Just a month after a transgender 13-year-old’s suicide in Fairfield, the Republican Party of Iowa and candidate Travis Harris are running attack ads on transgender bathrooms that are reigniting a bitter controversy that divided a community last year. Their target is Phil Miller, the Democratic candidate in the special election for House District 82, who as school board president voted to keep in place a policy on the matter mandated by both Iowa and national law.
Community members and former students are increasingly worried about the psychological impacts on local LGBTQ students that the Republican ad campaign could be causing. Many noted that the recent death of Finn Bousquet, a transgender Fairfield teen who killed himself on June 19 of this year, made the ads especially ill-timed.
“It’s pretty insensitive. This kid was really well-liked among many in the community,” said Ron Mullen, a parent who was involved in last year’s meetings over the transgender bathroom policies.
“What worries me oftentimes after a suicide is there’s other people who are considering the same thing,” explained Suzannah Kingsbury, a former student at Fairfield High School whose friends’ cars were vandalized during the controversy last year. “I reached out to a couple of my friends after [Finn’s death]. I just worry about the kids who are in high school, closeted or not, who are just trying to learn, trying to live, just trying to be kids. That their identity would become a political debate when they’re just trying to be themselves.”
Republicans started running the negative ad for the special election in mid-July.
“Phil Miller voted to allow students to use whatever bathroom they associated with their gender identity, leaving students to feel embarrassed and humiliated,” the narrator says in the ad as it shows a bathroom sign with the male and female figures flipping back and forth. “We can’t afford to trust his poor judgement. Phil Miller: out of touch liberal policies, false and negative campaign.”
The ad ends with a photoshopped image of Miller in the mirror of a school bathroom.
Miller and Harris are competing in a special election to fill the Iowa House seat of Curt Hansen, a Democratic state representative who passed away in June. The election is set for August 8.
Republicans are hopeful they can pick up the Southeast Iowa district, which includes Jefferson, Davis and Van Buren counties. Although Democrats have held the mostly rural district for a long time, Donald Trump carried it by 22 points in 2016. Miller, a veterinarian, fits the type of profile of Hansen, who had succeeded even in tough election years for Democrats, as a well-known community member that’s popular in Fairfield, the district’s biggest town. So Republicans are now pushing the sort of cultural issues that many believe helped Trump succeed in parts of Iowa.
The whole controversy the ads are referring to began with the vandalism of a transgender student’s car in May of 2016, which happened right around when the U.S. Department of Education set out guidelines on transgender students and Title IX. The Des Moines Register covered how Draven Spicer, a Fairfield High School senior at the time, returned from a school choir and band trip in which he was able to stay in the boys’ hotel room (he had transitioned to a male his sophomore year) to find his car covered in slurs and obscene drawings.
“That escalated the whole issue,” explained Anuja Pharasi, 18, who graduated from Fairfield High School this past spring. “Students got vocal on social media. That aggravated everything and then at school you began seeing an us versus them atmosphere.”
Fellow students rallied to Spicer’s side by wearing black armbands to school in the days afterward to show support for the LGBTQ community. That, along with the new federal guidelines on transgender students and bathroom policies, drew the ire of a local conservative church group, and other students began wearing white t-shirts with bible verses on them in response. Instances of threats and intimidation closed out the 2016 school year at Fairfield High School. The school cancelled an awards assembly out of concern that fights might break out.
“The adults that are very vocal about it were the ones who influenced their kids, and their kids were the ones who kind of ran the show at school and on social media,” Pharasi said. “They were very aggressive. The ones who did get involved have a huge control of what goes on in the town.”
“There was a lot of fear,” recalled Kingsbury. “It grew into a larger anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the school. There was one kid, a freshman at the time, a trans boy, who was afraid to go to class. He was harassed in the hallways, called slurs.”
The strife continued into the summer when the school board held a series of public meetings to take input from all sides of the matter and figure out a way to move forward. Some students at the school said they were intimidated by the new policy and felt uncomfortable using the school bathrooms. Concerned citizens on both sides of the issues packed the multiple hearings, and Miller, the board’s president, found himself moderating the discussion.
