“I know that children will die because of this law:” anti-trans legislation threatens Iowa


Paul Hansen

The Stonewall Resource Center is a confidential, safe-space for LGBTQ+ students at Grinnell.

Zach Spindler-Krage, Staff Writer

The Iowa state legislature has proposed 29 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this legislative session. Governor Kim Reynolds signed two particularly restrictive bills into law on March 22, causing fear across Iowa about the impact of the laws and uncertain future of civil rights in the state. Many students, faculty, staff and administrators at Grinnell College are confronting the recent trend of restrictive legislation and weighing potential responses to the objectionable lawmaking.

The Current Status of the Iowa Legislature 

Iowa has historically been a leader in civil rights. In 1868, Iowa became the first state to desegregate schools. In 2007, the state made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2009, Iowa became the third state to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Now, over a decade later, Republicans in the Iowa state legislature, empowered by their sweeping success across the state in the 2022 midterm election, are proposing — and passing — a flurry of bills to restrict LGBTQ+ rights.

According to J. Ann Selzer, the president of Iowa’s preeminent public opinion research firm, Iowa’s ideological swing towards conservatism is driven by the state’s large percentage of independent voters moving toward the Republican Party — in 2020, Trump won 56% of independents, a change from 2012, when Obama won 58% of independents.

Grinnell College President Anne Harris said that Iowa residents must contemplate and study how the political trajectory of the state has shifted so dramatically in the past decade. “How did we [Iowa] get from a point of being third in the nation to support same-sex marriage to now being among the first in the nation to ban identity-affirming care?” she questioned.

The ban of gender-affirming care for children under 18, established by the passage of Senate File 538 (SF538), declares that health care professionals shall not knowingly perform practices for the purpose of attempting to alter the appearance or perception of gender or sex, if that appearance or perception is inconsistent with the minor’s biological sex. Although the law is effective immediately, minors already receiving gender-affirming care will have a 180-day waiting period before they are forced to end treatment. A violation of the prohibitions by a healthcare professional is subject to licensee discipline by the appropriate licensing board or entity and may result in compensatory damages.

Although SF538 passed decisively, public support does not align with the legislative action. According to the March results of the Grinnell College National Poll, a majority of respondents (53%) oppose legislation that would ban transgender children from receiving gender-affirming care with the approval of their guardians and doctors.

In addition to the ban on gender-affirming care, Senate File 482 (SF482) legally prohibits persons from entering single- and multiple-occupancy restrooms or changing areas in elementary and secondary schools that do not correspond with the person’s biological sex. This law is also effective immediately. There are no criminal penalties for violation — instead, the Iowa Attorney General handles complaints, and violations are dealt with at the school level.

The Impact of Recent Legislation on Grinnell College

Since Grinnell College is a private institution, much of the recent restrictive legislation does not legally apply to the College, even if it may apply to the Board of Regents public institutions — University of Iowa, Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa. However, while some legislation may not affect Grinnell students as students, it may affect them as residents of Iowa. Likewise, the legislation directly impacts the College as an employer.

“If you’re moving your family here and your child is transgender and under the age of 18, that’s a very different conversation about whether or not to take a job at Grinnell,” said Harris. “Even if you’re coming here and you’re single, but you want to eventually have a family or have family visit you, Iowa’s current political climate may present significant fears and challenges.”

Although the Family Medical Leave Act allows Grinnell College faculty to apply for an unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks during a 12-month period to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition, the practicality of seeking gender-affirming care in another state is limited, even though the College’s insurance “provide[s] coverage for gender reassignment surgery and services to a lifetime maximum of $75,000.”

“My now 17-year-old child came out as non-binary a couple years ago. About a year ago they decided that they would like to have gender-affirming hormone therapy,” said Monty Roper, associate professor and department chair of anthropology. After extensive conversation, research and medical consultation, Roper was ready to move forward with gender-affirming hormone therapy for his child.

“Then we watched carefully as … gender-affirming therapy was outlawed,” Roper said. “The University of Iowa clinic sent us a set of other clinics in the mail from Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, and we have been busy trying to figure out how this is going to work now.”

There is an incredible amount of confusion and fear amongst trans students on campus

— Jay Kratz `23

Jay Kratz `23 and Romeo Garcia `23, the co-leaders of Trans at Grinnell (tag), said that the current political climate of Iowa is likely to cause prospective students to reconsider whether they feel truly comfortable and safe attending Grinnell College.

“We have historically had trouble as an institution attracting queer faculty and staff, particularly in terms of the position for LGBTQIA+ professional support staff,” Kratz said. “There is no doubt in my mind that these legal barriers are only going to compound that difficulty.”

According to a survey of 778 incoming college students conducted in February by the Art and Science Group, 31% of liberals and 28% of conservatives said that they wrote off a university because of state politics. LGBTQ+ students were more likely than their straight, cisgendered peers to say politics and policies affected their college decision (32% compared to 21%).

Harris said that while everyone needs to consider what is best for their psychological and emotional safety, the Grinnell community will rally around LGBTQ+ individuals in the face of political threat. “In some ways, love and support of LGBTQ+ students is more pronounced here because it’s more challenged here. Because identity is under pressure, there is a resurgence of resources,” Harris said.

