‘State-sanctioned bullying’: Iowa House Republicans advance bill to ban transgender students from playing girls sports

Des Moines high school basketball players take the court before a November 2021 game. (Image cropped slightly) — Phil Roeder/Flickr

It was a forgone conclusion that a bill seeking to ban transgender girls from participating in girls sports at all Iowa schools would be approved by a subcommittee of the Iowa House Education Committee on Thursday, because the two Republicans on the three-person subcommittee are the bill’s co-sponsors.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler and Rep. Henry Stone introduced HF 2309 on Wednesday. The bill would restrict participation on all girls sports teams and in all athletic events for girls at all public and private schools to those it defines as female, according to “the sex listed on the student’s official birth certificate.”

In recent years, Republicans in the legislature have proposed bills to undermine the rights of transgender Iowans. A bill to cut off Medicaid funding for medically necessary gender-affirming procedures passed — although it was later struck down by the Iowa Supreme Court for violating the state’s Civil Rights Act. Others, such as the so-called “bathroom bill” Sen. Jim Carlin introduced last year, have died without ever making it to a floor vote.

During an appearance on Fox News in April last year, Reynolds said “we’re working on legislation” to ban transgender girls from participating in girls sports at school.

“I should have that to my desk hopefully by the end of this legislative session and we’ll be signing that bill into law,” she said.

The governor’s statement came as a surprise to lawmakers, who weren’t working on any such legislation. Two bills related to transgender students and school sports had been introduced earlier in the legislative session but were already dead at that point.

Rep. Mary Mascher of Iowa City, the only Democrat on the subcommittee, did not mince words when it was her opportunity to speak on Thursday.

“I am adamantly opposed to this bill, because I think it is state-sanctioned bullying,” she said.

Rep. Mary Mascher (D-86)

“We talk a good game up here about protecting students, and making sure that their rights are upheld and that we honor and give them dignity in terms of their participation in school, activities and sports. And at the same time, we are setting up a system that will allow the state to sanction bullying in our schools.”

“I cannot abide by that,” Mascher, who taught fifth- and sixth-graders in Iowa City schools for 33 years before retiring in 2009, said. “And I look at all of the issues in the problems that we see students having, the struggles they face every day. Our transgender students deserve better.”

Mascher also called for reports for the Legislative Services Agency to prepare reports on the likely fiscal impact of the bill, as well as the fiscal impact it will have on the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

HF 2309 allows any student who alleges “direct or indirect harm as a result of a violation of the bill’s requirement” to sue a school district, private school or high school athletic association if transgender girls are not banned from girls sports.

The bill also requires the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to defend “at no cost” any school, district or athletic association that is sued over complying with the ban. Such lawsuits are very likely, since, as a number of speakers at Thursday’s hearing told the subcommittee, the bill appears to violate federal laws protecting the rights of transgender students.

“This bill creates an unfortunate situation for school districts and our public employees where they’ll have to make a decision as to whether they violate state law or whether they violate federal law,” Emily Piper, representing the Iowa Association of School Boards, told the subcommittee.

The association opposes the bill, according to Piper, because it “is going to have serious consequences, not only for our employees, but for the districts and for the taxpayer as we seek to defend ourselves. We ask that you do not put us in this position of having to choose between a state law and a federal law.”

Neither of the bill’s sponsors addressed this aspect of their proposed law when it was their turn to speak.

Henry Stone, an RV sales consultant who represents Forest City in the Iowa House, kept his remarks brief.

Stone said allowing transgender girls to participate in girls sports “destroys fair competitions in women’s athletic opportunities.” Banning them and allowing other students to sue to enforce the ban is “the only fair solution,” according to Stone.

Skyler Wheeler, who chaired the subcommittee, offered a more forceful defense of the bill than Stone. Wheeler, who was working as an account representative for Staples Promotional Products in his hometown of Orange City when he was first elected to the Iowa House in 2016 at age 23, explained his approach to legislating to Little Village in 2018.

My worldview begins with the Bible and taking it in its literal form. Using the Bible as my compass, I come to conclusions that life is precious, marriage is one natural man and one natural woman, taxes should not be overbearing, and the government’s job is to reward those who abide by the law and punish those who do not. 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 didn’t cite the Bible on Thursday. Instead he appealed to Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination, which has been responsible for the growth in athletic opportunities for women and girls in schools and colleges since it was passed in 1972.

Allowing transgender girls “to compete in female sports will reverse 50 years of advancement for women,” Wheeler said.

As he was concluding his remarks, Wheeler said, “I ask if it is the intention of the opponents of this bill to destroy this progress.”

Only three organizations have registered in support of HF 2309: Valor Iowa, Concerned Women for America of Iowa and The Family Leader.

Then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivers remarks at the Family Leadership Summit, hosted by The Family Leader, in Des Moines on July 17, 2020. Pompeo returned to the event in 2021, post-Trump administration. — Ronny Przysucha/U.S. State Department

Valor Iowa is a nonprofit incorporated in December 2021 that has so far focused largely on organizing opposition to vaccine mandates. Concerned Women for America is a rightwing political nonprofit founded in the 1970s by evangelical Christians opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment and other priorities of the women’s movement. The Family Leader, a major force in Iowa Republican politics, was created by the merger of groups that opposed same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights.

