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‘I deserve to be valued’: LGBTQ youth speak out against statehouse Republican bills
Supporters say parents — not schools — should discuss LGBTQ issues
DES MOINES — While LGBTQ children pleaded Tuesday with state lawmakers to be treated with decency and respect, supporters of a Republican-led proposal to bar Iowa’s public schools from teaching lesbian, gay and transgender-themed issues mocked trans youth, claimed that schools should follow Christian teachings and blamed LGBTQ advocates for suicides and school shootings.
It all came out of two legislative hearings at the Iowa Capitol on bills related to public education and LGBTQ-related issues. Statehouse Republicans advanced three bills:
- Senate File 83, which would prohibit K-8 public schools from teaching gender identity;
- House File 9, which would require a parent’s permission before public school staff could refer to a student by a different gender identity;
- House File 7, which would require public universities to report to state lawmakers their definitions of dozens of terms, including many that are related to LGBTQ people or issues of race and diversity.
At a legislative hearing on the proposal to prohibit K-8 schools from teaching about gender identity, some young LGBTQ Iowans told lawmakers how such bills impact them.
“When my mom told me about this bill, I felt angry,” said Berry Stevens, a middle school student from West Des Moines. “I deserve to be valued and protected. But this bill does the opposite of that.”
Stevens said a year ago when they started sixth grade, they changed their pronouns. They said at school they were picked on and called homophobic slurs, but their teachers and administration were supportive and took steps to protect them.
“That would be impossible under this bill,” Stevens said. “I need you to protect me and others like me.”
Sarah SmallCarter and her transgender daughter, Odin, from Fort Dodge, both spoke at the hearing. Sarah SmallCarter described Odin coming out just before the start of second grade, and how adamant and excited she was.
“That’s all we’re asking for, is that you treat our kids in schools with basic human decency and respect. That’s it,” Sarah said. “This (proposed law) would deny that. It would target our children.”
Odin also spoke, saying she gets bullied at school for being transgender.
“I get bullied at school a lot because they say I’m a boy,” she said. “I’m trying my best to make them understand.”
The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth suicide and crisis prevention organization, said such measures add to existing stigma and discrimination of LGBTQ youth, who already face higher health and suicide risks than their peers. When given access to spaces that affirm their gender identity, they report fewer suicide attempts, the Trevor Project says.
Supporters of the bill argued that the topic of gender identity should be exclusive to parents and their children — and not discussed in public schools.
Nicole Hasso, who ran in the Republican primary for Congress in 2022, offered her thoughts on who is to blame for those elevated suicide rates among LGBTQ youth.
“Because of (LGBTQ advocates’) actions, their blood is on your hands. Every suicide, every school shooting, every school bullying,” Hasso said. She said students should be sent to school to be educated, “not to be groomed.”
Another woman who spoke at the hearing used mocking air quotes when referring to a transgender boy, and multiple speakers insisted public schools should be following Christian values while educating students.
Ryan Benn, a lobbyist for the Christian conservative advocacy organization The Family Leader, called the discussion of gender identity “theology,” and “a religion of its own” that is “anti-Christian.”
At a separate hearing on the bill that would prohibit schools from affirming or recognizing a student’s preferred gender identity in school without written consent from parents, supporters argued the bill keeps parents informed and ensures that school employees can’t hide information about a student’s requested gender transition or identity from the child’s parents.
“Children are the sole responsibility of the parents,” said Patty Alexander, a retired teacher from Indianola. “A teacher is not the parent. The teacher works for the parents and the school he or she is employed with. We need educators, schools and administrators to stay in their lane.”
Critics said the measure undermines LGBTQ support in schools and endangers the safety, welfare and autonomy of transgender and gender-fluid youth, and places educators in an impossible position: risk legal and career ending consequences or forcibly “out” LGBTQ students grappling with their personal identity to potentially unsupportive or abusive family members.
“We encourage them to come out to their parents on their own time. They are the best judges of their own safety, not bureaucrats in Des Moines,” said Damian Thompson, director of public policy and communication for the advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools. “This bill is a form of government overreach that will ultimately put students in direct danger.”
Thompson said transgender youth face a real risk of rejection by adults. Iowa Safe Schools offers services to LGBTQ and allied youth and students who have been bullied.
“Many of the students who we work with one-on-one have been kicked out of their homes due to abusive and non-affirming environments,” he said.
Organizations representing Iowa school boards, school administrators and teachers note the bill forces them to violate both state and federal law, including Title IX, that prohibits sex-based discrimination and harassment in any school or education program.
The Iowa Department of Education also states the preference for the use of pronouns should be the choice of the student, and that school leaders work collaboratively with students and families while honoring the choice of students.
Republicans advanced Senate File 83, making it eligible for consideration by the full Senate education committee.
Later Tuesday, Republicans advanced both House File 7 and House File 9 out of the House education committee, making both eligible for debate by the full House. Both passed on party-line votes with Democrats opposed.
The committee discussion on House File 7 included testy exchanges between Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, and bill sponsor Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull.
Staed questioned the need for the legislation and accused Republicans of a “witch hunt.” Wheeler and fellow bill sponsor Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, took umbrage at his remarks.
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