'Stand up for kids like me,' trans student tells Iowa senators, but LGBTQ school bills advance
With a rainbow bow in her hair and her mother beside her, 9-year-old Odin SmallCarter stood before a Capitol crowd and pleaded her case to the Republican senators sitting before her.
"You should stand up for kids like me," said Odin, who is transgender. "Because I always get bullied at school … and I'm trying my best to make them understand, but there's nothing I can do."
She and other transgender students and their parents gave emotional speeches Tuesday to packed rooms, begging lawmakers not to advance several bills that restrict what Iowa schools can teach about gender identity or how they can accommodate transgender kids.
The senators weren't swayed.
Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, argued that science about gender dysphoria has been "politicized" and that lessons affirming transgender experiences are "about promoting an ideology … that I believe is grounded in something that is not true, is not accurate, and is actually extreme."
Iowa Republicans have introduced a flurry of controversial bills this session to prevent Iowa schools from accommodating LGBTQ students and teaching about LGBTQ and social justice concepts. Several have advanced this week, bringing them a step closer to the governor signing them into law.
One bill to require parental consent for students to use a new name or pronouns is poised for debate on the House floor. Other proposals, including a bill to prohibit gender identity instruction through eighth grade, still need to pass through the House or Senate Education Committee.
At the heart of the issue are transgender youth like Odin.
More:The inside scoop on Iowa GOP bills targeting sexual orientation, gender identity instruction
Conservative parents celebrated the proposals, which they say will refocus classes on academics instead of social issues.
LGBTQ families and advocates argue the measures will make schools even more hostile for the most vulnerable students.
Transgender kids concerned about bullying; conservatives worried about confusion
Senate File 83 would prohibit any curriculum related to gender identity in kindergarten through eighth grade. Supporters of the legislation say it will prevent kids from becoming confused about their gender.
"Children should not be subjected to gender identity at such a young, impressionable, and confusing age, which I believe should extend from (kindergarten) through 12th," said Amber Williams, an Urbandale resident and a leader of the Moms for Liberty group. "Gender identity is related to feelings and emotions, not science."
Transgender kids in those grades say preventing lessons on gender identity would alienate them further. Berry Stevens, a nonbinary 12-year-old who uses they/them pronouns, said they were harassed at school after they came out.
"One thing that helped me was when my teacher and principal were supportive listeners and took action against these kids," said Stevens, crying as they spoke to lawmakers. "That would be impossible if this bill were passed, and no kid deserves to go through that."
Taylor responded that the bill applies only to curriculum, and it would still allow school administrators to act against bullying.
"Nothing in this bill will prevent children from treating one another kindly," he said. "Nothing in the bill will prevent the punishment for bullying or efforts to prevent bullying in the first place."
But it might force teachers to change those preventative measures, opponents argue.
Odin's mom, Sarah SmallCarter, said Odin's second-grade class had a discussion about pronouns and read a book together about a crayon whose wrapper didn't match its color on the inside.
"That's all we're asking for, is that you treat our kids in schools with basic human decency and respect," SmallCarter said.
Parts of the debate veered deeper than education policy, as Taylor and many supporters of the legislation raised questions about why children identify as transgender in the first place.
"No child in the state of Iowa, in any kind of school, deserves to be bullied or deserves to be treated with anything other than respect," Taylor said. "That does not mean, however, that adults have to affirm everything that a child believes."
The American Medical Association wrote in a 2021 letter that "trans and non-binary gender identities are normal variations of human identity and expression." The AMA recommends enabling "young people to explore and live the gender that they choose."
Taylor and Sen. Cherielynn Westrich, R-Ottumwa, signed off on the proposal, making it eligible for consideration in the Senate Education Committee.
More:Will Iowa's broad 'school choice' law mean no choice for LGBTQ and special-needs students?
Schools would require parental consent for transgender accommodations
Meanwhile, House lawmakers advanced House File 9, a bill that would require schools to obtain parental consent before "facilitating any accommodation" that affirms a transgender student, including using a new name or pronouns.
Supporters of the legislation say parents know what's best for their children — and schools shouldn't keep secrets from families.
"Children are the sole responsibility of the parents. A teacher is not the parent; the teacher works for the parent at the school that he or she is employed with," said Patty Alexander, a former Indianola school board candidate. "We need educators, schools and administrators to stay in their lane.”
But some worry that transgender students may be thrust into unsafe situations as a result of the bill if their parents do not accept them. Lisa Stone, a teacher and the parent of a transgender daughter, said students should be able to express themselves safely at school, even if they can't at home.
“In a perfect world this topic wouldn’t even be an issue,” she said. “All kids would grow up in a safe and nurturing home with supportive and loving parents. They wouldn’t be afraid to talk to their parents about anything. But this isn’t a perfect world, and some kids fear their parents.”
The House Education Committee moved the bill along party lines Tuesday evening.
"It is never a good policy to keep secrets from parents," said Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull.
Over a hundred LGBTQ Iowans and allies gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday for the annual LGBTQ Day on the Hill event. Sen. Liz Bennett, the only openly LGBTQ senator in Iowa, told the crowd she was "overcome with sadness, fury, anger" at the proposals advancing at the Capitol.
"(These bills) are meanspirited, they are purposefully misguided, and they are wrong," Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, said.
Senate bill takes aim at social-emotional learning
Many of the same conservative speakers who supported the gender identity bills celebrated another bill in the Senate to restrict "social-emotional learning" and surveys in schools.
Senate File 85 would require parents to opt-in before their children participated in surveys that ask about risky behavior, psychological problems, sexual orientation, political views or a family's income level. The bill would also instruct the Department of Education to stop disseminating information about "social-emotional learning."
The Iowa Department of Education uses a popular social-emotional learning framework that prioritizes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Social-emotional learning or SEL curriculum includes lessons that are designed to help students build life skills, regulate behavior and learn how to solve problems.
More:Iowa parents petitioned to ditch their school's 'liberal' curriculum. The district said no
But Sen. Sandy Salmon, a Republican who authored Senate File 85, argued that the state's social-emotional learning curriculum includes "critical race theory" and that it says gender identity is fluid and homosexuality is "an acceptable alternative way of life that should be affirmed."
"These also conflict with many families' religious or political beliefs," Salmon said.
Supporters of the bill echoed Salmon, arguing that social-emotional learning is a vessel for schools to inflict liberal values and beliefs on students.
Representatives for education and mental health groups countered that social-emotional learning is focused on helping students understand their own emotions and how to get along with others — not to further a political agenda.
Conservative parents have been a driving force in Iowa politics over the last several years, as the COVID-19 pandemic spurred people to get more involved in their kids' education.
The increased attention on schools led to debates over inappropriate library books, candidacies by conservatives in local school board elections, and demand for more transparency and control for parents.
Lawmakers this week also advanced House File 5, a bill that requires more transparency from school districts, and House Study Bill 112, which creates new penalties for schools that teach about certain concepts, such as the idea that Iowa or the U.S. is systemically racist.
Gov. Kim Reynolds centered her reelection campaign on "parent choice," and she championed the passage of a bill to use state funds to send kids to private schools.
Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed reporting.
Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 410-340-3440. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Bills to restrict LGBTQ lessons, accommodations advance in Iowa