The College’s Response to Recent Laws

Following the passage of SF538 and SF482, Harris released a campus-wide statement via email denouncing the laws and rearticulating the College’s commitment to affirming LGBTQ+ identities. Harris said that the College is researching how institutions have navigated similar laws in other states, and it is consulting legal counsel about how to comply.

“In a democracy, reasonable people can disagree about a law while complying with the law,” Harris said. “Grinnell’s compliance with laws does not automatically entail our philosophical agreement with them.”

Kratz said that the College should be more transparent as they discuss the legislation and contemplate additional responses. “There is an incredible amount of confusion and fear amongst trans students on campus,” said Kratz. “Not knowing what the College is planning in terms of compliance with discriminatory legal statutes only amplifies that worry.”

Garcia said that the first step is opening lines of communication. “One small but key way in which the College can support trans well-being moving forward would be to create more opportunities for dialogue between queer students and administration,” said Garcia.

“I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m embarrassed for Iowa. I’m ashamed that I didn’t do more to fight this,” said Roper. “I’m disappointed by the hypocrisy of a set of politicians that preach parental rights but then decide to overrule the decisions of families and their doctors relating to our children’s well-being.”

The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, published a peer-reviewed study in Transgender Health in 2021 which found that transgender youth with acceptance from at least one adult had 39% lower odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared with their transgender peers who were not accepted.

I’m disappointed by the hypocrisy of a set of politicians that preach parental rights but then decide to overrule the decisions of families and their doctors relating to our children’s well-being.

— Monty Roper

Student Initiatives to Address Anti-LGBTQ+ Sentiment

The Prairie Fire Socialist Organization, a recently formed student group led by Jules Covitz `24 and Parris King-Levine `24, has been working to initiate a more extensive social justice-oriented response to recent restrictive legislation.

“For an institution that calls itself a social justice institution, we were pretty frustrated with the lack of political action on campus,” said King-Levine. “You come here thinking there will be a lot of activism, and after the pandemic, there really wasn’t.”

Covitz said that the experience of transgender students in Grinnell can be exceedingly difficult. “Even if people are supportive of trans rights, it often feels like they are somewhat removed from the reality of the situation,” Covitz said. “Many people are not adequately educated about the topic or will make jokes or comments that are implicitly homophobic.”

Covitz and King-Levine said that the College should be doing more to support LGBTQ+ students, including providing more free gender-affirming apparel to transitioning students, providing resources and publicity for the tag closet, offering better information about accessing hormone treatment and more clearly explaining legal implications of legislation to students.

Additionally, Prairie Fire has been collecting signatures for a petition to have the College unsubscribe from the New York Times. According to Covitz, the New York Times’ coverage of transgender individuals has been especially heinous and has allowed state legislatures to use New York Times articles to justify the criminalization of gender-affirming care. Prairie Fire’s Instagram reads that, “by cutting off Grinnell’s student and faculty subscription to the Times, we take responsibility as well as deal a blow to the coffers of repugnant journalism.”

Harris said that rather than relying on a single voice of condemnation, writing a letter to the New York Times may be more effective at creating change. “Would unsubscribing from the New York Times create the type of change we want to see? I don’t think it would. We are the tiniest of tiny blips on their subscription list,” said Harris. “Unsubscribing would likely hurt the campus members who use it as an academic resource without affecting meaningful change. However, a letter written by students, possibly in conjunction with other colleges, to the editorial board of the New York Times may be a vastly different story. That may cause them to listen.”

The Future of LGBTQ+ Bills in Iowa

King-Levine said that while current laws are primarily targeting people under the age of 18, the successful passage of many of these laws has prepared the legislature to target everyone. Of the roughly 12 anti-LGBTQ+ bills still progressing through the Iowa state legislature, many apply to residents regardless of age, including proposals to prohibit spending on diversity and inclusion offices in state universities and to allow health-care providers to refuse care on the basis of religious beliefs.

In addition, Senate File 496 would prohibit instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation through sixth grade and notify parents if their child asks to use different pronouns in school, House File 7 would require public institutions of higher education to report what they teach, including LGBTQ+ topics and House Joint Resolution 8 would ban same-sex marriage in Iowa.

While many of the proposals may ultimately fail to pass during this legislative session, the mere discussion of them has incited widespread fear about the curtailment of civil rights in Iowa.

I know, I know, I know that children will die because of this lawBut I am hopeful, so hopeful, that we are at the nadir of this political ideological parabola and that better days are coming.

— Monty Roper

Harris said that the College is prepared to address the effects of the legislation on students and employees, and that this is an opportunity to uplift the communities being targeted by recent legislation.

“Grinnell is off the beaten path. That means that students self-select to come here,” Harris said. “We are now in a position where we need to shine a light on that path because of some of the legislative and judicial changes in this country.”

“I know, I know, I know that children will die because of this law,” said Roper. “But I am hopeful, so hopeful, that we are at the nadir of this political ideological parabola and that better days are coming.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Parris King-Levine’s name, as well as the name of Trans at Grinnell and the title of the tag closet. The article was also corrected to note that the Legislators per diem ends April 28th, not the legislative session, which was originally written. The S&B regrets these errors. Updated April 11, 2023, 8:55 p.m.