116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This year, 15 bills targeting issues relevant to LGBTQ Iowans have been introduced to the Iowa Legislature.
They include attempts to limit transgender student participation in athletics, prevent transgender students from using a bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, deny medical care for transgender youth, prevent discussion of gender identity in classrooms and remove gender identity as a protected class from the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Two have been assigned to a subcommittee but failed to gain traction this session. One, Senate File 436 known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would create broad religious exemptions to otherwise generally applicable laws, including anti-discrimination protections, according to One Iowa. The other, Senate File 80, would require school districts to notify parents of a student’s preferred pronouns, if asked.
As the legislative session comes to a close, Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for LGBTQ organization One Iowa Action, shares thoughts and observations on the proliferation of these bills.
Q: Fifteen anti-LGBTQ or anti-trans bills were introduced in this legislative session, most of them unassigned to a subcommittee. Thirteen of them are specific to gender identity issues and transgender Iowans. How does this session compare with previous sessions?
A: “The volume is slightly up, but the volume of anti-trans bills, specifically bills against trans kids, is way up. Two years ago, we had two bills pass. The previous year we had 14 anti-LGBTQ bills (introduced). This year we had 15 (bills introduced) … eight of which were specific to trans kids.
“This mimics larger national trends. In 2019, there were 35 anti-transgender bills introduced nationwide. 2020 had 100 bills. This year, there were 144. The number of anti-transgender bills has gradually been trending upward. The number of anti-LGBTQ bills in total is down a little bit nationwide this year, 320 versus 342 (last year). But there’s still a lot of bills. A lot fewer against (lesbian, gay and bisexual) folks and a lot more targeting transgender and transgender children specifically.”
Q: Why do these bills continue to proliferate in the Legislature, particularly during a pandemic?
A: “It’s a good question and one that I don’t have a totally comprehensive answer to. I, of course, can’t project people’s intent on this. It does seem to be less on constituent concerns and more about what is happening on the national playing field.
“For example, these athletic bills and trans health care bills for youth are almost verbatim introduced into other states as well. They’re not bills that legislators are coming up with themselves. These are from national organizations like the American Principles Project or Alliance Defending Freedom. They create this model legislation and send it out to legislators. This legislation has become more and more available, and therefore legislators who are interested in scoring political points against marginalized communities are more easily able to introduce that into state legislatures.
“The thing that perplexes me most about Iowa is that gender identity has been covered as a protected class since 2007. People have been able to use the restroom at school or get health care that they need — all of these things have been happening for the last 14 years, and not a peep. But this year, because national trends are at play, it’s the big thing to talk about. Transgender people are all of a sudden the problem even though this all has been going on for well over a decade.
“Back (in 2007), the focus was really on marriage. (Legislators) were largely focused on sexual orientation. It seems like the culture war has moved on from gay and lesbian folks and now is completely focused on transgender individuals. And I think partially just because there’s more visibility.”
Q: Which bills concern One Iowa the most?
A: “The most egregious was the one that stripped gender identity out of the Civil Rights Act entirely.
“But there are definitely offensive pieces in a lot of the other ones as well. Genital inspections for children, that was definitely a component of the trans athletics bill. I get very uncomfortable when I have to talk about that bill because it’s just so disturbing.
“I think RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) has the potential to encourage people to pick and choose which laws they’re going to follow whenever it suits them. It also applies to criminal justice situations. So if someone wanted to bring a claim to court that said they’re allowed to discipline their spouse and child as they see fit, they could attempt to exempt themselves from domestic violence laws. Obviously (that’s) necessarily not going to stick, but it certainly encourages people to raise those claims.”
Q: Even if these bills never become law, what are the impacts to LGBTQ Iowans?
A: “Any time a group of people with immense amounts of power is debating whether or not you get to exist in public, it has detrimental effects on your mental health. The Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth suicide hotline, reports that when this kind of stuff is introduced, their call volume increases directly with the introduction of (these bills.)
“I know folks who have gone back into the closet or have tried to minimize their public interactions just because they’re so afraid of being the center of a political debate, because they know it’s not just relegated to the Statehouse.
“If somebody sees a trans person in public and they know the sentiment is ’we don’t like these people, this is an out group of people’ that raises the potential for violence, harassment, all sorts of things. People are scared not just that these laws are going to pass but the conversation around this group of people has shifted in a way that’s not particularly good for any of us.”
Q: How do these bills affect the perception of our state and other areas such as business development?
A: “It has a massive negative impact. Just look at the article in the Des Moines Business Record. There was a venture capital firm having phone calls with other folks, trying to convince them to come to Iowa, and they just burst out laughing. That’s what happens. Our reputation as a welcoming state really shifts.
“When I started in politics in 2010, Iowa was regarded as a beacon of civil rights protections in the Midwest. Now, we’re not.
“Iowa’s unemployment rate is starting to approach pre-pandemic levels, which means that there’s going to be a real shortage of workers for the amount of jobs that we have. Businesses’ ability to attract, retain and recruit the top work force is going to be negatively impacted by this because you’re arbitrarily excluding a certain percentage of the population.
“Demographic trends are not in the state’s favor. We know that if we don’t recruit folks to come here that our population is going to start decreasing rather than increasing. That is also going to have a negative impact on our economy.”
Q: Seven of these bills in the current session are co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield). Another five are co-sponsored by Rep. Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville). For 10 of those bills, either Shipley or Salmon are the only co-sponsors. Is a small faction giving the Legislature an unfair reputation on LGBTQ issues?
A: “In terms of the sheer volume of bills, maybe that’s true. But we also saw back in 2019 that last-second maneuvering within the last day of the legislative session to strip medically necessary surgical care from transgender Iowans who were on Medicaid. Most folks in the Legislature voted for that. Most folks voted for the bill that overturned anti-discrimination policies for student groups.
“So there is a majority that’s willing to entertain these ideas. There are some that are willing to entertain many more extreme ideas. Is that reputation therefore unjustified? I don’t know. There’s a certain amount of justification that goes into that.
“It’s very clear that the majority of the Legislature isn’t going to entertain an idea like taking gender identity out of the Civil Rights Act. Those things get shot down very quickly.
“But we know that there is an appetite for some of this stuff. How much of an appetite, I’m not sure. Is the reputation not deserved? I’m not willing to say that at all.”
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