UPDATE: After this post was published, the Iowa Business Council, Technology Association of Iowa, and Greater Des Moines Partnership registered against the bill.
SECOND UPDATE: Subcommittee members voted 3-0 on January 31 not to advance this bill. Original post follows.
An Iowa House Judiciary subcommittee will soon consider the broadest threat to trans rights since lawmakers added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007, the first year of a Democratic trifecta. House File 2082 would remove gender identity as a protected class, while redefining “a diagnosis for gender dysphoria or any condition related to a gender identity disorder” as a disability under the civil rights act.
But as the Republican-controlled legislature’s attacks on transgender Iowans continue to escalate, some groups that helped hold the line against past efforts to rewrite the civil rights code are on the sidelines, for now.
ANTI-TRANS LAWS EXPAND IN SCOPE
Republicans have had full control of state government since 2017, but leaders didn’t immediately prioritize laws targeting the LGBTQ community. While some members of the Iowa House and Senate introduced discriminatory bills, most of those measures didn’t receive any consideration.
An Iowa Supreme Court ruling prompted the first backlash that changed state law. The court unanimously held in March 2019 that a Department of Human Services rule withholding Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming surgeries violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Less than two months later, Republicans passed a last-minute amendment to the health and human services budget, designed to prevent trans Iowans on Medicaid from receiving coverage for gender-affirming surgeries.
The statute disrupted medical care for an estimated 150 patients. The agency stopped enforcing the rule after a Polk County District Court found it unconstitutional in 2021. Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to rule on whether the 2019 law was itself unconstitutional.
None of the anti-LGBTQ bills Republican lawmakers introduced in 2020 received a subcommittee hearing in the Iowa House or Senate. In fact, when nine House Republicans co-sponsored a bill to remove gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act, House Judiciary Committee Chair Steve Holt told me and other reporters the same day, “The bill is dead. I will not assign it to sub-committee.”
Iowa legislators introduced fourteen anti-LGBTQ bills in 2021. Most focused on transgender people, especially trans or gender non-conforming youth. None of the eleven bills introduced in the House were even assigned to a subcommittee.
Republicans introduced and enacted a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023. Again, trans and nonbinary Iowans were most affected, as new laws prohibited children from receiving gender-affirming medical care and banned trans students, staff, or visitors of all ages from using school facilities aligned with their gender identity. In addition, a wide-ranging education law required school administrators to out transgender or nonbinary children to their families. (A federal court has since blocked enforcement of two other parts of that education law, which banned books depicting sex acts from school libraries and instruction relating to sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through sixth grade.)
Republican lawmakers approved and Reynolds signed those laws over strong opposition from LGBTQ and civil rights advocacy groups. But at least two other bills targeting LGBTQ Iowans did not advance, even in 2023: another effort to remove gender identity protections from the Iowa Civil Rights Act, and a so-called “religious freedom” act that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The bills that failed to get traction last year had one thing in common: influential business interests lobbied against them.
A NEW SPIN ON THE SAME OLD CIVIL RIGHTS ATTACK
House File 2082, which would redefine gender identity as a disability, is the brainchild of State Representative Jeff Shipley. He has been a leading antagonist of transgender Iowans for the past five years.
At the start of his second term in 2021, he introduced a half-dozen more bills targeting trans Iowans, ranging from bathroom bills to sports bans to measures that would undermine the civil rights law and access to gender-affirming health care. He was a vocal proponent of anti-LGBTQ laws enacted over the past two years, and one of the few Iowa House Republicans to speak during last year’s floor debate on the gender-affirming care ban.
Shipley co-sponsored the 2023 bill that would remove gender identity from the civil rights code. He also introduced a bill that would redefine gender identity in that statute to apply only to adults, and would gut protections by saying accommodations for transgender people “shall not be made if the accommodation places an undue burden on another person whose gender identity is the same as the person’s sex” (that is, cisgender people).
Over the years, several of Shipley’s bills were referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where Holt exercised his discretion as chair and did not assign them to a subcommittee.
Things changed this year with House File 2082. In recent social media posts, Shipley has struck a breezy “just asking questions” tone. He has claimed he only “wants these laws to be clear” and is seeking to address “unsettled legal matters.” He has revealed his ignorance about basic concepts in civil rights law by musing, “Is it lawful to use a credit score to evaluate a transgender’s loan application?”
The tactic appears to be working with Holt, who agreed to schedule a subcommittee on Shipley’s latest attempt to chip away at the civil rights act. Holt told the Des Moines Register’s Stephen Gruber-Miller last week,
“I just want to hear a conversation about it,” Holt said. “I want to have a subcommittee and hear a conversation about it.” […]
Holt called it “an interesting concept” to look at specifying that gender dysphoria could qualify as a disability that merits protection. He pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that found people with gender dysphoria are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. […]
“I still have concerns about this, but I at least want to have the conversation and see where it goes,” Holt said.
