Bills on ‘gender identity’ affirmation, instruction advance in House and Senate

By: - January 31, 2023 8:28 pm

Sarah SmallCarter and her daughter Odin addressed an Iowa Senate education subcommittee Jan. 31, 2023, on a bill that would prohibit instruction related to gender identity in kindergarten through eighth grade instruction. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Correction: This story has been updated to report that the Iowa House Education Committee approved House File 9 Tuesday on a 14-8 vote. The original story incorrectly reported the vote total and result. 

Both the Iowa House and Senate advanced legislation Tuesday that would restrict how schools deal with “gender identity” issues.

The House Education Committee approved legislation that would prohibit school districts from providing accommodations intended to affirm a student’s change in gender identity, such as using their preferred name and pronouns, without written parental consent. House File 9 passed on a 14-8 vote after advancing from a subcommittee earlier in the day.

The legislation comes as a response to policies like one at the Linn-Mar Community School District, where students can request a Gender Support Plan to begin socially transitioning at school. The Linn-Mar policy allows students to exclude their parents from participation in the plan. Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson are among critics who have denounced the policy.

Multiple parents of transgender children and teachers who have had transgender students spoke against the policy at a subcommittee meeting Tuesday, saying that LGBTQ students who do not have supportive families would be at higher risk if the legislation passes.

But supporters like Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said this framing not only cuts parents out of important conversations about what’s happening in their children’s lives, but that opponents of the legislation were saying “parents are evil” by not allowing them to know about their children’s change in gender identity.

“I cannot believe, in the state of Iowa, we have people that think that parents are going to abuse and hurt their kids because they find something out at school,” Wheeler said in the subcommittee meeting. “If they do, the law already applies that they don’t get away with that. But my goodness, what an awful, awful thing to stand against. We’re gonna pass this bill and it’s gonna get to the governor’s desk.”

Becky Tayler, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools said this view does not reflect the reality of many LGBTQ students’ situations. If a child does not feel that their family will be supportive of their gender or sexual orientation, Tayler said, they often seek support from other supportive adults in their lives. By prohibiting teachers from taking on that role, they are only further isolating that child, she said.

“Whether or not parents believe that educators should be having these conversations or not, the conversations are happening,” Tayler said.

Often, she said children confide in educators when they feel like their families will not be accepting of an aspect of their identity.

“So these laws and these bills, even if they’re passed, they’re not going to stop the conversations from happening,” Tayler said. “They’re just going to make it harder for students to find an adult in their life that is supportive.”

According to a study by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention nonprofit, LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult in their life were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.

Meanwhile, Republican Senate lawmakers advanced two other bills Tuesday that would restrict school instruction related to gender identity and data collection on topics such as students’ sexual orientation and mental health. They will be discussed by the full committee Wednesday.

Bill would ban ‘gender identity’ material in elementary, middle schools

Students in elementary and middle school came with their parents to speak at the Capitol against Senate File 83, which would prohibit “instruction relating to gender identity” for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The legislation would apply to public, charter and accredited private schools in Iowa.

Sarah SmallCarter came with her daughter Odin from Fort Dodge to tell legislators about her experience as the parent of a transgender child. When Odin came out as transgender, SmallCarter notified their school district, and Odin’s second-grade class spoke about gender identity on the first day.

Speakers supporting the bill expressed concern about what gender identity curriculum involved, but SmallCarter said she can tell these concerned families exactly what it involves for young students.

“It looks like the first day of second grade, everybody introduced themselves with their pronouns, and then they just talk about it. What do pronouns mean? Because they haven’t quite covered that in second grade yet,” SmallCarter said. “And they read a book about a crayon that had the wrong color wrapper on the outside, so he thought he was bad and wrong, but it turned out it just makes him special and unique. That’s it.”

But other speakers, like Ryan Benn with the Family Leader, a conservative advocacy group, said that acceptance of transgender students was not the issue parents are concerned about. Parents are concerned about “gender identity ideology” being taught to impressionable children, which contradicts with the Christian values many Iowa families hold.

