Iowa pauses on most anti-LGBTQ bills, but advocates not letting their guard down

Iowans rally on Feb. 12 to protest a bill introduced by Gov. Kim Reynolds' that opponents dubbed the "trans erasure bill." Photo by Avery Staker/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

March 19, 2024

Cautious relief might be the best way to describe how some of Iowa’s most prominent LGBTQ organizations feel after a majority of the anti-LGBTQ bills in the Iowa Legislature stalled out after the second legislative funnel last week.

“Out of the ones that directly targeted LGBTQ folks, there were 40 of those and 39 of them are toast at this point, so that’s not bad,” said Keenan Crow of One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBTQ rights advocacy organization.

One anti-LGBTQ bill introduced this session would have removed gender identity from Iowa’s civil rights code, which would essentially legalize discrimination against trans Iowans, particularly in the areas of housing, credit practices, education, employment, and public accommodations.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office introduced a bill that would require trans Iowans to have a special signifier on their birth certificates and driver’s licenses to out them as trans. The bill would also bring back the unlawful “separate but equal” doctrine and require public facilities to have separate bathrooms and locker rooms for trans people and codify heteronormative terms for family units and people.

There was also legislation to ban cities and counties from enacting local bans on conversion therapy, a bill to prevent world language classes from teaching gender-neutral terminology, and last year there was even a bill to ban gay marriage.

Damian Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools, an advocacy group that works with LGBTQ youth and allies, noted recent Des Moines Register polling indicates that most of the specific anti-LGBTQ bills introduced were unpopular with Iowans.

“At the very least, Iowans are divided about them and I think that’s really being reflected in the legislature,” he said. “House Republicans really had a lack of consensus on several of these bills and we’ve been working at it as an organization to make sure that members of the legislature on both sides in either chamber are aware of the real-time implications and some of the problems of the proposed legislation as written.”’

Thompson said Safe Schools is happy that its students can get a bit of respite from the consistent attacks on their identities—one bill would have ensured school staff that misgender someone or call them by a name they don’t use would face no consequences—but he knows they are not in the clear yet.

“Even having this dialogue of whether entire groups of Iowans deserve basic civil rights that they’ve been entitled to for years in Iowa law, it creates immense harm for both student mental health and academic performance as well as a myriad of other areas,” he said.

“I mean it’s probably being a bit wishful—a bit outwardly hopeful—but we’d like to see the legislature in future sessions move past some of the incessant attacks on LGBTQ Iowans.”

Dan Jansen of the Iowa LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce said these bills not advancing is great for economic and workforce development. He noted these bills can harm worker recruitment and retention.

“On a normal basis, we have enough challenges [and] competition in terms of attracting talent to Iowa,” Jensen said. “We don’t have miles of oceanfront beaches or mountains or warm winters.

“The thing that has really sold people on moving to Iowa or staying in Iowa is that it’s a good place. It’s a good place to live, it’s a high quality of life, and I mean the people are very nice and friendly and neighborly.”

Jensen said the discriminatory legislation such as the bills introduced by Republican legislators drown out Iowa’s positive aspects.

“It puts restrictions on that reputation and suddenly people look at moving to Iowa and they think, ‘Well, maybe my family doesn’t feel safe there,’ or, ‘I don’t feel safe there,’” he said. “It does put hurdles in front of economic and workforce development.”

The only bill still active that deeply concerns Iowa LGBTQ advocates is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFFA) which “prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.” 

RFFA critics said the vagueness of how this legislation is written would allow medical providers to deny access to birth control or abortion under religious grounds and would circumvent civil rights protections for LGBTQ Iowans, as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

That bill passed both Iowa legislative chambers in party-line votes and advocates are asking people to reach out to Gov. Reynolds’ office in hopes of persuading her not to sign the bill. 

Still, it should be noted that Republicans control both chambers and lawmakers have many legislative tactics at their disposal that could allow them to bring back any of the so-called dead bills, including the remaining anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

“Seeing the legislation on pause, I think people are still very cautious,” Crow said. “I don’t think anybody thinks that we’re out of the gate and I’ve been very careful to say that we are not getting in the clear. 

“Obviously, it’s a good sign that these didn’t get enough support to cross the second funnel, but I’m always very cautious at this point in the session because there’s still so much—especially in the more extreme populace wing of the party—that they want to get accomplished before the end of the session,” they continued. 

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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