A moment of decency during a session of hostility toward LGBTQ Iowans

Let’s start with the good news. The Iowa House on February 10 approved a bill that acknowledges LGBTQ Iowans don’t deserve to be physically attacked just for existing.

The brief debate and unanimous vote provided a rare moment of goodwill during a state legislative session marred by attacks on LGBTQ equality and dignity.

A MOVE TO BAN AN “UNSPEAKABLY OFFENSIVE” LEGAL DEFENSE

House File 310 would prohibit defendants from using the so-called gay or trans “panic” defense as justification for an assault or homicide. A nearly identical proposal was among the last bills the House approved in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the session. Because the Iowa Senate didn’t advance the bill last June, the legislative process started over this year.

Introducing the bill on the House floor (beginning around 5:59:00 on this video), Republican State Representative Bobby Kaufmann said, “It’s hard to believe what I’m about to say, and we shouldn’t even have to be here today doing this, but we do need to do this. Because in other states–several other states, unfortunately–defendants have been successful” in reducing their crime or sentence for attacking or killing a gay or trans person. This “unspeakably offensive” legal strategy “is not welcome in Iowa and will be banned in Iowa,” Kaufmann said.

Democratic State Representative Liz Bennett, the only current Iowa lawmaker who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, spoke next and mentioned six people whose murderers later claimed a version of the gay or trans panic defense: Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, Marco McMillian, Gwen Araujo, Angie Zapata, and Islan Nettles. She asked colleagues to join her in a brief moment of silence for Kedarie Johnson, the gender-fluid Burlington teen murdered in 2016.

Bennett also described her visit last summer to the Wyoming location where Shepard was killed, and recalled how hearing about that crime had affected her as a teenager.

Discussing the need for this legislation, Bennett described a 2018 case in which a man was acquitted of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to ten years probation on a lesser charge after killing his neighbor, Daniel Spencer.

Ten years probation. And with that verdict, a Texas jury was willing to absolve a killer of personal responsibility for his actions, because his victim was gay. And that sends the message that gay people’s lives aren’t as valuable as others, and that gay people deserve to die.

Here in Iowa, we value all members of our community. It’s sad that we have to make it clear that a person’s gender identity or sexual identity or orientation is no excuse for violence against them, but we do.

House File 310 passed by 94 votes to 0 and is now pending in the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a statement released on February 10, Iowa Safe Schools interim executive director Becky Ritland commented, “This bill is sending a message that violence or discrimination against LGBTQ Iowans is unacceptable, and that the justice system is truly for all Iowans.”

If only all Iowa lawmakers were consistent about sending that message.

ONE STEP FORWARD, FOURTEEN STEPS BACK

Republicans who control the Iowa House and Senate have introduced at least fourteen bills that would codify discrimination against LGBTQ Iowans, many of them targeting youth. Damian Thompson, director of public policy for Iowa Safe Schools, provided a list on February 8, and I’ve added each bill’s sponsor or sponsors in parentheses. More bills along the same lines may be filed later this month.

In the lower chamber:

House File 272 would remove gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which has banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity since 2007. (Dean Fisher, Skyler Wheeler, Mark Cisneros, Sandy Salmon)

House File 340 would undermine gender identity protections in the Iowa Civil Rights Act. (Jeff Shipley)

House File 170 would create broad exemptions in civil rights law for “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.” (Sandy Salmon)

House File 184 would ban transgender athletes from participating in K-12 school, college, or intramural sports in ways consistent with their gender identity. (Sandy Salmon)

House File 334 would also make school, college, or intramural athletes eligible to participate only on teams matching their biological sex. (Jeff Shipley)

House File 187 would allow institutions to restrict student access to restrooms or locker rooms that conform to their gender identity and would allow religious organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, even when such policies are not related to a “bona fide religious purpose.” (Sandy Salmon)

House File 405 would amend the Iowa Civil Rights Act to allow discrimination against transgender people relating to bathrooms or locker rooms. (Jeff Shipley)

House File 193 would prohibit gender-affirming treatment (including hormones or surgery) for transgender youth (Sandy Salmon)

House File 341 would give Iowans more time to file a malpractice complaint following treatment for gender dysphoria, discouraging physicians from offering treatment mainstream medical organizations deem medically necessary. (Jeff Shipley)

House File 327 undermines the ability of transgender youth to obtain gender-affirming treatment and threatens professional sanctions for physicians. (Jeff Shipley)

House File 326 would require schools using gender identity in the curriculum to include materials denigrating transitions and emphasizing “adverse outcomes of social and medical gender interventions.” (Jeff Shipley)

Fortunately, none of those bills has been assigned to a subcommittee, indicating that the Republicans in charge of the corresponding committees (Judiciary, Education, or Human Services) have no interest in advancing the legislation.

However, I haven’t seen any public statement from Iowa House leaders confirming that the GOP caucus will not move forward with any bills targeting LGBTQ Iowans or attempting to legalize discrimination.

Republicans in the Iowa Senate have introduced fewer anti-LGBTQ bills, but the legislation they have filed shows signs of life.

