DES MOINES — Iowa House Republicans introduced a bill Wednesday similar to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”

The measure, House File 8, says public school teachers may not instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It also requires school boards provide age-appropriate and research-based instruction in human growth and development.

Supporters of the legislation say it’s meant to allow parents to determine when and in what way to introduce LGBTQ topics to young children.

A separate bill, House File 9, also introduced Wednesday, would prohibit schools from affirming or recognizing a student’s preferred gender identity in school without written consent from their parents.

Republicans said the bill keeps parents informed and ensures that school employees can’t hide information about a student’s requested gender transition or identity from the child’s parents.

The bill also states school employees cannot facilitate, encourage or coerce students into withholding information from their parents.

And it bars school officials from encouraging students to undergo gender-affirming care, or to pressure or coerce their parent or guardian to allow a child “to undergo any medical procedure, treatment or intervention that is designed to affirm the student’s gender identity if that gender identity is different than the sex listed on a student’s official birth certificate.”

“We need to empower parents,” Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley, who co-sponsored the bills, told The Gazette. “In our opinion, that’s what the goal of these (bills) are, making sure conversations are happening with children and their parents, instead of happening in the school system. We feel confident standing in that position.”

Opponents said the measure undermines LGBTQ support in schools, and that parental notification requirements could effectively require teachers to “out” LGBTQ students grappling with their personal identity to potentially unsupportive or abusive family members before a student is ready.

The bill does not mention or require consulting with school counselors or considering the student’s home situation.

“Our caucus is going to always take the position that government isn’t necessarily the solution and the answer for a situation like this,” Grassley said Wednesday while recording this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS. “(W)e cannot look to the school system to be the one that is providing these types of supports. These have to happen through whatever level of … family supports that these people are going to have.”

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis last year signed into law a similar measure, which became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which faced instant criticism and disapproval, including from Disney, a major political donor and one of Florida’s largest employers.

Iowa critics

Critics said the bill transforms classrooms into unsafe spaces for LGBTQ+ students, where they must hide their sexuality.

The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth suicide and crisis prevention organization, said such measures add to existing stigma and discrimination of LGBTQ youth, who already face higher health and suicide risks than their cisgender or straight peers. When given access to spaces that affirm their gender identity, they report fewer suicide attempts, according to The Trevor Project.

“It only took the Iowa Legislature three days to release an unrelenting attack on LGBTQ youth,” said Becky Tayler, executive director for Iowa Safe Schools. “(House File 9) will put LGBTQ youth directly in harm’s way and create a legal and administrative nightmare for school administrators. HF 8 is ultimately a form of big government censorship intended to create a hostile school climate for LGBTQ students.“

LGBTQ residents, business and tourism leaders have expressed concerns about the effects posed by an increasing volume of legislation that makes LGBTQ people feel unsafe or unwelcome in Iowa.

Transgender issue

In 2022, Iowa lawmakers introduced 19 anti-transgender bills. And Gov. Kim Reynolds last year signed into law legislation that bans transgender girls and women from participating in girls’ and women’s sports in Iowa.

Reynolds and Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson during the midterm campaign also repeatedly assailed Linn-Mar school district policies to protect transgender students from discrimination. Hinson’s two sons attend Linn-Mar schools.

The pair argued the policy overrides parents’ right to have a say about what is best for their child’s mental health and physical well-being, and cited concerns about student safety and privacy in bathrooms.

The Linn-Mar Community School District has said it is trying to follow state and federal laws, including Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. The law states it is illegal to discriminate against a person because of his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

The policies spell out inclusive practices for transgender students, including giving students access to restrooms, locker rooms or changing areas that correspond with their gender identity. They also protect students’ privacy by keeping their transgender status private at school, if they prefer. Students in seventh grade or older have priority over their parents or guardians of a gender support plan at school.

“I think it’s really sad that at a time when Iowans are struggling to afford groceries, trying to find jobs, struggling to go the doctor, etc. that we’re seeing more extreme culture war legislation,” said Cedar Rapids Democratic Sen. Liz Bennett, the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve in the Iowa Senate. “That should not be the priority here in Iowa.”

Bennett said she’s concerned the legislation will dissuade LGBTQ youth or those struggling with their gender identity from talking to a trusted teacher or school staff without fear that they’ll suffer repercussions at home.

She noted research has shown that transgender and nonbinary youth are overrepresented in the foster care system and suffer higher rates of violence, including at home.

“This sends the message to these kids that people think that there is something so wrong“ being transgender or in the LGTBQ community, Bennett said. ”That’s incredibly harmful.”

Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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