Transgender school bathroom restrictions advance in Iowa Senate

Students with Iowa Safe Schools, some draped in LGBT or transgender flags, wait for rides after being ejected from the State Capitol on March 12, 2020. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Liz Lundberg’s voice shook as she considered the possibility that her young, transgender daughter might have to use the boys’ restroom in school.

“Callie, my 5-year-old girl, in kindergarten, would face harassment, bullying and possibly assault if she used the boys’ bathroom,” Lundberg said. “But she would be breaking the law and could get in trouble with her school if she used the girls’.” 

Lundberg was one of over 100 people who attended a subcommittee meeting on Senate File 224, a bill that would prevent Iowa students from using a bathroom that did not match with their sex assigned at birth.

The bill would mandate that schools limit multiple-occupancy bathrooms to only “persons of the same biological sex.” Single-user bathrooms designated as “male” or “female” would be subject to the same restrictions. The bill clarifies that it would not be “unfair or discriminatory practice” to limit bathrooms to those of the same biological sex.

Lobbyists, concerned parents and transgender individuals alike urged the Senate subcommittee to reject the bill Wednesday.

Kristian Maul told lawmakers that he volunteers frequently at his daughter’s elementary school. If passed, he said, the bill would mandate that he use the women’s restroom.

“No one on the committee or in the public would want a 39-year-old adult man, a transgender man such as myself, using the girl’s restroom in an elementary school,” he said.

Students also spoke against the bill on behalf of their classmates.

“Students are attending schools to learn how to become capable individuals, not to learn to be discriminated against for who they are,” said high school junior Klaertje Hesselink. “Implementing such a transphobic bill will only cause trauma in these students and cause more discrimination amongst them and their peers.”

Just one lobbyist advocated for the bill: Chuck Hurley of the Family Leader, a conservative Christian group. He asked lawmakers to consider the wellbeing of students who don’t “experience confusion about their gender.”

“Not all students are transgender or want someone of the other gender in their restroom,” Hurley said. “There are those who are concerned or disturbed by that, and we need to think about them as well.”

Republican lawmakers on the subcommittee echoed that sentiment, focusing on the safety of cisgender women in their closing remarks. 

“The concern is not so much with transgender individuals likely to be sexual predators, but that sexual predators exploit such laws, posing as transgender in order to gain access to women and girls,” Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, said.

A representative from LGBTQ advocacy group OneIowa said that there has been no increase in school bathroom incidents since 2007, when protections for transgender students were introduced in Iowa. Iowa Safe Schools, another LGBTQ group, reported that there have been zero incidents of someone abusing transgender protections for nefarious purposes.

“Let’s be clear: Doing anything in a school restroom aside from using the facilities for their intended purpose is already illegal,” said Keenan Crow, policy director for OneIowa. “Whether or not this bill advances, it will remain illegal for anyone to enter a restroom for the purpose of harming or harassing someone else.”

Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, said he believed gender and sex to be the same thing, and therefore agreed with a biological distinction between bathrooms.

“Somebody’s perception of what they are when they’re very young does not change the reality,” he said, acknowledging that the bill might cause “distress” to students who identify as transgender. 

Taylor and Carlin both voted in favor of moving the bill. Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, voted against it.

“I’m so sorry to all the Iowans that this hateful and harmful bill is even a thing,” she said. 

The Iowa Democratic Party issued a news release Wednesday afternoon condemning the legislation.

“In the middle of a pandemic, politicians should be focused on improving the lives of every Iowan, not moving Iowa backward,” said Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn.

Freedom for All Americans, an LGBTQ advocacy group, has identified at least 20 other states which are considering bills targeting transgender individuals. The group identified seven anti-transgender proposals in Iowa, more than any other state.