In December 2016, Iowa Safe Schools executive director Nate Monson sent an email to Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, with an invitation to grab a drink.
The ask was a bit of an olive branch—the previous year was peppered with public clashes between the two after House Government Oversight Committee Chair Kaufmann called for an investigation into an LGBTQ youth conference. In November of that year, Iowa elected a GOP-controlled Iowa House, Senate and Governor—but the unlikely pair was able to sit down and settle some differences.
Kaufmann has since spoken at a number of Iowa Safe School events and voted on legislation in support of LGBTQ issues. In the Iowa Legislature’s 2020 session, the lawmaker even whipped enough votes for a pro-LGBTQ bill to pass unanimously.
“What an unspeakably asinine defense,” Kaufmann said on the House floor this March before a 95-0 vote on legislation that bars violent criminals from using the claim they were enraged upon discovering their victim was gay or transgender.
Monson said Safe Schools was in constant contact with Kaufmann before the floor vote.
“We had a student who was murdered,” said Monson. “And the Democrats can’t whip that [vote] … But one of their own, the son of the chair of the Republican Party of Iowa can definitely talk to the more conservative members … I never thought I would say an LGBTQ issue would pass unanimously in a chamber in Iowa that’s Republican-dominated like that just a year ago. Ten years ago, we would have laughed at anyone who said that.”
The LGBTQ advocacy group’s successful reach across the aisle to Kaufmann and others was the start of a now years-long concerted effort to push more inclusive policy by approaching Republicans.
The 2020 legislative session began with a flurry of anti-LGBTQ bills being introduced, but it closed in mid-June with none of them passed.
“It could look like the house was falling down, but the reality was, ‘Oh no, that’s fine, we got that done.’ There was never a moment of true panic,” said Monson of the anti-LGBTQ bills introduced early on this year. “What was fun was that access we had to Republicans lawmakers, we knew exactly what was going to happen.”
In the first few weeks of the 2020 session, a record amount of 13 anti-LGBTQ bills were rolled out in the GOP-controlled House and Senate. After Tennessee and Missouri, the state had introduced the nation’s greatest number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year.
But Damian Thompson, who Iowa Safe Schools had recently hired from Gov. Kim Reynolds office to serve as their Director of Public Policy, was able to use the relationships he’d created in the Republican caucus so that none came to pass.
Thompson said he engaged in “intentional outreach” to Republican legislators and staff members by driving to their districts and buying a lot of coffees and lunches, or going to local bars where they spent time together. He talked with a lot of conservative lawmakers about their families, often learning that they had family members or friends in the LGBTQ community.
“We were able to really go directly to those committee members and say this is not acceptable and these are the reasons why. And we were able to kill every single one of those bills basically though conversation like that,” Thompson said. “Every good legislator or elected official should be able to have a rational conversation, so we are always up to talk to everybody and we’re happy doing it. We’ll always have that conversation regardless of what caucus you belong to or what your background is. These are human issues.”
That work paid off.
“We just talked. And we found common ground and I’ll even use the word ‘friends,'” Kaufmann said in an interview with Iowa Starting Line. “I consider Nate and I consider Damian to be friends. And it’s really hard to hate somebody if you’re friends with them. [They] went about things the exact way that people that aren’t necessarily on the same political side should operate in my opinion … they were able to convince — and this is a huge deal — all 53 House Republicans to vote for the gay/trans panic defense bill.”
Monson said part of the ease in building bridges with more conservative members of the Legislature is due to the fact that LGBTQ issues have become relatively bipartisan in state politics, especially among young people. Safe Schools has found that more of its students align with Republican politics.
“We have students who are graduating this year, and their entire K-12 education time there was anti-bullying law, there were civil rights code protection, marriage equality for most of their time … So in terms of that, they’ve never had to fight those battles — those partisan battles. So now they have a different lens when it comes to what equality looks like,” Monson said.
New Outreach Met With Some Skepticism
Safe Schools said they continually look back to their main priority — safety for LGBTQ students — when getting things done at the statehouse in order to avoid partisan struggles or electoral politics.
“Many if not most of the issues we’re working on are life or death,” Thompson said. “These are very real issues that are affecting kids every single day. Conversion therapy is a real problem that’s happening every day in Iowa. Regardless of who is in the majority, it needs to get addressed … We’re not going to hold off for some arbitrary reason.”
Monson said Safe Schools has gotten some opposition from progressives or members of the Democratic Party about their approach to working with conservative legislators. Certain activists “get mad,” he said, when Republicans are “celebrated” by students in the LGBTQ communities or speak at the group’s events.
“One Democratic legislator told us, why don’t you wait until we’re in the majority to talk about these issues. Why don’t you wait for the Democrats, why are you giving the Republicans this, that’s just going to help their re-elect,” Monson said. “And it’s taken that lens of, no, we have kids who are conservative, we have kids who come from different viewpoints, and you can come from those different political parties and agree that conversion therapy should be banned.”
Plans To Aim Higher For 2021 Session
The end of the 2020 session ended successfully, said Monson, with the 13 anti-LGBTQ bills killed and without the passage of any surprise amendments.
“At the end of session, we were actually able to skate through land mines because we know that budget bills typically, at the last second, negotiate some very bad policy — especially for marginalized communities — but the LGBTQ community came out on top. And with the [Supreme Court] ruling on top of that, it just solidifies our position where any of these nasty bills really have no power anymore,” he said.
The only real disappointment of the 2020 session for Safe Schools was the failure to pass a bill that would ban health care providers from administering the largely discredited practice of “conversion therapy” on LGBTQ children, Monson said.
The unanimously-passed gay/trans panic defense bill also stalled when it moved from the House to the Senate. Monson said getting that legislation signed into law will be another priority of the 2021 session.
“I think for next session, regardless of the party makeup, I think we’re going to get a little bit further on conversion therapy again, and the gay-trans panic defense bill will probably pass,” he said. “We were in some really good negotiations with Republicans and Democrats both on our priorities.”
Kaufmann said he’ll continue to work next session with Safe Schools and push forward conversion therapy legislation.
“Democrats will be in power someday, and I would give the same advice to conservative organizations — let’s talk,” Kaufmann explained. “There are some people and some organizations that you’re never going to get along with and you’re never going to agree with, but I think most people in Iowa politics are pretty practical. And if they would follow the model that Iowa Safe Schools have laid out, you can see more things.”
by Isabella Murray
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