Students across Iowa walk out of class to protest anti-LGBTQ bills: ‘We want to keep our friends alive’

Students from Iowa City schools gather at the Old Capitol during a walkout to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

Students at schools across Iowa walked out of class on Wednesday to protest against more than two dozen anti-LGBTQ bills Republican members of the Iowa Legislature have introduced this year.

The bills include sweeping so-called “education reform” bills. One would prohibit teachers and schools from mentioning any gender-related issues to younger students, force all Iowa public schools to remove a book if it is banned in any of the state’s more than 3,360 school districts and require teachers and counselors to inform parents if a student privately informs them they identify as transgender and want to use the pronouns they consider appropriate. Others are more narrowly focused, like a bill to prevent transgender students from using a school bathroom that matches their gender identity.

Many of the bills are focused on restricting transgender students and preventing schools from acknowledging them or even the existence of transgender people.

“Normally, I don’t like to get personal,” Ace Drumbarger, a South East Junior High Student, said standing on the step of the Old State Capitol Building on Wednesday, speaking to a crowd of almost 200.

“But this is my sixth protest I’ve attended and spoken at in the last year.”

“I am a transgender male,” he continued. “I have been out to my mother since I was 10 years old. When I first came out, I knew the world was hard, but I thought it wasn’t going to be that bad. And ever since I came out, I’ve wanted to hide.”

“I shouldn’t have to hide who I am.”

Ace Drumbarger leading a group of student who walked out of class to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

The bills are advancing through the legislature on party line votes, with only the support of Republicans. But that’s all the support they need, since Republican majorities control both chambers of the Iowa Legislature.

According to One Iowa, 29 anti-LGTBQ bills have been filed since the 2023 legislative session began in January, including 10 during the last week. Among those newly filed bills are two seeking to invalidate same-sex marriages.

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz of Agudas Achim Congregation in Coralville, supporting Iowa City students during the walkout to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

One bill would amend the Iowa Constitution to add: “In accordance with the laws of nature and nature’s God, the state of Iowa recognizes the definition of marriage to be the solemnized union between one human biological male and one human biological female.” The amendment would overturn the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision in Varnum v. Brien that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

The other bill, which sponsors call a “religious liberty” bill, would allow Iowans to treat same-sex marriage from other states as invalid.

Neither bill would be effective because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all of the country. But conservatives are hopeful that the current court lineup will reverse Obergefell. Not only did the court’s current majority rescind an established right for the first time in American history when it overturned Roe v. Wade last year, but Justice Alito’s majority opinion in that case provides a clear basis for the Republican-appointed majority to overturn Obergefell.

In Iowa City, students from City High, Iowa City West High and Southeast Junior High marched to the Pentacrest to rally at the Old State Capitol. Students in Des Moines, rallied in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol and marched along the sidewalk in front of the governor’s mansion.

The students in Des Moines did not receive a hearing from Republican legislative leaders or the governor, but political and community leaders in Iowa City attended the rally to support the students and protest the legislature’s actions.

“What’s happening in Des Moines is a disgrace,” Mayor Brude Teague said regarding the anti-LGBTQ bills. “Here in Iowa City, we show love for all.”

Teague was one of the first speakers at the rally. Two Johnson County Supervisors, Royceann Porter and Jon Green, also attended to show solidarity with the students.

Supervisor Royceann Porter (puffer jacket) and Mayor Bruce Teague at the student protest against anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

“I have been so hurt this entire session,” Teague told the crowd.. “Last year was enough, the year before was enough, but this year, they’re… coming after the young folks.”

Teague assured the LGTBQ students and the other students supporting them that the community stands with them. “

“You matter,” he repeated throughout his remarks. Teague also got personal during his speech.

“I just returned on Sunday from my honeymoon,” he said. The mayor married his partner in October. “I spent nine days with the love of my life, the person who I believe God sent just for me, and this person happens to be a man. A wonderful human being, who I have fallen in love with.”

“And the state has the audacity to discuss our human rights,” Teague said, referring to the bills attacking same-sex marriage. “It’s insane.”

The Republican caucuses in the Iowa House and Senate have always had members who oppose LGBTQ rights, but the flood of bills this year is unprecedented. Many even seem to be introduced almost on impulse after Republicans see anti-LGBTQ bills in other states. The bill banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors is an example.

Iowa City students protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation, standing in front of the Old Capitol, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

On Feb. 22, House Speaker Pat Grassley said a ban on gender-affirming procedures for minors was a possibility in this legislative session. It was surprising, because although such bans had been introduced or passed in other Republican-controlled states, there had been no serious discussion of such a bill in Iowa, although the House Governmental Oversight Committee had scheduled a session to hear from medical professionals about what gender-affirming care involves.

Grassley’s announcement was also a surprise because there were only eight days left in the session before all bills must be passed by both subcommittees and committees. Significant bills are rarely introduced this late in the session.

During the hearing on the day after Grassley’s announcement, the medical professionals explained why the lawmakers concerns were based on misinformation and that all major medical organizations agree that forms of gender-affirming care for transgender minors are safe and necessary. That testimony made little, if any, impression on the committee’s Republicans.

On Feb. 27, bills banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors were introduced in the Iowa House and Senate.

In previous years, bills aimed at transgender students died quietly in the legislature. A bill that would have prevented transgender students from using school bathrooms that correspond to their identities died in 2018, largely because there’s never been a problem with bathrooms in Iowa schools. In 2021, two bills that would have banned transgender girls from participating girls’ sports at school failed to advance, largely because no complaint about transgender girls playing school sports had ever been lodged in Iowa.

Those last two bills got a surprise boost in April 2021, when Gov. Kin Reynolds announced on Fox News “we’re working on legislation” to ban transgender girls from participating in girls sports at school.” That was a surprise to lawmakers, including Grassley, because it already too late to revive the bills.

Iowa City students protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

The next year, however, Reynolds and Republican leaders pushed through the ban, despite there still being no complaints made in the state and the unanimous testimony of medical and education professionals against the ban. Those professionals warned the ban could have serious adverse consequences for the mental and physical health of transgender girls in Iowa, and even the introducing such bills sent a clear message to transgender Iowans that they are unwelcome in the state.

That was a point several speakers at the Iowa City rally on Wednesday made through personal testimony. As the part of the rally featuring scheduled speakers drew to a close, Ace returned to the steps of the Old Capitol.

Ace apologized for speaking a second time, but said there was someone he wanted to introduce to the people gathered at the protest: “My little brother Alex.”

“He’s shy, so he doesn’t want to speak, but this little buddy has saved my life countless times over,” Ace said, as Alex stood next to him. “This is his first-ever walkout with me. He is also transgender.”

Ace spoke about fighting back tears as he tried to comfort Alex during the protest.

“I always knew the day would come when I needed to protect my little buddy, but I didn’t realize that day would come so soon.”

Speaking about the Republicans pushing the anti-LGBTQ bills, Ace said, “People don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want.”

“And Alex, I am so sorry you have to go through this.”

Iowa City students and supporters gathering on the Pentacrest during the walkout to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

There will be a protest at the Iowa State Capitol against anti-LGBTQ legislation organized by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and the Des Moines Education Association on Sunday at 2 p.m.