Iowa House lawmakers uphold gender identity protections in Iowa civil rights law

Protesters gather at the Iowa Capitol to voice their opposition against a proposed bill in the Iowa House. This bill seeks to eliminate gender identity protections from the state civil rights act. The photo above captures the demonstrators fervently expressing their concerns.

Members of an Iowa House panel declined to move forward with a bill on Wednesday that aimed to eliminate the inclusion of “gender identity” as a protected class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Additionally, the bill sought to classify “gender dysphoria” as a disability.

Advocates and members of the public expressed their opinions on the legislation, with some supporting it and others opposing it. In the midst of the discussions, advocates and LGBTQ allies passionately chanted slogans like “trans rights are human rights” and “no justice no peace.” The atmosphere shifted from chanting to jubilation when all three members of the House Judiciary subcommittee voted against advancing House File 2082.

Protesters filled the halls of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on January 31, 2024, demonstrating against a House bill that aimed to eliminate the protection of “gender identity” as a class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The photograph captured by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch showcases the scale and intensity of the protest.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act ensures that discrimination based on “gender identity” is prohibited in various areas, including employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. According to the proposed legislation, a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria or any condition related to a gender identity disorder” would be recognized as a disability under the Iowa Code, thus making it another protected category under the civil rights act.

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Aime Wichtendahl, a member of the Hiawatha City Council, expressed strong disapproval towards lawmakers who are contemplating a bill that would strip civil rights protections from a specific group of citizens.

“There is no such thing as transgenderism; there are only transgender individuals,” Wichtendahl asserted. “We are human beings, American citizens, and Iowans. We should not have to endure this mistreatment from our government.”

Multiple transgender Iowans shared their personal accounts of harassment and discrimination with lawmakers, emphasizing the urgent need for legal protections. Jocelyn Krueger, a transgender woman, recounted a distressing incident when she was refused service at a store while trying to pick up cookies for her toddler on Valentine’s Day. The denial was based on the discrepancy between her appearance and the gender marker on her identification document.

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, addressed lawmakers at a House Judiciary subcommittee on January 31, 2024. He discussed his proposed legislation aimed at eliminating “gender identity” as a protected class under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The photo, captured by Robin Opsahl of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, depicts Shipley during his speech.

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham, introduced the bill, stating that he aims to remove gender identity as a protected class. Shipley argues that unlike other protected classes, such as race, sex, or national origin, gender identity lacks clear and objective criteria. He believes that the ambiguity surrounding this category allows individuals to claim protections based on “gender identity” without any means of verifying their identification with the category.

According to him, the state’s civil rights protections for gender identity have resulted in the violation of civil rights for other Iowans. He gave an example of a transgender male teen swimming at the Pella Aquatic Center without wearing a shirt.

Shipley debunked the notion that transgender individuals would be left vulnerable by the proposal. He clarified that classifying “gender dysphoria” as a disability would ensure their protection under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Annie Sarcone, the director of the Des Moines Queer Youth Resource Center, expressed her deep concern over the unequal treatment of herself and other transgender individuals in Iowa. She emphasized that it saddens her to see that their lives are not valued equally. Furthermore, she strongly disagreed with the notion that being transgender should be seen as a disability.

Sarcone firmly believes that gender dysphoria and being transgender should not be classified as a disability. In their view, shifting the categorization of gender identity would only create obstacles in ensuring adequate protection. Furthermore, they express concern that such a reclassification would be disrespectful to individuals with genuine disabilities who rely on the legal safeguards currently in place.

Pete McRoberts from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa raised legal concerns regarding the proposal. He argued that removing a group as a protected class, which was voluntarily included in the civil rights code, may potentially violate the Equal Protections Clause. To support his point, McRoberts referred to the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Romer v. Evans. The court had concluded that when a legislature grants protected status to a group that is not constitutionally obligated, reversing that decision would also be a violation of the Equal Protections Clause.

Republican Representatives Charley Thomson and John Wills both cast their votes against the bill’s progression. Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake, expressed his reservations about the civil rights code in general, but did not believe that this legislation was the most effective solution. He advocated for an approach that aligns with the language of the Declaration of Independence, where the principle of equality is extended to all individuals.

According to Wills, the civil rights code appears to grant additional rights to individuals. Therefore, he believes that the current bill is not the appropriate means to advance this issue. Wills asserts that the bill’s language and process provide extra rights, specifically due to one’s disability status.

According to Thomson, a representative from Charles City, he expressed his belief that if the legislation were to pass, it would lead to a surge in litigation. Although he did not endorse the bill that was being discussed on Wednesday, he acknowledged the need for the Legislature to address legitimate concerns regarding Iowa’s civil rights law.

In an interview, Thomson acknowledged the existence of a tension among individuals belonging to various protected classes. He emphasized that members of these classes have a valid expectation to have their rights clarified.

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