As the Iowa legislature's first "funnel" deadline approaches, Republicans have introduced more than 30 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, roughly double the previous record. More than a dozen of those bills have either advanced from a subcommittee or have cleared a standing committee and are therefore eligible for debate in the Iowa House or Senate.
Until recently, the vast majority of bills threatening LGBTQ Iowans never received a subcommittee hearing. During the 2021 legislative session, none of the fifteen bills in that category made it through the first funnel (requiring approval by a House or Senate committee), and only a handful were even assigned to a subcommittee. Bills consigned to the scrap heap included proposed bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and so-called "bathroom bills," which require transgender people to use school restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificate, rather than the facilities that match their gender identity.
In contrast, this week House and Senate subcommittees rushed to pass bathroom bills and measures prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors less than 24 hours after the bills appeared on the Iowa legislature's website.
How did these policies become a priority for Republican lawmakers in such a short time?
Three factors seem most important.
GOVERNOR USED TRANS IOWANS TO BUILD HER POLITICAL BRAND
Governor Kim Reynolds didn't rise to power as a social conservative firebrand. During her brief stint in the Iowa legislature (2009-2010), she wasn't a public face of efforts to roll back marriage equality, for instance.
After moving up from the office of lieutenant governor in 2017, Reynolds didn't ask the GOP-controlled legislature to pass new laws directed at LGBTQ Iowans. Nor did she make such issues a centerpiece of her 2018 campaign for governor.
But Reynolds did signal she was open to discriminatory policies in 2019, when she signed a bill designed to prevent Iowans on Medicaid from accessing gender-affirming surgery. (She refused to meet with members of the transgender community at that time and has continued to rebuff requests for meetings with LGBTQ advocates.)
Reynolds acknowledged this month that Republican governors are "very competitive" with one another. Perhaps that explains her sudden interest in targeting trans Iowans, which emerged on live television in April 2021.
During a Fox News "town hall" featuring red state governors, Laura Ingraham brought up efforts to protect female athletes from competing against transgender peers. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves explained why he was "passionate" about the issue and had signed the first state-level transgender sports ban. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis assured the Fox host that he would soon sign a similar bill.
Ingraham then turned to Iowa's leader: "Governor Reynolds, how is it fair to have biological males compete against women athletes?" She responded, "It's not fair," adding,
I'm going to do what is right for my state. I'm going to do what's right for girls. I'm a mom of three daughters and a grandmother of three granddaughters who compete. And it's the right to do. They should have the same opportunities. And we're working on legislation, too. I should have that to my desk by, hopefully the end of this legislative session, and we'll be signing that bill.
That was news to Iowa lawmakers. Reynolds had not proposed any transgender sports ban during the 2021 session, nor had she objected when a House bill containing that language died without a subcommittee hearing.
But upon returning to Iowa, Reynolds made clear that she wanted to sign a bill banning transgender youth from competing on sports teams not matching their gender assigned at birth. And while the GOP trifecta didn't finish that job before adjourning in 2021, they acted quickly the following year to give Reynolds what she wanted. Only one Republican—State Representative Michael Bergan, whose constituent Gavy Smith was directly affected by the policy—voted against the bill banning transgender girls or women from sports teams. Reynolds signed it into law with jubilation in March 2022.
The governor wasn't done punching down on transgender Iowans. She may have little grasp of the public policy in this area, but she looked for ways to position herself against a group that most Iowans don't understand.
Last year, Reynolds demagogued against a Linn-Mar school district policy that supports transgender students. She took a swipe at trans kids ("Here in Iowa, we still know right from wrong, boys from girls, and liberty from tyranny") in her final television commercial of the 2022 campaign, which was in heavy rotation across tv markets.
Speaking at a "Moms for Liberty" event last month, Reynolds embraced efforts to remove controversial books centering LGBTQ characters from school libraries. She followed up by introducing Senate Study Bill 1145, which combined several elements on the conservative wish list. Notably, schools could offer no instruction related to gender identity or "sexual activity" from kindergarten through third grade. (Reynolds wants to expand the ban to sixth grade.) Any books removed from one school library would go on a statewide list, and express parental consent would be required before students in any other Iowa school could access the book.
In addition, the governor's bill would require "prior written consent" from a parent or guardian "before allowing any employee of the school district to address the minor child using a nickname or a pronoun that does not correspond to the biological sex that is listed on the minor child’s official birth certificate." And more worrying, it would force school staff to "immediately notify" parents "if any employee of the school district reasonably believes that the minor child has expressed a gender identity that is different than the biological sex listed on the minor child’s official birth certificate [...]."
Many LGBTQ advocates have warned that "outing" transgender, nonbinary, or questioning students to their parents could lead to dangerous situations. The governor's bill gives school districts the option to avoid notifying parents if they fear doing so "is likely to lead to a case of child abuse," but requires districts to report such safety concerns to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.
