Anti-LGBTQ bills are dead, but their message lives on

First in a series on where things stand after the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” deadline.

State lawmakers set a depressing record this year for attempting to undermine the rights of LGBTQ Iowans.

Although all fifteen of those bills failed to meet a key legislative deadline last week, three had previously made it through Iowa Senate subcommittees. And none were condemned by Governor Kim Reynolds or GOP leaders in the House or Senate.

Until powerful Republicans disavow efforts to target the LGBTQ community, queer Iowans and particularly trans Iowans face the prospect of more attacks in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Bleeding Heartland reported last month on fourteen bills that would codify various forms of discrimination against LGBTQ Iowans. Most focused on transgender people, especially trans or gender non-conforming youth.

The eleven bills Republicans introduced in the House would have removed gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act, excluded transgender athletes from school or college sports, prevented trans youth from using bathrooms or locker rooms conforming to their gender identity, restricted access to gender-affirming medical treatment, or mandated the use of negative material about transitions in schools that teach about gender identity.

Under longstanding legislative rules, bills not related to taxes or spending are considered dead if they have not cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of the eighth week of the session (March 5 of this year). None of the anti-LGBTQ bills even made it to the first stage of the legislative process (being assigned to a subcommittee) in the House.

The Iowa Senate was more hospitable territory for bills targeting trans youth. Two of the three bills discussed here made it through subcommittee. One would prevent schools from teaching elementary or middle school students about gender identity issues without written consent of parents or guardians. The other would require children and adults to use school bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Ultimately, the Senate Education Committee did not approve those bills, so they will be ineligible for floor debate in the upper chamber. On the other hand, Senate leaders have not publicly rejected Republican efforts in this area.

In late February, seven GOP senators introduced one last bill widely viewed as hostile to the LGBTQ community. Senate File 436, which supporters call the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and detractors call the Right to Discriminate bill, claims to protect the “free exercise of religion.” The bill is written broadly and could provide religious exemptions to any number of laws.

The experience of other states suggests that the bill’s primary goal is to allow businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ customers, even though sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes under Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. Iowa GOP lawmakers have long championed the cause of conservative Christians who ended the most profitable part of their business rather than agree to rent their facility for a same-sex wedding.

Republicans on a subcommittee voted last week to advance Senate File 436 despite opposition from numerous business groups as well as civil rights organizations. The Iowa Chamber Alliance even joined with LGBTQ advocacy groups in a news release denouncing this year’s wave of anti-equality legislation.

The Senate State Government Committee didn’t take up the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act before the funnel deadline. But the same Republicans who have pushed for this bill two years running will likely fight for it again in 2022.

While advocates can take pride in stopping these bills from advancing at the statehouse, a lot of damage has already been done. Iowans who work with marginalized youth warned state lawmakers during various subcommittees that the the onslaught of Republican bills in this vein was causing stress and even suicidal ideation for some people. Becky Ritland, Interim Executive Director of Iowa Safe Schools, said in a written statement last month,

“The Iowa Legislature has made it crystal clear this session that they don’t believe transgender students should feel welcome and safe in their own state. These bills put LGBTQ students at unquestionably higher risk of suicide, self-harm, and depression,” […] “All these bills do is continue to spread hate and misinformation about LGBTQ Iowans, and Iowa Safe Schools will not stand for the bullying behavior being exhibited by the legislature.”

The sad reality is that not one Republican leader in this state stepped up to say that these proposals were mean-spirited and wrong. Reynolds could have cut off any of these bills at any moment by promising never to sign them. Neither she nor any House or Senate Republican have defended equality on its own terms.

If not for business lobbyists, the Iowa legislature might have taken additional steps toward codifying discrimination.

Final note: While I appreciate the work of all who helped defeat the anti-LGBTQ agenda, too many Iowa business leaders frame their case against these bills in terms of potential contracts or “workforce development.” Michael Crumb reported for the Des Moines Business Record last week,

“People are rethinking about coming to Iowa because of the brand they see with our state,” [Gravitate Coworking founder Geoff] Wood said. “We may know a lot of these things won’t actually become law, but they’re one step from becoming law and maybe next session they will, so people are thinking those through.”

Rick Sanders, president and director of the Iowa State University Research Park, said during Wednesday’s meeting that ISU was in competition with Purdue and the University of Illinois on three different projects with companies that are considering moving innovation centers to one of the institutions.

“Three weeks ago we felt we were right there; now all three have dropped us … and two of them were bold enough to tell us one of the primary reasons they dropped us is what’s going on at the Capitol right now,” Sanders said.

Recognizing the equal worth of every Iowan is more important than whether your investment deal fell through.

Top photo of the Iowa state capitol by f11photo, available via Shutterstock.

  • Just wondering...

    If Iowa business leaders did argue much more in favor of “recognizing the equal worth of every Iowan” on moral and ethical grounds, would some legislators even listen? At this point, after watching the session for weeks, my gloomy bet is “no.”

    If it takes economic arguments to stop very bad bills in a very bad year when nothing else seems to be working, I’m in favor of hauling out the dollar cannons and firing them, even though it’s far from ideal.

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