Demonstrators at the Iowa Capitol protest a bill in the Iowa House that would remove gender identity protections from the state civil rights act. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Members of an Iowa House panel did not advance a bill Wednesday that would remove “gender identity” as a protected class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and classify “gender dysphoria” as a disability.
As advocates and members of the public spoke for and against the legislation, advocates and LGBTQ allies led chants of “trans rights are human rights” and “no justice no peace.” The chants turned to cheering and celebrating as all three members of the House Judiciary subcommittee voted against moving forward with House File 2082.
Protection of “gender identity” under the Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in areas like employment, housing, education or public accommodations. Under the proposal, a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria or any condition related to a gender identity disorder” would be classified a disability under Iowa Code – another protected class under the civil rights act.
Aime Wichtendahl, a Hiawatha City Council member, criticized lawmakers for considering legislation that would make Iowa the first state in the country to remove civil rights protections for a group of citizens.
“There is no such thing as transgenderism, there is only transgender people.” Wichtendahl said. “We are human beings. We are American citizens. We are Iowans. And we do we do not deserve this abuse that we are getting from our government.”
Multiple transgender Iowans told lawmakers about their experiences of harassment and discrimination, and the need for protections under the law. Jocelyn Krueger, a transgender woman, described her experience of going to pick up cookies from a store for her toddler on Valentine’s Day and being denied service because her ID did not match her appearance.
“I tried to pay in cash and was told that, ‘we don’t serve your people here,’” Krueger said. “I was shocked, demoralized, humiliated and wondered how I was going to come home and explain to my little one why people hated me so much.”
The bill was introduced by Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, who told lawmakers he proposed the removal of gender identity as a protected class because the category does not have “objective, irrefutable criteria” that define other protected classes, like race, sex or national origin. He said the ambiguity of the category allows people to claim protections under “gender identity” with no way to disprove their identification with the category.
He also said the state’s civil rights protections for gender identity have led to violations of other Iowans’ civil rights, citing instances like a transgender male teen swimming at the Pella Aquatic Center without wearing a shirt.
“I can understand why creepy old men are so adamant to protect these rights to expose their scrotums and trans teenagers to expose their breasts,” Shipley said. “But I don’t understand how that supersedes the rights of others to enjoy public amenities, or how this is really in any child’s best interests.”
Shipley also said claims that transgender people would be left unprotected by the proposal were false, as categorizing “gender dysphoria” as a disability would mean they are still protected under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Annie Sarcone, director of the Des Moines Queer Youth Resource Center, said it makes their “heart heavy knowing myself and other trans Iowans’ lives are not seen as equal to others,” and disagreed with the idea that transgender people are disabled by their gender identification.
“Gender dysphoria and being trans isn’t a disability, I am not disabled,” Sarcone said. “Shifting gender identity to a different code will actually make it harder to ensure protection. And quite frankly, it’s disrespectful to people who have a disability who need that protection.”
Legal concerns were also brought up about the proposal. Pete McRoberts with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said removing a group as a protected class that was voluntarily added to civil rights code could be a violation of the Equal Protections Clause. He pointed to the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Romer v. Evans that found when a legislature grants a group protected status when they are not constitutionally required to, that a reversal is also a violation of the Equal Protections Clause.
Republican Reps. Charley Thomson and John Wills both voted against the bill moving forward. Wills, R-Spirit Lake, said he has “a lot of problems with the civil rights code in general,” but that he does not believe that the legislation is the best approach. He said he believes that the Declaration of Independence’s language that “all men are created equal” — updated to “all people” — is the best way to approach civil rights.
“The way I look at the civil rights code right now, is that it actually gives extra rights to people,” Wills said. “So with that said, I don’t think that this bill is the right way to move this forward. I don’t think the way that the way the bill is written is the right process, it actually gives extra rights in addition because of the disability status.”
Thomson, R-Charles City, said he believed the legislation would create a “festival of litigation” if passed. While he did not support the bill discussed Wednesday, he said there were legitimate concerns about Iowa’s civil rights law that should be addressed by the Legislature.
“There’s a tension between people in different categories of protected classes,” Thomson said in an interview. “And those, the members of those classes, have an expectation, and a legitimate expectation, to have those rights clarified.”