Last week, the Iowa House added a provision to an appropriations bill that would require a parent or guardian to provide written consent for their student to participate in any curriculum about human growth and development, essentially making sex ed opt-in instead of opt-out. The amendment was proposed to address not just courses, but also conferences that might address sexual health topics — specifically, the Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth, held annually by the organization Iowa Safe Schools. For one lawmaker upset by rumors about the conference, the amendment is not enough.
State Rep. Greg Heartsill (R) was a staunch proponent of the amendment, and during debate on the measure, he explained that parents are concerned that their students have been exposed to material they believe would be “objectionable.” Describing the Governor’s Conference, he explained there was “obscene material” presented and that parents were “shocked by it.” When Rep. Chris Hall (D) asked him if he knew what the acronym LGBTQ stood for, Heartsill admitted that he did not.
Despite not understanding the basic premise of the conference, Heartsill has now embarked on a quest to understand just who participated in it in apparent hopes of blocking public funds from being used in future years. He has sent a letter to all of Iowa’s school superintendents requesting information about how many faculty, staff, and students attended the 2015 conference last month and whether the schools covered any of the costs of attending, including transporation. His letter expresses concern that “students were subjected to sexually graphic and obscene presentations” and that “the closing speaker made frequent use of profanity during his presentation and even suggested that students vandalize the property of those who might disagree with their views,” refering to a performance by drag queen Coco Peru.
These complaints stem from a report on the conference filed by Bob Vander Plaats of The FAMiLY Leader, Iowa’s anti-LGBT advocacy organization. In years past, Vander Plaats has accused the conference of recruiting questioning youth into homosexuality and discriminating against straight students; he’s also known for describing homosexuality as a publich health hazard comparable to second-hand smoke. This year’s report, based on the observations of someone who infiltrated the conference, objects to a number of educational sessions about sexual health, coming out stories, responding to LGBT rejection, and better understanding gender transition.
Iowa Safe Schools has been responding to The FAMiLY Leader’s objections since they first came out. Nate Monson, executive director for the organization, called Vander Plaat’s report part of a “campaign of pure hate” that demonstrates the need for safe spaces for LGBTQ youth in Iowa. A new effort raising scholarship funds for the 2016 conference, called, “Were We At The Same Conference, Bob?” highlights many aspects of the conference that Vander Plaats failed to mention, such as guest speaker Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (former Prime Minister of Iceland), her wife, and also Darren Young, the first openly gay WWE superstar. It also provides the missing context for the objections that he highlighted.
A copy of the conference program provided to ThinkProgress demonstrates the educational intention of the event. Here are a few examples of workshops that were offered:
- “Developing a Thriving GSA,” a workshop about setting up and growing a gay-straight alliance.
- “Student Athletes,” a workshop highlighting successful coming out stories in student athletics.
- “Civil Rights In Iowa: The First Step Starts With You!,” which taught attendees about the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
- “Gay Rights Are Human Rights: Protecting Youth From Conversion Therapy,” about how to support a ban on ex-gay therapy for minors.
- “Sexualized Bullying: What We Need To Know And Do,” which addressed sexual harassment in schools.
- “Addressing Homelessness Among Transgender Youth,” a primer on the high rates of LGBT youth homelessness and how to fight the epidemic.
- “Racial Justice Within Your GSA,” about making gay-straight alliances more racially inclusive.
In other words, the conference was chock full of resources to help LGBTQ youth navigate the various forms of resistance they might encounter and learn how to better support their LGBTQ peers. The fact that this included frank discussions of sexuality and sexual health is a good thing, because, as Monson explained to reporters last month, “For the first time ever in a lot of these LGBT kids lives, they had a chance to ask questions about themselves.”
Monson, who has called Heartsill’s letter “creepy” for its resemblance to a witch hunt for LGBTQ youth and their allies, explained to ThinkProgress, “I just find it cruel that a legislator would rather spend his time adding to the stigma LGBTQ youth face instead of finding solutions to the issues impacting this population such as bullying, homelessness, and suicide risk.” Indeed, mere hours after Heartsill admitted he doesn’t understand who LGBTQ youth are, the Iowa House defeated an anti-bullying bill that would have created new training for responding to bullying and would have allowed school officials to respond to cyberbullying.
Progress Iowa Executive Director Matt Sinovic also issued a statement condemning Heartsill’s letter, calling his effort “a disturbing crusade that will lead to more LGBTQ students being bullied in school… Heartsill’s singling out the Governors Conference in this manner is an anti-gay witch hunt, plain and simple.”
Rep. Heartsill did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment.