Advocates: Iowa’s ‘Vague Law’ Harms LGBTQ Youth, Schools

Iowans LGBTQ rights outside the Captiol on March 5, 2023. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Nikoel Hytrek

September 5, 2023

Representatives of two Iowa LGBTQ advocacy organizations said the start of the school year is going exactly as expected—and many predicted—after Republican lawmakers passed a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation targeted at public schools and queer kids.

Schools are scrambling to try and figure out how to implement the laws without additional guidance and LGBTQ students face a stark reality that has been building for years as legislators have stripped LGBTQ rights or talked about restricting them.

Damian Thompson, director of public policy and communication for Iowa Safe Schools, said research shows that mental health worsens when lawmakers make LGBTQ youth feel unwelcome with their rhetoric.

A January study from The Trevor Project, a nationwide LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization, showed “86% of trans and nonbinary youth say recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.”

As the school year starts, Iowa Safe Schools is at its busiest. Thompson said the focus has been on helping educators and school administration understand the new education law while also reducing the harm the law might cause LGBTQ students.

LGBTQ students are scared about being forcibly outed. Earlier this year, students and advocates told lawmakers about the potential danger it would put students in and were ignored.


Gov. Reynolds’ bill includes provisions to force school employees to out trans kids to their parents and prohibit teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics with students up to the sixth grade. #iowa #iowanews #iowapolitics #ialegis #lgbtq

♬ original sound – Iowa Starting Line

Students told Starting Line in March the threat of being outed felt like a betrayal.

“So far, it shows how short-sighted and ignorant the law is,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he’s fielded a lot of questions from students and parents about how they should handle this new landscape. Most of Safe Schools’ focus has been on advising the Gay-Straight Alliances (or Gender-Sexuality Alliances) at schools, reminding them of their right to exist, and teaching them what they can do to advocate for themselves in their own schools.

That law is SF 496: a large education bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds this year. Among many other things, it requires the forced outing of students to their parents if they ask a licensed school employee to use a name or pronoun that’s different from the one found on their registration documents.

The law also prohibits education about gender identity or sexual orientation up to sixth grade, which has already been expanded in some schools because of how their middle schools are arranged.

It also bans books that contain a description or visual depictions of sex acts, which districts have interpreted in a variety of ways, some more extreme than others. Sex acts are described in detail in the definition found in criminal code 702.17.

Because of how vague the law is, the lack of guidance from the Iowa Department of Education, a lot of chaos and frustration has come out of the back-to-school experience. And many school districts don’t even have plans finalized.

“There’s all these different calculations about how safe to play it. And I continue to maintain that that is a feature of the law and not a bug that legislators did this essentially on purpose,” said Keenan Crow, the director of policy and advocacy at One Iowa, another LGBTQ advocacy organization in the state.

“They wrote a vague law so that as soon as enforcement actions began, they could say, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous’ to the ones that they didn’t agree with and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we meant’ for the ones that they did agree with ,and never actually have to take a stance on what should or shouldn’t be implemented,” they continued.

So far, Sen. Ken Rozenboom (R-Oskaloosa), House Speaker Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford), and Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Hull) have weighed in on districts’ interpretations. But only about book bans. For the most part, they accused schools of playing politics.

Crow said they and other people opposed to SF 496 predicted this level of confusion would happen.

“It’s frustrating because all of these concerns were brought up and we were told in no uncertain terms that this was a ridiculous interpretation and we were freaking out. And lo and behold, this is what the lawyers said,” Crow said.


Reynolds’ education bill would limit school libraries to only “age-appropriate” books, which prohibits any material with descriptions of any s3x act. The bill advanced out of a House subcommittee on Wednesday. #iowa #iowanews #iowapolitics #ialegis #education

♬ original sound – Iowa Starting Line

Teacher licenses are on the line, so school administrations are under pressure to interpret the law in a way that protects them.

But what about LGBTQ students?

Crow noted students have more freedom to do things like wear Pride shirts, ask questions about gender identity or sexuality, or talk about those topics. The only penalty they might receive would depend on what the school’s rules are.

Both Iowa Safe Schools and One Iowa have provided online resources for parents and students to navigate the law.

Crow and Thompson have both encouraged people—administrators and educators—not to over-interpret the law to apply beyond its scope.

“My continual refrain to folks, is don’t help,” Crow said. “Don’t do anything that you’re not explicitly legally required to do.”


Nikoel Hytrek


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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].


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