Finally, the governor's bill would prohibit schools from administering the Iowa Youth Survey (a decades-old tradition) without parental permission. Making the test "opt-in" would reduce participation, inhibiting data collection on a wide range of "perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of Iowa youth."
Senate Study Bill 1145 cleared a subcommittee along party lines and is on the Senate Education Committee's agenda for March 1, which means it will survive the legislature's first funnel. UPDATE: The committee approved the bill along party lines.
Reynolds doesn't control everything that happens in the Iowa House and Senate, but her determination to further marginalize LGBTQ kids seems to have emboldened Republicans to act on related bills.
The governor's not the only force pushing GOP lawmakers in that direction, though.
CONSERVATIVE NOISE MACHINE PUSHING TRANS PANIC
Republican politicians benefit from an enormous media ecosphere encompassing most talk radio, Fox News, Newsmax, and digital outlets that push conservative messages and denigrate progressives or Democrats. But that air support doesn't just passively echo what Republicans want to accomplish. Sometimes the messengers help set the GOP agenda.
As mentioned above, a leading question from a Fox News personality spurred Reynolds to publicly endorse a transgender sports ban for the first time.
During the 2010s, as opinion polls showed growing acceptance of homosexuality and marriage equality, some influential conservatives latched on to "bathroom bills" to gin up the outrage they used to generate by demonizing gays, lesbians, or same-sex marriages.
More recently, right-wing outlets and voices (such as the Libs of TikTok Twitter feed) have used their massive reach to stoke fears about transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Consumers receive a steady stream of anecdotes about drag shows for kids, alleged predators in girls' restrooms, or authority figures supposedly leading children to gender dysphoria.
In 2018, when the noise machine was less focused on such issues, Iowa House Judiciary Committee chair Zach Nunn said a bathroom bill wasn't in the "top tier" of matters his panel would consider. He never assigned it to a subcommittee. Similarly, the Iowa Senate Education Committee let a bathroom bill go out with a whimper in 2021.
But this week, House Judiciary Committee chair Steven Holt introduced a school bathroom bill (House Study Bill 208), then led the subcommittee that approved it the following day. Also on February 28, a Senate subcommittee advanced a separate bathroom bill (Senate File 335).
Never mind that Iowa schools have allowed students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity for some fifteen years with no reported incidents. Never mind that LGBTQ kids face higher risk from assault when their schools have restrictive bathroom policies.
Never mind that educators have noted the bathroom bills would force school districts to choose between violating state law or federal Title IX regulations.
Never mind that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that the state Department of Corrections unlawfully discriminated against a transgender employee by forcing him to use a separate unisex bathroom, instead of the men's restroom. (The latest bathroom bills instruct schools to make separate "single occupancy" restrooms available as an accommodation to students who don't want to use the bathroom corresponding to their "biological sex.")
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley hinted at pressure from the GOP base last week, when he told reporters Republicans would likely restrict gender-affirming care for minors. Asked what his caucus was hoping to accomplish with the bills targeting transgender Iowans, Grassley said a lot of the ideas came from constituents who have reached out to legislators.
Remember, bills prohibiting gender-affirming care for transgender youth, or creating sanctions for physicians who provide such care, didn't even get an Iowa House subcommittee hearing two years ago. But Republicans on House and Senate subcommittees approved sweeping bans on gender-affirming care (including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgical procedures) for Iowans under age 18 on February 28, the day after House Study Bill 214 and Senate File 1197 were introduced. GOP lawmakers ignored testimony from medical experts, parents of transgender or nonbinary children, and adults who work with transgender youth.
Every major medical and public health association supports providing gender-affirming care to children. The Iowa Medical Society and Iowa Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics are among the many groups registered against the new bills. But when Republican legislators have to choose between listening to subject matter experts or pandering to the base, the conservative activists will win almost every time.
Reynolds has not announced whether she supports new restrictions on gender-affirming care, and her staff did not respond to Bleeding Heartland's inquiry.
BUSINESS LOBBY GROUPS MISSING IN ACTION
Lobbyist declarations sometimes shed light on power dynamics that would otherwise be hidden from view. So it is with a couple of bills that have remained stalled, even in this year of unprecedented legislative attacks on transgender Iowans.
House File 190, co-sponsored by twelve Republicans, would remove gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act. (The Democratic-controlled legislature amended that law in 2007 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.)
I've kept my eye on this bill, because several weeks ago, House Judiciary chair Holt didn't respond to my inquiries about his plans for the legislation. When nine House Republicans introduced a similar bill in January 2020, Holt told me and other reporters right away, "The bill is dead. I will not assign it to sub-committee."
In any event, Holt didn't assign House File 190 to a subcommittee, so the bill is on track to die in the funnel.
