A slew of bills being proposed in the Iowa state legislature threaten to cause harm to members of the LGBTQ community, specifically to transgender students in the state's schools.
Senate File 224, a bill to restrict transgender pupils from using restrooms that match their gender, was voted on and approved in an education subcommittee on Wednesday, which means it will next go to the full Senate Education Committee for consideration for a full Senate vote. If passed, students would be required to use restrooms that correspond to the sex that is listed on their birth certificates instead.
The proposal would be a stark departure from the rights students in the state have been afforded in the past. Iowa has recognized since 2007 the right of transgender students to use restrooms that correspond to their gender.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim Carlin (R-Sioux City), has proposed the change in rules on the false claim that anti-trans laws somehow protect cisgender women from "sexual predators."
"It's important to note that the concern is not so much with transgender individuals likely to be sexual predators but that sexual predators could exploit such laws by posing as transgender in order to gain access to women and girls," Carlin said.
However, research shows that such concerns are based on a fiction. One study from 2018, for instance, looking at restroom protection ordinances and rules in Massachusetts, found that "fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded."
A 2015 Media Matters study looked at 17 school districts across the country representing 600,000 students where protections for transgender students existed, and found no cases of the scenario Carlin raised — including in Iowa. The study specifically asked whether any students were "pretending to be transgender to sneak into locker rooms or bathrooms." Des Moines Public Schools Director of Communications Phil Roeder said there were not.
"We have had no reported incidents of any student abusing our policies or taking advantage of them in any way that would be inappropriate or harassing," Roeder said.
Indeed, forcing transgender students to use restrooms that don't correspond to their gender increases harm to students. One survey found that 12 percent of transgender people were verbally harassed while being required to use restrooms aligning with their sex that is listed on their birth certificates.
Meanwhile, another bill that has been introduced in the Iowa legislature threatens to cause harm to transgender students in another way. Senate File 167 would update curriculum in the state to deny teachers the ability to discuss transgender issues at all — even if there's a transgender student in their classroom. Teachers would have the ability to bypass this rule, according to the legislation, but only if every student's parents in the classroom first provide written permission.
Such gag orders limit a teacher's ability to address real issues affecting children, including when it comes to stopping bullying in class or on the playground. A teacher who wants to stop a student from picking on a transgender pupil may think twice about doing so if they can be reprimanded for it, for example.
The bill, if implemented, would undoubtedly cause psychological harm to transgender students. "SF167 is just another way to prevent children from learning about how they may differ from societal norms," Peyton Downing, opinion columnist at The Daily Iowan, recently wrote. "By denying an education on gender identity, these schools prevent kids from garnering an understanding of who they really are."
A number of other bills are presently being considered in the Iowa legislature that would similarly hurt transgender students. Senate File 80 would force schools to "out" students to their parents if they choose to use pronouns that are different from the ones listed on their birth certificate. On the state House side of things, House File 184 would deny transgender athletes the ability to compete in sports or on teams which align with their gender.
Such bills are being introduced not only in Iowa, but in a number of other states as well. Advocates are preparing. As Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT & HIV Project, put it on Twitter, "In Oklahoma, Iowa, and Tennessee we can expect brutal fights to defend trans lives and will need to start gearing up for those fights now."
Meanwhile, the new presidential administration may seek to challenge the anti-trans bills, should they be passed into law. President Joe Biden issued an executive order last month ordering departments under his purview to find ways to address discrimination against LGBTQ people, including within the Department of Education.
The order does not change any policy in a direct way, but it does provide insight into how the Biden administration may try to defend students against encroachments like the anti-trans bills. The Biden White House, for example, writes in the order that it will interpret Title IX gender protections in education to also "prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation."
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