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Move to strip gender rights from Iowa's civil rights law rejected by legislators

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa lawmakers on Wednesday declined to advance a bill that would have stripped gender identity from the state’s civil rights law, a proposal that opponents said could have subjected LGBTQ+ Iowans to discrimination in education, housing and public spaces.

The bill has been floated in recent years without success but reached the first step in Iowa’s lawmaking process Wednesday, when it was rejected by three members of a House Judiciary subcommittee. As they discussed the measure, LGBTQ+ advocates outside the room cried out: “Trans rights are human rights.” Two of the subcommittee members are Republican and one is a Democrat.

Not every state has explicit protections for a person based on their gender identity, but opponents of the bill suggested that removing such already existing protections from a state’s anti-discrimination law would have stood out in an already historic period of anti-trans laws in Republican-led statehouses.

Republican House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl — who is not a member of the subcommittee and didn't take part in the vote — said Wednesday that he doesn’t think it would be the “wise choice” to break open established civil rights code “whether you agree with all of it or not.”

“Taking that protection away would then be an opportunity to discriminate against one of those protected classes,” he said of how the bill would be perceived.

LGBTQ+ Iowans and allies who descended upon the Iowa Capitol to protest the bill far outnumbered those in support, though the testimony initially alternated between pro and con. Some trans Iowans in the room shared personal testimony about discrimination they've faced and fears of being further marginalized.

Iowa’s civil rights law protects against discrimination in employment, wages, public accommodations, housing, education and credit practices based upon certain characteristics of a person. That includes gender identity, as well as someone’s race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, religion, national origin and disability status.

Sexual orientation and gender identity were not originally included in Iowa’s Civil Rights Act of 1965. They were added by the Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2007, with about a dozen Republicans across the two chambers joining in favor.

State Rep. Jeff Shipley, who authored the bill discussed on Wednesday, gave an impassioned introduction in which he argued that there is no objective criteria to evaluate gender identity and that there is a “viciously hostile” culture around the protection of these individuals over others. Shipley said the latter was made clear by the protesters shouting expletives and giving him the finger as he left the room.

As written, the bill would have amended the civil rights law’s definition of disability, a protected status, to include the psychological distress that some transgender people experience, known as gender dysphoria, or any another diagnosis related to a gender identity disorder.

Those individuals would be protected, but advocates Wednesday made clear that being trans is not a disability and that a broad swath of transgender Iowans who do not experience gender dysphoria would be left exposed.

“I am not disabled,” said Annie Sarcone, a transgender Iowan and director of the Des Moines Queer Youth Resource Center. “Shame on the Iowa Legislature for trying to pull something like this. For being the only state to take things this far.”

Iowa’s Republican-controlled statehouse has passed multiple bills that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law targeting LGBTQ+ Iowans in recent years, including prohibiting transgender students from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity, banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors and prohibiting transgender females from participating in girls high school and women’s college sports.

Those measures are part of a wave of laws recently passed in conservative states across the country that have led the Human Rights Campaign to declare a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.

About half of U.S. states include gender identity in their civil rights code to protect against discrimination in housing and public places, such as stores or restaurants, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ+ rights think tank. Some additional states don’t explicitly protect against such discrimination, but it is included in legal interpretation of the statutes.

Federal protections against employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity were reinforced in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2020, when conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority that discrimination because of LGBTQ+ status was an extension of sex-based discrimination.

Iowa's Supreme Court expressly diverged from the federal high court in a 2022 ruling.