Senate File 80 would require schools to notify parents about any requests related to a student’s preferred pronouns. (Amy Sinclair) This bill has been assigned to a subcommittee, giving it the potential to move forward.

Senate File 167 would prohibit any mention of gender identity from sex education materials used in kindergarten and would require parental consent before students were exposed to any such materials in elementary schools. (Jim Carlin, Jason Schultz, Jeff Taylor, Craig Johnson, Mike Klimesh, Amy Sinclair, Ken Rozenboom, Tom Shipley) This bill has also been assigned to a Senate Education subcommittee.

Senate File 224 would prohibit trans students from accessing restrooms that conform to their gender identity. (Jim Carlin) Two Republicans advanced the bill from a subcommittee on February 10.

Stephen Gruber-Miller’s article for the Des Moines Register noted,

Other so-called bathroom bills have been introduced in Iowa over the past several years, but Wednesday was the first time that one of those bills has even received a subcommittee hearing, said Keenan Crow, policy and advocacy director for the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa.

I watched and live-tweeted that subcommittee meeting, but this thread doesn’t convey how dispiriting it was. (You can listen to the full audio here.)

For about 30 minutes, Republican Senators Jim Carlin and Jeff Taylor listened to testimony from a diverse group of speakers who oppose the bill. They heard from representatives of LGBTQ advocacy groups who pointed out that Iowa hasn’t had any problems stemming from accommodating transgender students since the 2007 changes to the civil rights act. They heard that there’s no evidence boys or men are pretending to be transgender in order to prey on girls or women. They heard that bathroom bills harm trans students’ physical and mental health, as many kids experience extreme stress and anxiety, and may restrict fluid intake to avoid needing to use the bathoom. They heard about the risk of bullying and assault against students forced to use restrooms that don’t match their gender identity.

Lawmakers heard from students who would be directly affected by the bill, and from parents who worry about the impact on trans kids. They heard from a trans man who volunteers regularly at his daughter’s elementary school and would be forced to use the girls’ room there if the bill became law. (“I’m sure no one on the committee or in the public would want a 39-year-old adult man, transgender man, such as myself using the girls’ restroom at an elementary school.”)

They heard from representatives of school boards and educators, who warned that the bill would lead to expensive lawsuits. They heard that even though the bill attempts to carve out an exemption from Iowa’s civil rights law, it would put this state’s schools in conflict with federal Title IX requirements as well as the U.S. Constitution.

Only one member of the public spoke in favor of the legislation. Chuck Hurley of the social conservative group FAMiLY Leader thanked Republicans for what he called a “common sense” bill to protect the privacy of students “who aren’t confused about their gender.”

State Senator Claire Celsi, the only Democrat on the subcommittee, apologized to everyone who had to mobilize against what she called a “hateful and harmful” bill, singling people out for discriminatory treatment.

I hate that you all have to be here and defend yourselves like this. I hate that adults and parents from around the state hae to endure another assault, frankly, on their child’s existence, their student’s existence. […]

It’s frankly just reprehensible that some senators cannot read the Iowa Civil Rights Act and realize that this particular bill flies in the face of it.

None of it mattered to the Republican senators as they disregarded experts and the lived experience of Iowans they don’t understand. Taylor said to those who opposed the bill, “I appreciate your passion.” He claimed there was no “intention” to be hateful or to undermine anyone’s dignity. “I think it’s a fundamental difference in perspective” about gender and sex, which Taylor believes are the same thing and are determined before people are born.

To me, this makes some sense to have consistency, but I do understand that it’s going to cause distress to people who identify a certain way, correctly or incorrectly, in terms of their gender. So, I don’t want to minimize that, but I am willing to sign [the bill].

The bill’s sponsor and subcommittee chair spoke last. Carlin also claimed his intention didn’t reflect “any animus or hatred toward anybody in the LGBT community.” He said his concern was not with “transgendered individuals” but that predators could pose as trans in order to gain access to women and girls. He also worries about “little girls” who might have to be in a bathroom with a man and claimed to be protecting their safety and privacy. (Celsi pointed out that trans people are much more likely to be assaulted themselves and would be at heightened risk if this bill were enacted.)

Civil rights mean nothing if majority can decide it’s fine to discriminate against a historically disfavored, marginalized group, based on hypothetical problems.

Sarah Ziegenhorn commented on Twitter, “I wonder if IA GOP legislators know (or care) that trans kids from around the state are reporting new episodes of panic attacks, depression, and suicidal ideation at physician visits – which they directly attribute to the array of anti trans bills introduced in the legislature.” An Iowan who is part of the LGBTQ community tweeted, “When we moved back to Iowa in 2010, it was b/c it was 1 of only 3 states that would legally allow us to marry. 11 years later, I’m constantly writing to officials committed to advancing racist, homophobic, and transphobic bills. This is not my Iowa. We are better than this.”

Until Republican House and Senate leaders and Governor Kim Reynolds make clear that they will not tolerate new attempts to undermine equality, these legislative attacks will continue to harm thousands of Iowans.

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