“Phil Miller did a wonderful job,” said Mullen, a parent who attended the meetings. “He gave everyone a voice. He didn’t cut anybody off, or even really demonstrate his position. He was very balanced in his approach to the open forums and didn’t really give you any indication of whether he was in agreement with what you said.”
The board eventually voted 4-2 to keep the current policies regarding transgender students’ use of bathrooms, which was mandated by both Iowa and now federal law. Iowa already had the non-discrimination measures in place for nearly a decade. Miller voted in favor.
“Whenever you’re an elected official, you have to understand that you’re representing everyone in your elected district,” Miller explained of his leadership during the matter. “We understand that when certain things are maybe not fully understood, that people might differ. As an elected official you have to understand and study and follow the law. And that’s what we did: we followed Iowa civil rights law. Iowa civil rights law that says you cannot discriminate against a person’s gender identity. Period. School boards cannot write law. We obey the law. And that’s what we did.”
Life mostly went on at Fairfield High School after that. Several students described an uneasy peace that settled in at school. The issue still simmered under the surface in the community, however.
“The issue just isn’t talked about,” Pharasi said of the school year after the summer vote. “It’s not that we reached this consensus or anything, it’s just kind of don’t mention it.”
And the consequences of the tumultuous debate had already been felt.
“I know that it has caused significant mental and physical distress to my fellow students,” noted Kingsbury.
But now the airwaves in Southeast Iowa are filled with ads over the transgender bathroom issue, reigniting the controversy and opening old wounds, especially for students who felt alienated from the previous debate. And Republicans are attempting to frame the issue in that it was students who felt intimidated and frightened by transgender students using certain bathrooms as the actual victims in the situation.
“With these kind of fear tactics and hypothetical situations that people talk about, there’s never really been any case of a trans person going into a bathroom to attack someone,” Kingsbury said. “But there have been cases of trans kids getting attacked.”
“I think that’s such a selfish way of thinking,” added Pharasi. “Sure, you feel uncomfortable, but these kids have high statistics of committing suicide, attempts at suicide … Especially with this recent loss in our community, it blows my mind that people in this community could be so polarized about the issue.”
It’s not publicly clear what led to Finn Bousquet’s suicide, though many people in the community noted that his struggles with his personal identity were well-known (and his family had asked for public support in 2016). Regardless, the timing of the ads have further frustrated local residents.
“It’s a tragedy when any young person has such feelings that they suffer and their life could end that way,” Miller said. “I as just a human being, I empathize with the family. I also understand that we need a lot more tolerance and understanding. That comes back to good public education, understanding that we’re all human beings, we all have our own individual selves, but we’re all in this together. That’s the way I look at life.”
Issues of public education funding or the state’s budget isn’t what Republicans are hoping dominate the discussion around the special election. They also have a website up attacking Miller, in which they claim Miller “pushed liberal East Coast policies at our children’s expense” (even though it was Iowa policy that had been on the books for a decade).
“I thought it was a sad way to go at Miller,” Mullen said. “They used this transgender issue that the school board was just following the law and trying to make it good for all the kids … Phil and the school board members’ number one priority was the kids. We had all this adult discomfort, but it was more about the kids.”
Still, there’s optimism that the entire debate will eventually get people to rethink their stances on LGBTQ issues and move the community forward. Even with the division it’s caused in Fairfield, it’s also caused many people to stand up and publicly defend an issue that had little public support in recent years.
“I’m hoping it will start a conversation rather than perpetuate a culture of silence,” said Kingsbury.
With the election just under a week away at this point, volunteers and party staffers are working quickly to collect absentee ballots for the August 8 vote. Miller has been pushing his own messages of better education funding, a fix to the state’s Medicaid problems, cleaning up Iowa’s water and paying workers better wages.
But he also hasn’t backed away from his past vote to protect transgender students and to treat students equally. And for young people in Fairfield who felt alienated by last year’s debate, that’s still something: a candidate for office who continues to stand up for them even if it costs some votes. To many, that’s still progress.
by Pat Rynard