governor Tom Vilsack. Since its founding, Iowa governors have traditionally supported the event, Monson said.

According to the conference website, the event aims to “engage and educate” people about LGBTQ issues and “encourage networking and activism to inspire our communities to promote diversity, equality, and social justice.”

Monson said he disagrees with the Family Leader’s criticism of Branstad’s support and their suggestion of a different conference.

“I think it’s too bad they feel the need to obsess over us and to bully an anti-bullying group,” he said.

Julie Summa, director of marketing and public outreach for the Family Leader, said the group does not want to ignore LGBTQ youth by creating a different conference; instead, they feel an anti-bullying conference should focus on all kids, not just those picked for their sexual orientation.

“We would like to see a conference that is more comprehensive,” she said.

But Monson said he thinks focusing on LGBTQ youth is crucial, saying those kids live in an environment of “isolation, fear, and unacceptance.”

“It’s so enlightening to see all these kids come from across the state to meet each other and feel like they belong and feel connected and see adults who care,” he said.

Vander Plaats, in his letter,  explained the group’s concerns with Branstad’s support of such a “radical” event.


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“I don’t know about you, but for me, this conference goes way beyond the prevention of bullying and harassment,” Vander Plaats wrote. “It is clearly about advancing a radical agenda that is overtly harmful and reckless for our youth.”

Summa said the group plans to wait for Branstad’s reply to the letter. They have no plans to go ahead with their alternate conference without his partnership.

Monson said the conference – set for March 8 at Drake University in Des Moines – has already garnered record registration numbers and will most likely look into booking a larger venue next year.

Despite the Family Leader’s call for Branstad to pull his support, Monson said the Governor’s title is important.

“We’re happy to receive support from the Governor,” he said. “It shows that no matter their political party, they get it.”



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