On Thursday morning, I woke up early, ready for an exciting day of advocacy with students like me. Hours later I was being escorted out of the Iowa Capitol building in tears.
I lead a very small Gender-Sexualities Alliance at Lisbon High School, where we have very little support, so I was incredibly excited to spend a day surrounded by love and affirmation. Iowa Safe School’s Student Day at the Capitol event was supposed to be a time for queer students to speak with lawmakers and advocate for ourselves at our state capitol. And for much of the day it was — until it wasn’t.
The two students that attended the event with me both identify as transgender or nonbinary and they were among several students who were harassed throughout the day about their use of the bathrooms. These students were hesitant to enter the bathroom that they felt most comfortable using, but eventually did, because it was supposed to be our day, and who cares what bathroom you use, right? Wrong. My friend, Rubi Salazar, was waiting to use the fully occupied “Men’s” restroom when they witnessed a man in a suit walk into the restroom and begin yelling at the students telling them “Get out” and “I’ve had enough of you.” These students were not being disruptive or disrespectful in any way. Rubi told me that for the rest of the day they felt threatened by every adult that they encountered, especially those not with Iowa Safe Schools.
However, we tried to move on with our day and continue the work that we were there to do. A while later, I was on the second floor when I saw a handful of our students being escorted out of an elevator by a state trooper. Most of the students were crying and I saw the state trooper gesture to other state troopers and instruct them to “watch” those students. I saw Iowa Safe Schools Executive Director Nate Monson, approach the initial state trooper, and quickly after I heard him yell, “Someone start recording” and things began happening very quickly.
I was spinning around trying to locate my friends and as soon as I did we were pushed down the stairs. I remember seeing people crying and yelling, but I was so scared and panicked that I couldn’t hear any of them. Many other students were also having panic attacks and one of them was sitting on a staircase surrounded by openly hostile state troopers. I was overwhelmed with sadness, fear and anger.
As we gathered outside the building it was chaos. Some students were still inside some had left personal belongings inside, and everyone was either crying, shaking or comforting someone who was crying. Thankfully, Nate Monson was on top of everything. He immediately gathered everyone and said not only was this unprecedented it was illegal, and that Iowa Safe School would be taking action. But most importantly he assured us that we are loved, we are appreciated, we are valid, we matter.
At that moment, it certainly didn’t feel like I mattered. Earlier in the day, the Iowa Senate Minority Leader had said that more people like me were needed in that building, and yet here I was, standing outside, ejected from the building with my peers simply for being who we are. In the next hour or so we all tried to comfort each other, and some amazing Democratic lawmakers — Janet Petersen, Todd Prichard, Liz Bennett, Ross Wilburn, Jennifer Konfrst, Heather Matson, and Chris Hall, and State Auditor Rob Sand — all came out to reaffirm us. Which felt nice, and I very much appreciated it, but it still didn’t change what happened. I was still removed from the Iowa Capitol building. A place that I look up to so much, that I hope to work in one day. It doesn’t change the fact that lawmakers didn’t want me there simply because of who I am. I wasn’t allowed to stay under the Golden Dome because my friends and I had the audacity to stand up for ourselves in the most basic way. It made me feel “less than” in the worst way. I’m not sure I know what to do now, but I know that I will never stop standing back up and fighting. And sharing my stories and the stories of my friends so that maybe more people will stand with us someday.
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Maria McAlexander is a sophomore at Lisbon High School. She is President of her school’s GSA, active in community theatre, and passionate about social justice.