Iowa's culture war: Pronouns, nicknames, and LGBTQ kids' rights

Nick Covington is an Iowa parent who taught high school social studies for ten years. He is also the co-founder of the Human Restoration Project, an Iowa educational non-profit promoting systems-based thinking and grassroots organizing in education.

On August 1, I got an email from my kids’ school district announcing a new required form I needed to fill out in response to Senate File 496, part of the slate of so-called Parents’ Rights provisions that Governor Kim Reynolds signed in May. The letter read in part:

Recently passed legislation, Senate File 496, requires that school districts receive written permission from parents and/or guardians regarding any request by a student to accommodate a gender identity, name or pronoun that is different from what was assigned to the student during the school registration process. This requirement also applies to all nicknames. (i.e. Sam instead of Samuel; Addy instead of Addison, etc.)

As schools and districts struggle to respond to the wave of anti-LGBTQ laws controlling access to books, curriculum materials, and apparently pronouns in Iowa public schools, I suspect many parents like me will receive similar communications in the lead up to the start of the school year. And they’ll be right to react with bewilderment that their Sams and Addys, who never had a problem with nicknames before, now require a mailed form letter to be recognized as such.

While it’s a bizarre inconvenience for most parents, the toll will be especially dire for LGBTQ kids in transition or who have transitioned, especially those who may face a dual struggle at home and at school. Those who have gone by another name and pronouns for years may not even respond to what’s on the roster, but what used to be fixed by a quick, affirming conversation now becomes a source of anxiety and dread.

When I shared the email from the school on social media I immediately got a message from a current high school student in Illinois:

I’m not out to my parents as non-binary (they would reject it most possibly). I want to come out at school to all new teachers, that way i can just slowly come out. this law would be a disaster to any of my plans, which is why I find it scary to imagine me in Iowa.

You can imagine what the response must be from Iowa students, thousands of whom walked out of schools across the state this past spring in protest of anti-trans education bills. As a classroom teacher, I never had an issue adjusting my roster each year for dozens of versions of Madi, Maddy, Maddie, and Madison; to the students who for years had gone by a completely different name than what the roster read; to those who no longer used the last name of one parent in a contentious separation; or those in transition who were still figuring out how to be themselves at school.

If “First, do no harm” is a principle in caring professions, Iowa elected officials are demanding adults cause harm to vulnerable kids in schools, and teachers have an obligation to resist policies whose purpose is to inflict cruelty. In fact, we know that using chosen names can literally be life-saving for transgender kids, as being able to use chosen names is directly linked to a decrease in depression and suicide. As a basic human courtesy, it’s the bare minimum, costs us nothing, yet can mean everything.  

To be clear, Iowa school districts are responding to legislation our governor signed, which created solutions in search of problems. The removal of books from libraries and curriculum and form letters for pronouns are an overeager response from school leaders who want to comply to the best of their ability with the changing mandates of the culture war. The consequences will be harm for LGBTQ kids, more work for schools, more difficulty for teachers, and inconvenience for parents over what used to be an expected common courtesy.

Beginning January 1, 2024, there may be real consequences for school workers who continue to affirm the humanity and identity of kids who identify differently than their registered name or gender. Under Senate File 496, the first reported offense results in a written warning. Each subsequent offense will result in referral to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners for a hearing, which could result in disciplinary action, ranging from a letter acknowledging the infraction to suspension, firing, or revocation of a teaching license.

Wherever possible, adults in schools should leverage their relative power and privilege within their context to resist dehumanizing kids. As a parent and former classroom teacher, I plead with educators to make others do the work of denigrating and disrespecting. You do not have to be an accomplice to their cruelty.

Top image: A protester holds a sign in support of transgender youth at a rally outside Iowa’s state capitol on March 5, 2023. Photo provided by Progress Iowa and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Nick Covington

  • iowa = deep south

    the desperate optimist in me hopes people will wake up in the next election. we can make progress in our state but there seems to be very little interest in addressing the real problems and more in fighting a culture war to the benefit of so few and the harm of so many. this state is in serious trouble and we don’t have serious people leading us. “Freedom to Flourish” ? LOL