Bill to legalize discrimination against trans Iowans goes down in flames

LGBTQ advocates rally at the Iowa Capitol to protest a bill that would legalize discrimination against trans Iowans. The bill failed. Photo by Avery Staker/Starting Line

By Nikoel Hytrek

January 31, 2024

Cheers rang out down the hallway as a bill that would have legalized discrimination against trans and nonbinary Iowans failed to pass an Iowa House subcommittee Wednesday.

HF 2082 would have removed gender identity as a protected class and added a diagnosis for gender dysphoria or gender identity to the disabilities clause of the civil rights code.

Democratic Rep. Sami Scheetz (D-Cedar Rapids) and Republican Reps. Casey Thomson (R-Charles City) and John Wills (R-Spirit Lake) voted against the bill, while cheers and chants of “Fuck you, J-Dog”—a reference to Rep. Jeff Shipley, who introduced the bill—rose from the hallway outside the committee room.

Shipley, a Republican from Fairfield, has been in the Iowa Legislature since 2019 and introduced his first anti-trans bills in 2020, and has continued to do so in every session since.

According to One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, removing gender identity from the Iowa Civil Rights Act strips transgender Iowans of critical anti-discrimination protections in the areas of housing, credit practices, education, employment, and public accommodations.

Without the protection, discrimination against trans and nonbinary Iowans would be legal.

Most of the speakers at the subcommittee spoke in opposition to the bill, and several were trans Iowans. More people showed up than could fit in the room and they were heard chanting “trans rights are human rights” in the hall throughout the meeting.

Real-world discrimination

Jocelyn Krueger, a trans Iowan, spoke about the discrimination she faced when living in Indiana, which doesn’t guarantee civil rights protections for trans people, while she was at the grocery store to buy cookies.

“I tried to pay with debit card and was asked to show my ID,” she said. “I showed my ID and the cashier said it wasn’t me and that I couldn’t buy the cookies. I tried to pay in cash and was told that ‘We don’t serve trans people here,’ and I had to go. I was shocked, demoralized, humiliated and wondered how I was going to come home. Explain to my little one why people hated me so much.”

Because she lived in a state without protections for gender identity, every lawyer and rights organization turned her away when she tried to sue because there was no discrimination case.

Not a disability

Annie Sarcone, a trans/nonbinary Iowan and director of the Queer Resource Center in Des Moines, spoke about the disability aspect of the bill.

“Gender dysphoria and being trans isn’t a disability,” Sarcone said. “I am not disabled. Shifting gender identity to a different code will actually make it harder to ensure protection. And quite frankly, it’s disrespectful to people who have a disability who need that protection.”

Basic humanity

Elliot Sutton, a young trans Iowan, said they wouldn’t want to stay in the state if the bill passed.

“I am a trans person who doesn’t experience gender dysphoria,” Sutton said. “Under this new classification under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, I would not be afforded the rights and protections that I that I am now.”

“I don’t want to live in a state that has a legislature that makes my life near impossible to live safely in our community,” Sutton continued.

Aime Wichtendahl, a Hiawath city councilor and 2024 Iowa House candidate, condemned the legislation. She demanded to know what else the legislature was going to take from trans Iowans. She pointed toward the gender-affirming care ban, LGBTQ book bans, and the forced-outing bills that passed in the legislature in 2023.

“If this leadership and this body had any dignity whatsoever, it would immediately adjourn this subcommittee and issue an apology for ever entertaining such an egregious violation of human rights,” she said. “This bill would make Iowa the first state in the history of the United States to repeal civil rights protections for its citizens.”

She argued too for the basic humanity of trans people.

“We are human beings. We are American citizens, we are Iowans, and we do not deserve this abuse that we are getting from our government,” Wichtendahl said. “I don’t know if you’ve bothered to read the words written on our flag in the rotunda. ‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we shall maintain.’ And by entertaining this legislation, this government is spitting on that flag and making a mockery of our most sincerely held values.”

Shipley’s justification

At the start of the subcommittee, Shipley spoke to support the bill. He outlined the reasons why he introduced it by using dehumanizing language and anti-trans talking points.

“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, and anyone who says otherwise is a hateful bigot,” Shipley said. Chapter 216 is the Iowa Civil Rights Code.

Basically, Shipley had three points and he used extreme, and often untrue, examples to illustrate his argument that gender identity is not well-defined in code, and that trans rights are going too far and infringing on the rights of cisgender people. Finally, he said that people facing backlash for being transphobic goes against the “spirit” of civil rights protections and constitutes “a harsh and aggressive retaliatory environment surrounding the discussion of gender identity.”

Shipley has long been focused on trans people and the idea they have mental illnesses. In 2022, Shipley made at least 10 references to transgender Iowans having a mental illness and he personally diagnosed them with gender dysphoria at least 11 times during the House debate over a bill to ban trans girls and women from scholastic sports, which went on to become law.

But the legislators in the subcommitte said the bill wasn’t well-defined, and they weren’t comfortable with the conflict with federal civil rights protections and equal rights violations this bill would cause.

“This is pretty simple, folks,” Scheetz said at the end of the meeting. “We as legislators should not be taking away civil rights for people in our state, especially in some of the most marginalized communities that we have.”

  • 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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