“Kids who get ensnared in this way of thinking are much more likely of going down the path of transitioning themselves,” he said.

How schools approach LGBTQ issues, especially in regard to transgender identities, has been a major focus for Republicans this legislative session. In addition to the curriculum bill, subcommittees were held Tuesday on similar issues.

Tayler with Iowa Safe Schools said this year’s legislation is building off first steps taken last session, when Reynolds signed a law prohibiting transgender girls and women from playing on women’s sports teams at Iowa’s public K-12 schools and in universities.

“One state bill has passed that specifically took the rights of trans student athletes away,” Tayler said. “What we see now is really a floodgate that’s been opened and the Legislature is creating a coordinated attack, on both the House and Senate side, against LGBTQ and specifically transgender students.”

Tayler said this batch of legislation will make it more difficult for schools to provide safe environments for LBGTQ+ students, who face higher rates of bullying and mental health issues. It also prevents teachers from helping students who might be at risk of abuse or homelessness because of their parents are not accepting.

“I think what we saw today, even in subcommittees that took place today, the students who have the courage to show up at the Capitol and talk about how these bills will affect them are scared,” Tayler said. “They’re terrified for their friends, and terrified for themselves. They don’t want to be outed by their teachers, they simply want to access an education that feels safe and affirming of who they are.”

But by providing instruction on gender identity or affirmation of transgender students’ preferred pronouns and name, schools are promoting “transgender ideology” in Iowa schools, supporters of bills said.

Ban on surveys about students’ health and activities

Senate File 85 would prohibit the Iowa Department of Education from disseminating materials on “social and emotional learning,” or SEL. School districts and charter schools would be barred from having students share information including their sexual orientation, mental health problems or information on their relationships with family members in surveys or activities without consent from their parent or guardian.

Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said that SEL causes schools to reflect a belief system that same-sex attraction and partnership “is an acceptable alternative way of life that should be affirmed,” and that transgender individuals’ gender identity “should be accepted and affirmed over the person’s actual biological sex.”

“These sets of beliefs are contrary to and opposed to many family’s religious beliefs regarding sexuality, sexual ethics and sexual practice,” Salmon said. “The kind of SEL, or social emotional learning, that is needed is what schools had when this program started out. Children were taught on an as-needed, primarily individual basis, how to manage their emotions, how to get along with others, how to set and achieve goals, how to make responsible decisions, about consequences for their actions, and how to apply knowledge.”

Parents should be the ones to discuss and teach their children about issues of gender and sexuality, these speakers said, and schools should not override parents’ decisions on how to best approach these issues with their children. Some parents at the subcommittee meeting said that even presenting surveys where students are asked about their sexual orientation or gender identity could cause confusion for some students.

Angela Wenell, who spoke at a subcommittee meeting on the bill, said parental rights are being violated in the collection of this information. She said it’s part of a larger conflict parents have with how issues of gender and sexuality are embedded in public school curriculum.

“The way that they are embedded, parents don’t always know when it is happening and what’s being taught,” Wenell said. “I have a child that was asked 11 times in two weeks questions regarding gender and sexuality. I do not think that is the prerogative of (schools.)”

But lobbyists with school staff and teachers said making surveys “opt-in” instead of “opt-out,” as is current practice, would prevent schools and children’s support groups from learning what problems need to be addressed among Iowa youth, like smoking and drinking rates, or mental health concerns.

MaryNelle Trefz with Iowa ACEs 360, an advocacy and research group focused on children’s mental health, said the issues some parents brought up in the meeting were isolated incidents which should be addressed, but that the data collection is necessary to find out what issues Iowa youth are dealing with.

“The information collected in a survey provides a safe place for youth to voice their identity, their needs,” Trefz said. “Public and private youth programs across the state utilize this valuable feedback to inform and better support students. This is not about radicalizing our young people, it’s about supporting them.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.