Iowa’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills spark controversy

Iowa House Republicans introduced two bills which would limit gender and sexuality identity instruction in the classroom. Some bills could see debate as early as this week.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

An Iowa City community member wears socks with pride colors on the swing installation on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City during the Pride Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2022.

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

Iowa House Republicans introduced multiple bills targeting LGBTQ+ students in K-12 schools across the state. These bills would restrict gender and sexuality instruction and out students to their parents.

House File 8 and House File 9, both coined “Don’t Say Gay” bills, mirror similar laws that were passed in Florida in 2021. Advocates for the bills say this legislation would prevent teachers from including LGBTQ+ themes in their lesson plans and maintain teacher-parent transparency. But many Iowans oppose the bill because of concerns for student safety and equality.

Iowa House Education Committee chair Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, introduced HF 8 and HF 9 on Jan. 11, which would keep conversations of gender and sexuality between students and their parents rather than students and their schools.

“Parents know what’s best for their children, and schools do not have a right to keep secrets from them,” Wheeler wrote on his official Facebook page. “I am proud of my GOP colleagues on the House Education Committee for taking action on this.”

According to the Iowa House Republicans website, these bills were included in the first 13 to be filed for the session, which outline the party’s priorities for the year.

Rep. Elinor Levin, D-Iowa City, said educators do not push for specific agendas but rather open up a space for students to ask questions and be curious about LGBTQ+ ideas and themes.

“And they do that on all kinds of topics, no matter what they are, and what the other thing that they do is let kids ask questions that don’t have to have an answer,” Levin said.

Levin said the bill could be on the debate floor as early as this week.

“I definitely think now’s the time for folks who are concerned about teachers being able to provide a safe, secure, supportive environment to reach out,” Levin said.

House File 8 would prohibit LGBTQ+ themes in some classrooms

One of Wheeler’s bills would prohibit instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in Iowa schools. HF 8 would limit classroom instruction to “age-appropriate and research-based human growth and development.”

Under this bill, each school board would have to submit a copy of their curriculum to ensure that no assignment or lecture is given in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through third grade.

Damien Thompson, Iowa Safe Schools director of public policy, said prohibiting this instruction would decrease the empathy and understanding in students during their formative years.

All students, Thompson said, come from different backgrounds, so it’s important for schools to teach them to be tolerant of what they are not used to.

“So, being able to understand and appreciate the differences and educate on those differences is crucially important to creating a safe and welcoming classroom for all students,” Thompson said.

Thompson said HF 8 would tie educators’ hands on how they can or cannot make their students feel accepted in the classroom. This, he said, will continue to burden the Iowa teacher shortage that state legislators are worried about.

“This is not going to help, and I pretty clearly foresee that it will make the teacher shortage and the issues we’re having in the education world even more exasperated,” Thompson said.

According to public comments pertaining to HF 8, many Iowans oppose the bill in fear that the legislation would further endanger LGBTQ+ students and families.

Those in opposition to the bill say that classroom instruction isn’t the only measure being limited in the classroom — student well-being will also be prohibited.

Iowa House bill would require school districts to out transgender students

To promote school transparency HF 9, which was introduced by Wheeler, establishes that Iowa schools are prohibited from offering any accommodations to affirm a student’s gender identity if their identity is different than their gender assigned at birth.

Levin said Republicans fear that educators are indoctrinating their students by encouraging them to be gay or transgender.

“I’ll speak from my perspective as someone who was a public educator. No public-school teacher is going to five year olds and saying, ‘you should be gay,’ or, ‘You should question your gender,’” Levin said.

The bill is designed to ensure a parent or guardian has consented to the student altering their gender expression

Teachers and faculty also may not withhold any information or mislead guardians on a student’s gender identity or intent to transition.

Hannah Altman, a member of the UIowa Outlaws, an LGBTQ+ Iowa Law School student group, said the group keeps an eye out for “Don’t Say Gay” legislation when focusing on LGBTQ+ rights laws.

Altman said HF 9 is especially disheartening because it erases the ability for students to be themselves in a place where they feel safe to do so.

Many students, Altman said, llive in households that aren’t supportive of LGBTQ+ identities, and being forced to come out to their families would be dangerous to their wellbeing.

“A lot of kids feel more comfortable at school just because they’re among peers, when they might go home and not have an accepting household,” Altman said. “So, this is something that’s really dangerous.”

In August 2022, the Linn-Mar School Community School District was sued after establishing a policy where faculty would facilitate gender-identity transitions without parental notification. However, the lawsuit was blocked by a federal judge in September.

The policy was put in place in April 2022 and states that the school may offer accommodations such as name or pronoun changes, restroom facilities, and participation in activities for gender-nonconforming students. The policy specifically states that students in seventh grade or higher have priority over their accommodations and support plan rather than their parent or guardian.

HF 9, Altman said, would hold teachers and faculty accountable to uphold values that they themselves may not hold. She said LGBTQ+-related bills like these are being brought up to scare the public.

“I think it’s concerning the way that we’ve seen these issues moving through and being talked about more on conservative media and now popping up in legislation like this,” Altman said. “Once an issue gets far enough along that legal terms are being decided, it’s harder to undo what’s been done.”