Why did this bill falter? Let's look at the lobbyist declarations. In addition to the LGBTQ, progressive, health care, or education advocacy groups registered against other bills discussed above, the Principal Financial Group, Iowa Chamber Alliance, Greater Des Moines Partnership, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, and some local chamber groups are opposed.
Relatedly, Holt did not assign State Representative Jeff Shipley's latest version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act for Iowa (House File 229) to a subcommittee. The lobbyist declarations show many of the same business groups weighed in, as they did when a group of senators co-sponsored a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2021.
Major corporations know that codifying a right to discriminate against LGBTQ Iowans will hurt the business community by making it harder to land investment deals and harder to recruit and retain skilled workers. National conventions or sporting events scheduled to take place in Iowa may be moved to other states.
The sad reality is that if business groups had lobbied against last year's transgender sports ban, or had discouraged government interference with school policies or health care options, maybe some of this year's bills would never have gotten out of the gate.
I don't expect corporate lobbyists to have altruistic motives. I understand they will spend their political capital on bills that more directly affect the bottom line. Who cares about the basic human dignity of marginalized people when you could secure more tax breaks by staying on Republicans' good side?
But the wide-ranging attacks on LGBTQ Iowans are bound to exacerbate the state's workforce problems. At some point, the business lobby may regret standing on the sidelines while Iowa solidifies its reputation as the Mississippi of the north.
Final note: The state House has approved one bill this session that could benefit LGBTQ Iowans. House File 159 would prohibit those charged with a violent crime from using the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity as an excuse. The House has passed similar bills before, but the Senate has not acted on them.
APPENDIX: PENDING LEGISLATION TARGETING IOWA'S LGBTQ COMMUNITY
This information is current as of February 28 and will be updated as needed.
Through committee and eligible for floor debate:
House File 348 (prohibits instruction "of any kind" about gender identity or sexual orientation from kindergarten through sixth grade)
House File 182 (demands detailed reports from state universities about curriculum in education courses, creates legislative committee to consider recommended changes)
House File 180 (requires schools to "out" transgender students to parents or guardians)
House File 327 (removes HIV education from school curriculum)
Senate File 391 (removes HIV education from school curriculum)
Senate Study Bill 1145 (the governor's wide-ranging education bill) is set to clear the Senate Education Committee on March 1 and will be renumbered. UPDATE: Republicans on the committee approved the bill along party lines. It's been renumbered Senate File 496.
Through a subcommittee:
Senate File 85 (prohibits schools from using materials on social and emotional learning, makes the Iowa Youth Survey opt-in)
Senate File 159 (prohibits instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through eighth grade)
Senate File 83 (prohibits instruction on gender identity from kindergarten through eighth grade)
House File 367 (prohibits school districts from disciplining staff for using names or pronouns that a student doesn't want) This bill is on the House Education Committee's March 1 agenda. UPDATE: Following committee approval, renumbered House File 620.
House Study Bill 218 (prohibiting state universities from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs) has a subcommittee scheduled for March 1. UPDATE: Following committee approval, this bill was renumbered House File 616.
Assigned to a subcommittee, no meeting held:
Senate File 305 (would create process for prohibiting "obscene" materials in school libraries)
Introduced, no subcommittee assignment:
House File 362 (prohibits schools from using materials on social and emotional learning)
House File 482 (bathroom bill)
House File 361 (would create process for prohibiting "obscene" materials in school libraries)
Through a subcommittee:
House Study Bill 214 and Senate File 1197 (bans gender-affirming care for minors) UPDATE: Both bills were approved in committee before the funnel. The House bill has been renumbered House File 623, and the Senate bill doesn't have a new number yet.
Senate File 297 (protects "religious beliefs and moral convictions of health care providers and health care facilities"). UPDATE: The Judiciary Committee approved this bill before the subcommittee.
Assigned to a subcommittee, no meeting held:
Senate File 129 (bans gender-affirming care for minors)
Senate File 110 (creates "private right of action for gender-transition procedure performed on minor")
Through a subcommittee:
Senate File 212 (prohibits "discrimination against adoption and foster care providers, or adoptive and foster parents, based on religious belief") The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take up this bill before the funnel.
Assigned to a subcommittee, no meeting held:
Senate File 348 (prohibits minors at drag shows)
Introduced, no subcommittee assignment:
House File 190 (removes gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act)
House File 325 (amends Iowa Civil Rights Act to provide gender identity protections to adults only, creates more exemptions)
House File 229 (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)
House File 290 (bans government documents from recognizing gender transition)
House Joint Resolution 8 (state constitutional amendment seeking to overturn same-sex marriage rights)
House File 508 (seeking to nullify the federal Respect for Marriage Act)
Top photo: Governor Kim Reynolds signs House File 2416, banning transgender girls and women from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity, on March 3, 2022. Photo originally published on the governor's official Facebook page.