Whereas Holt initially indicated he had not pre-judged the issue, his op-ed for the Des Moines Register, published online January 29, suggested he is committed to removing gender identity as a protected class in Iowa. Holt denied doing so would give a “green light to hate and discriminate.” Rather, he accused “militants” in the transgender community of trampling on other people’s rights. “As countless citizens report challenges in the workplace, unfair advantages in sporting events, and discomfort and fear in changing rooms, they are told that because gender identity is a protected class in Iowa code, their concerns don’t matter,” Holt wrote.
Another factor may have affected Holt’s decision to press ahead with changing the civil rights law: the lack of business community concern about House File 2082. The Principal Financial Group, Greater Des Moines Partnership, and Iowa Chamber Alliance quickly registered their opposition to last year’s bill removing gender identity from the civil rights act, and to the “religious freedom” bill that would enable businesses to discriminate against people in protected classes.
But as of January 29—a week after Shipley introduced his latest bill—no business groups are publicly lobbying against it. UPDATE: The Iowa Business Council registered its opposition later on January 29, and the Technology Association of Iowa and Greater Des Moines Partnership did so the following day.
“THESE PROTECTIONS ARE NOT JUST ESSENTIAL BUT NON-NEGOTIABLE”
A broad coalition of organizations representing many marginalized communities as well as labor, educators, attorneys, and mental health professionals are opposing HF 2082. The sharpest criticism has come from LGBTQ advocates, whose rights the bill directly threatens.
One Iowa’s policy and advocacy director Keenan Crow explained to the Des Moines Register that Iowans lacking access to health care might not be able to receive a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Under Shipley’s “extremely dangerous, extremely harmful” bill, those people would not “have any housing protections and a landlord can literally just say, ‘no, I don’t want you in my space, you’re transgender.’ And there’s nothing that that person can do about it.”
Courtney Reyes, the executive director for One Iowa Action, condemned the legislation in a written statement.
Once again, we find ourselves grappling with the disgraceful attempts by Iowa Republicans to strip fundamental rights away from a group of Iowans. The privilege of navigating daily life without the weight of discrimination might be taken for granted by those who’ve never faced it, but make no mistake. These protections are not just essential but non-negotiable.
If this bill passes, transgender people will be able to be discriminated against in every way imaginable. Landlords will be able to deny them the ability to rent an apartment legally, banks will be able to legally deny them a car loan, and hotels will be able to turn them away, all for no other reason than because they are transgender. That is cruel, and it is wrong.
We call on Iowa legislators, Iowa business leaders, and every Iowan with a moral compass to stand up against this harmful proposal. We are all created equal, and no group of Iowans should be relegated to second-class status. Every Iowan must stand against this blatant assault on equality
Becky Tayler, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools, promised that organization would “work tirelessly” to stop this bill, which seeks “to dehumanize Iowa’s transgender community. The civil rights protections HF 2082 is seeking to destroy have been in place for nearly 20 years. By removing them, the Legislature would be telling thousands of Iowans that they aren’t welcome in their own state.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has represented LGBTQ Iowans in many lawsuits challenging discriminatory laws or policies. That group’s policy director Pete McRoberts condemned HF 2082 in a statement last week. Excerpts:
For more than 15 years, the Iowa Civil Rights Act has protected transgender Iowans from discrimination in housing, in work, and in public accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels. The law works. Back when it was passed, it was long overdue. It means that our long-standing values of equality and fairness belong to everyone. The Iowa Civil Rights Act does not give special rights to anyone. Instead, it guarantees equal rights for people. It’s that simple: equality under the law is for everyone. Nothing more, nothing less.
It is fundamentally against our principles and our history to take people’s rights away from them. But that’s exactly what this proposal does. That is impossible to reconcile with not just our values but even with our state motto: “Our Liberties We Prize; Our Rights We Will Maintain.” To remove rights from our people is a violation of our history and of who we are.
This proposal hurts people. It means a person can be fired, denied work, an apartment, or even a hotel room for no reason, as long as the person who is discriminating says they’re doing it because they’re transgender. That is not acceptable.
Bleeding Heartland will closely follow HF 2082 and other measures seeking to undermine LGBTQ equality this year. Three have already advanced from subcommittees:
- House Study Bill 588 seeks to erase transgender and intersex existence by defining “woman” in Iowa Code as “an adult female human.”
- Senate File 2037 would prohibit Iowa city and county governments from banning conversion therapy.
- House File 2060 would prohibit altering foreign languages “to incorporate gender-neutral language” in foreign language classes.
One Iowa maintains a publicly accessible chart tracking the progress of bills affecting the LGBTQ community, with a threat level assigned to each bill to indicate its likelihood of moving forward.
Top photo depicts one of the student walkouts on March 1, 2023 to protest legislative attacks on LGBTQ Iowans. Photo provided by the youth-led organization Iowa WTF and published with permission.