But not all religiously affiliated groups support the bill.

“We are strongly and adamantly opposed to House File 2309,” Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa told the subcommittee.

Ryan discussed the importance participating in sports can have for students, and said it was obvious that the bill’s backers don’t understand transgender youths.

“This bill harms transgender children just simply by being introduced, because it sends a message that you do not belong,” she said.

But speaking on behalf of Valor Iowa and Concerned Women for America of Iowa, Kathryn Kueter said her groups support HF 2309 because it embodies “the truth.”

After beginning with some anecdotes from other states and referencing one study that suggests transgender girls will always have an advantage, Kueter said, “Sports and athletic abilities of each sex set aside, this bill is about truth.”

“Men and women are different. Men are not women, and women are not men. Biological sex matters and gender identity of self-defined perception should not overrule biological sex.”

Kueter added, “The only addition we would ask for the bill is that the bill would be extended to college-level sports.”

Kueter’s version of the truth was echoed by other bill supporters, who shared anecdotes of incidents they said happened in other states and offered speculations on what might happen if transgender girls are allowed to continue to compete as they are now. None of those supporters, however, had backgrounds that would enable them to speak to the reality faced by transgender youth.

All the healthcare professionals who spoke on Thursday opposed the bill.

Dr. Katie Ode, a pediatric endocrinologist with extensive experience treating transgender youths, said, “The difference between biological males and biological females is not simple and does not come down to chromosomes.”

Ode then offered some detailed examples of the complication involved before returning to her general point.

“It is not as simple as we think it is,” Ode explained. “The reason we use the brain to determine gender is that is the only definitive organ. The brain is gendered in early childhood. This is true for all children.”

“So it hurt my heart to hear people say so many times that science has proven that it’s easy to tell between males and females, because that isn’t true.”

University of Iowa Clinical Professor of Family Medicine Dr. Katie Imborek, co-director of UI Health Care’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Clinic, also spoke out against the bill.

“I am vehemently opposed to this proposed legislation,” Imborek said, after explaining she was speaking on her own behalf, and not on behalf of UIHC.

“A recent study said that 44 percent of transgender high school students reported thoughts of suicide in the year before that study,” the doctor told the committee. “That’s compared to 16 percent of their student peers. We know that transgender youth are at high risk of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts, substance abuse and obesity.”

“It is like we have an antidote to it. Sports are amazingly helpful. They decrease rates of obesity, they decrease rates of depression and anxiety, they decrease rates of thoughts of suicide. They increase school connectedness and feelings of belonging.”

“This bill pretends to protect girls and what it is doing is solving a problem that doesn’t exist,” Imborek continued. “We know there’s a problem — the problem is that transgender youth are at high risk for poor mental health outcomes.”

Keenan Crow of One Iowa, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ Iowans, emphasized that this bill is only pretending to solve a problem.

“Iowa hasn’t had a single incident of even alleged unfairness, let alone a documented case,” Crow said, before turning to real problems.

“Women and girls continue to face unequal opportunities, inequitable funding, pay inequities, uneven media coverage driven by gender stereotypes, a lack of sponsorship opportunities, higher rates of sexual harassment and abuse, and incomplete implementation of Title IX in sports.”

Crow said that if any of the bill’s backers are interested in working to solve those problems, One Iowa is ready to work with them.

South East Junior High School student holds up a sign for transgender rights at a rally on steps of UI’s Schaeffer Hall. Nov. 6, 2018 — Jason Smith/Little Village

The subcommittee also heard from Gavy Smith, a transgender girl who is an active participant in sports at her school, including volleyball, softball, bowling and track and field.

“Through my transition, the best thing to look forward to at the end of the day are those sports,” Gabby said. “They help me make new friendships and keep the old ones. They have made me stronger, mentally and physically.”

“If I were told I couldn’t play the sports that I want to and for the gender that I identify as, I would feel less about myself, like I’m being forced to feel different about who I am.”

Gavy’s mother, Tiffany Smith, also addressed the subcommittee, telling its members how beneficial participating in sports has been for Gabby.

Lorilei Baker, a psychotherapist who works with transgender youth, explained the beneficial effects of participating in sports when she addressed the subcommittee in opposition to the bill. She also noted a pattern she has seen in recent years.

“As a mental health professional, I’m really concerned – it seems like every year I have to keep showing up at the Capitol to speak to you about bills like this. And it concerns me. It feels like every year there’s a continual attack on transgender youth and I’m really wondering why.”

Nothing the speakers said moved Wheeler or Stone from their preexisting positions.

The bill now goes to the House Education Committee for consideration. If HF 2309 passes both the House and the Senate, Gov. Reynolds will finally have the opportunity to sign the sort of bill she called for on Fox News last year.