OPINION

Hey, Iowa lawmakers, leave those kids alone

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

So it just wouldn’t be an official election year legislative session without a misguided overture to the grand order of the perpetually outraged.

This time, it’s a bill approved by the House Government Oversight Committee this past week seeking to micromanage Iowa students’ ability to attend the Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth. That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, in case you’re a puzzled state lawmaker. It’s not affiliated with Gov. Terry Branstad’s office, although the governor deserves credit for rebuffing demands from the religious right that he order a name change.

Some Republican legislators, led by Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Columbia, are upset about what they say was “X-rated” talk at last year’s conference, especially during a session on sexual health. Orgies and bondage apparently came up. A couple of comedians, including one in drag with the stage name Coco Peru, made inappropriate jokes and dropped some f-bombs.

A West Des Moines teacher wrote a letter to lawmakers detailing her concerns. Some parents also complained, although it’s not clear how many. It sounds like the sort of thing any concerned parents, teachers and students should have taken up with event organizers. I have a feeling if a critical mass of criticism emerged, conference staff likely would listen and make changes.

Instead, a high-profile Statehouse investigation was launched. Makes sense.

House Oversight Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R- Wilton, says it’s appropriate for lawmakers to stick their noses into a youth conference funded with private donations because some of the kids who attend are transported in school district vehicles. So because some students get a ride in a school van, and maybe had their conference fee paid by their school, the power of our Legislature must be brought to bear. “Indirect funding” is their battle cry.

If the pretext was any thinner, it would match the cynical veil being tossed over this sad affair by those who insist it’s really not about discrimination.

When the committee called on the conference’s director, Nate Monson, to appear before the committee, he declined. He and his attorney rightly questioned the panel’s jurisdiction.

Kaufmann concedes lawmakers don’t have the power to regulate conference content. Swell, unless you can see the big, unspoken point of this whole golden dome production is to send a clear message to conference organizers and presenters they’d better watch what they say.

Organizers sought to create a safe space for kids who may feel pretty isolated back home, a place to find friends, support and some honest answers to tough questions? Too bad, no place is safe from legislative meddling.

Or from legislation. HSB 647 would require kids attending the conference to first get signed parental permission to opt in. In fact, signed permission would be needed to participate in any sort of curriculum dealing with “human growth and development,” on or off campus. No word on whether that includes GOP presidential debates where hand size can become a major issue.

Of course, if individual school districts thought this was a good idea, they’d be free to do it. They’d also be free to make sensible exceptions in the case of kids whose sexual orientation or gender identity has jolted their home life. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and local school boards are capable of sorting out these policy matters. Local control, the kind Republicans once championed.

But why allow that to happen when you can micromanage from on high? Why use a scalpel when a bulldozer is available?

So what if some kids who want to attend can’t clear that legislative hurdle? It’s a small price to pay for reassuring Iowa’s Family Leaders that some lawmakers still have their back as they keep trying in vain to pull us backward.

The good news is even if the bill somehow passes the House, I’m betting it will die in the Senate. And the LGBTQ conference, its 11th annual edition, will go on as planned later this month. Hundreds will attend its speakers and workshops.

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And I suppose it’s a sign of progress that culture crusaders who once filled the Statehouse with thundering throngs chanting against marriage equality are now reduced to picking on a youth conference. Their outrage may be perpetual, but, fortunately, their political clout is perishable.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@gazette.com

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