Photo by Greg Hauenstein of protesters at the Iowa state capitol on January 31, 2024.
“If you wish to enjoy civil rights, being able to act and behave civilly is a prerequisite,” State Representative Jeff Shipley tweeted on January 31, shortly after his latest effort to take civil rights protections away from transgender Iowans went down in flames.
Even for a practiced troll like Shipley, it was a remarkably ignorant and obnoxious statement.
PLAYING THE FOOL
The most prolific filer of Iowa House bills targeting LGBTQ people was bent out of shape because some protesters directed mean words and gestures toward him.
He’s wrong on the law, of course. No one has to “behave civilly” to earn civil rights. Those are for all to enjoy, whether they shout “Lock her up!” or “F*ck you, J-Dog.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects offensive speech. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2011, this country has chosen “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” That opinion ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, whose pickets at military funerals were far more hurtful than the slogans shouted at Iowa’s capitol last week.
Shipley knows civility is no “prerequisite” to free expression, because he uses provocative language to make his own points. Like the time he called a vaccine advocate a “medical rapist,” “pharma fascist,” and “corporate vaccine whore.” Or his remarks on the Iowa House floor that compared being transgender to having cancer. Or just a few weeks ago, when he tweeted that an opponent of school book bans should be “criminally investigated” for providing obscene material to minors. (The person on the other end of that exchange filed an ethics complaint against Shipley last week.)
“PLAYING MAKE BELIEVE”
Shipley has prioritized three issues during his legislative career: undermining vaccination programs and protocols, legalizing certain drugs, and codifying discrimination against transgender people. He’s better at getting publicity than results; few of his proposals even got through a committee. In five years, he’s floor managed only a handful of bills (none of them high-profile).
House File 2082 made it further than Shipley’s previous attempts to amend the Iowa Civil Rights Act. His other bills were never assigned to a subcommittee. But House Judiciary Committee chair Steve Holt seemed favorably disposed to this one, which would have removed gender identity from the civil rights code and redefined gender dysphoria as a disability subject to some civil rights protections.
The subcommittee chair, State Representative Charley Thomson, gave Shipley eight minutes to make his case at the beginning of the January 31 hearing, which you can watch here.
Although Shipley wasn’t shouting or using obscene words, his comments were anything but respectful toward his adversaries.
He led by saying “the social theory of gender identity more closely resembles a physical and mental impairment” than an “immutable or inherent characteristic” like other protected classes. A short while later, he again invoked the cancer analogy, asserting that “as identity disorders continue to metastasize, we see more and more bizarre identities being protected under this umbrella.”
Shipley implied that trans or nonbinary people are delusional: “Children expressing themselves freely and playing make believe is great—that is, until the child believes their make-believe identities are entitled to robust legal protections under Chapter 216 [the civil rights code], and anyone who says otherwise is a hateful bigot.” He kept mentioning a controversy from two and a half years ago, as if thousands of Iowans should lose their legal protections because one trans teen upset some people at the Pella public pool.
The bill’s sponsor brought another witness, Jefferson County resident Cynthia Yockey, to use part of his allotted time at the subcommittee. She declared that gender identity “has no physical reality,” and falsely claimed Iowa’s current law “allows straight men the right to masturbate in women’s restrooms, and smear semen on the toilet tissue in every stall […] and gives straight males the right to parade around nude in the women’s locker room and wave their erections in your little girl’s face.” (Adding gender identity to Iowa’s civil rights code in 2007 didn’t change the fact that indecent exposure and sexual assault remain illegal.)
Several trans or nonbinary Iowans testified against the bill. They explained that being transgender is not a disability or mental illness, and that not all trans people have gender dysphoria. They shared their fears or personal experiences with discrimination while living in a state with no gender identity protections.
In Shipley’s worldview, he and like-minded Iowans are the threatened ones.
PLAYING THE VICTIM
In the hallway outside the subcommittee meeting, trans Iowans and their allies chanted some affirming slogans, like “Trans rights are human rights.” And some called Shipley rude names or raised their middle fingers in his direction. By his account, what happened at the capitol on January 31 “went well beyond shouting and name-calling” and “illustrated the hostile environment which nullifies the spirit of civil rights.”
Shipley criticized the advocacy organization Iowa Safe Schools for not commenting “on the pervasive harassment and bullying which has targeted those who dare to speak on these issues.” Maybe they were too busy documenting the pervasive harassment and bullying faced by thousands of LGBTQ youth across this state. Iowa Safe Schools executive director Becky Tayler wrote in a recent court filing, “Tragically, due to the notable, perceivable increase in completed suicides” among LGBTQ+ youth in Iowa, the organization “has begun formally documenting the number of completed suicides as of calendar year 2023.”
Speaking of which, Shipley accused me of defending rhetoric like a message he apparently received last week, urging him to take his own life. To be clear, I would never tell anyone to kill themselves or publish a call to suicide on this website. If Shipley is concerned about hateful words driving people to suicide, he should read up on what queer and especially transgender youth routinely face, just for existing.
Research has shown several ways to reduce suicide attempts by trans and nonbinary youth: respect their preferred names and pronouns, allow them to change legal documents, provide access to gender-affirming care. Shipley cheered last year as Iowa’s Republican trifecta enacted laws shutting down all of those avenues of support: forcing schools to out LGBTQ students to their families, forbidding classroom discussions of LGBTQ topics, banning trans or nonbinary youth from using school facilities that align with their gender identity, prohibiting doctors from offering gender affirming care to patients under age 18.
PLAYING THE HERO
The strangest thing about Shipley’s tone policing is his lack of self-awareness. He’s best known for outrageous statements about COVID-19, vaccinations generally, and trans people. Yet he has cultivated an image as a friendly, harmless guy. His campaign website has used the domain peaceloveiowa.com for years.
Soon after his GOP colleagues Thomson and John Wills joined Democrat Sami Scheetz to vote down House File 2082 in subcommittee, Shipley scolded his political opponents. Here’s the whole tweet I quoted at the top of this post:
What would he know about making an enemy his friend?
That tweet wasn’t a one-off. Responding to me later that evening, Shipley quoted a memorable line from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Dr. King and Gandhi led social movements to end the oppression of their own people. Shipley has used his position of power to worsen the lives of Iowans he doesn’t understand, who are already marginalized.
Last week, those Iowans had the rare opportunity to celebrate a victory at the statehouse. It won’t be the last time they show up to defend their basic human rights. And when they come back, they sure as hell don’t need to be polite to those who would make them second-class citizens.
Photo by Greg Hauenstein of protesters celebrating the demise of Shipley’s bill on January 31