‘Mean-spirited’ bill restricting how teachers can support transgender students moves quickly through Iowa House

A participant in the 2022 Iowa City Pride Parade holds a “Protect Trans Youth” sign. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

On Tuesday afternoon, the three members of an Iowa House subcommittee listened to an hour of testimony on HF 9, a bill aimed at preventing teachers and other school staff from acknowledging the identities of transgender students unless they first receive parental permission to do so.

With only a few exceptions, the speakers testified strongly against the bill. They explained how it would put vulnerable students at risk. How lack of support puts transgender kids at heightened risk of suicide and substance abuse. How parents who reject those students can become violent, or force them to leave home. And how the bill would rupture the bond of trust that schools try to develop between students and teacher, so students feel free to discuss difficult issues with a trusted adult. None of these things are controversial — all are well-attested to by decades of study — and some pointed out that the bill likely violates existing Iowa laws against discrimination in education and Title IX of the federal code.

But none of that was apparently what Rep. Skyler Wheeler, the subcommittee chair, heard on Tuesday afternoon.

“[W]hat I’ve heard today from those opposing the bill– this is [sic] your words, ‘Parents are evil’ That’s literally what you guys were saying,” Wheeler, a Republican from Hull, said at the end of the hearing. “‘Parents are evil, parents don’t know what’s best for their kids.’ That’s what was said to us today.”

No one at the hearing said that.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange County. — State of Iowa

“I cannot believe in the state of Iowa we have people saying that parents are going to abuse and hurt their kids, because they find something out at school,” Wheeler continued. “If they do, the law already applies to that, they don’t get away with that.”

In 2018, Wheeler told Little Village, “My worldview begins with the Bible and taking it in its literal form.” He went on to describe how that influences his work as a member of the Iowa House.

“As a state legislator, I will use the Bible as my starting point for making decisions on what legislation I should support and which I should oppose,” Wheeler explained.

Wheeler, who works part-time at a faith-based organization that supports people with disabilities and serves as the baseball coach at a Christian high school, is not a fringe figure in the Iowa Legislature. He is the chair of the House Education Committee, and was one of the Republicans leaders who pushed through the ban on transgender girls playing school sports.

According to the text of HF 9, it “prohibits school districts and charter schools from facilitating any accommodation that is intended to affirm a student’s gender identity, if that gender identity is different than the sex listed on the student’s official birth certificate, without the written consent of the student’s parent or guardian.”

“In a perfect world this topic wouldn’t even be an issue,” Lisa Stone, a teacher and the parent of a transgender child, told the subcommittee. “All kids would grow up in a safe and nurturing home, with supportive and loving parents. They wouldn’t be afraid to talk with their parents about anything.”

“But this isn’t a perfect world, and some kids fear their parents.”

Several teachers, representatives from Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Iowa chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the School Administrators of Iowa and Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa all testified against the bill, as did several parents and a transgender student.

Leslie Carpenter of Iowa Mental Health Advocacy also testified against the bill.

“Even just writing this bill, and having it listed on [the legislature’s] website, is something that is putting children at risk,” Carpenter said.

She explained, “I’m opposed to this bill because not every family is going to welcome the information that their child might be considering themselves to be of a different gender. Unfortunately, not all families are safe families.”

The only professional educator who spoke in favor of the bill was Patty Alexander, a retired teacher.

“It has never, never been my practice to keep secrets from parents,” Alexander said. Other bill proponents also characterized teachers not informing parents about confidential conversations with students on gender identity as an illegitimate form of “keeping secrets.”

Alexander, who unsuccessfully ran for the Indianola school board two years ago, is a familiar speaker in the Iowa State Capitol, having testified in favor of other conservative bills on education. Earlier this year, she spoke in favor of Gov. Reynolds’ school voucher bill, denouncing the public school system as an unhealthy “monopoly.”

“Public education has become socially destructive, ruled by selfish elitists that do not care about our family values or our society in general,” she told lawmakers last month in support of the voucher bill.

Alexander was more restrained in her testimony on Tuesday, telling the subcommittee that only parents are responsible for their children, not teacher or other school officials.

After the testimony concluded and subcommittee members had a chance to speak, Rep. Sharon Steckman, the subcommittee’s sole Democrat, called HF 9 “a mean-spirited bill.”

“It’s going after a vulnerable, tiny part of our community that needs our help,” Steckman, a retired educator, said.

“Iowa used to be the leader in progressive thinking about helping people, and it seems like we’re following the national ALEC path of going after vulnerable kids, transgender kids, LGTBQ. We’re following that same path of other states, vilifying these students.”

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council. It prepares model legislation to advance conservative causes, which it provides to state lawmakers along with advice and training on how to enact its proposed bills.

As chair of the subcommittee, Skylar Wheeler had the final comments of the afternoon.

“This bill came to us from parents,” he said. “Parents are fired up across the state, they’re not happy about some of the things that they have seen taking place in local schools.”

Wheeler cited, and mischaracterized, the Linn-Mar Community School District policies on supporting students on matters of gender identity, calling it “probably one of the biggest pieces of trash I have ever seen in my life.”

Wheeler made it clear that the opposition to the bill was futile given the Republican majority in the House.

“We’re going to pass this bill, and it’s going to get to the governor’s desk,” he said firmly.

Wheeler and his fellow Republican, Rep. Brooke Boden, voted to advance the bill. Steckman voted against it.

In an unusual move this early in the legislative session, the House Education Committee took up HF 9 just hours after the subcommittee approved it. On Tuesday evening, the bill was approved, with all the committee’s Republicans voting for it, and all its Democrats opposing it.

HF 9 now goes to the full Iowa House for a vote.