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Central Iowa families worry anti-LGBTQ legislation will further isolate children

Students from Central Academy in Des Moines walked to the Governor's Mansion in protest of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Madeleine Charis King
IPR file
Students on the Central Campus in Des Moines walkout earlier this month in opposition to the quickly growing list of bills introduced in the state legislature that target LGBTQ people.

Brigit Stevens said that when her child, Berry, wanted to change their name and pronouns at school in sixth grade last year, it was a relatively easy process in the West Des Moines school district.

"All the official things happened really easily and seamlessly, even school email address and things like that, and that felt really good and affirming," she said, "And I was excited and happy about that."

Stevens family
Brigit Stevens
The Stevens family is made of up of Joe and Brigit, and their two kids, Timber (left) and Berry (right).

But that’s where the ease ended. Berry started telling their parents they were being bullied at school. And other parents had told school officials they were uncomfortable using Berry’s pronouns. Brigit and her husband Joe met with teachers and tried to help them understand more about Berry and how to support their child.

"We felt like we were in a kind of a power struggle and a difference of opinions and ultimately came down to saying, ‘Hey, you know, every human has a name, every human has pronouns. And the way that you respect our child is to use these,'" she said. 

The now-12-year-old Berry says they don’t feel accepted at school. They say students use the word "gay" derogatorily and they’re left out in some class discussions.

"When we first started learning about sex ed and health, my health teacher pulled me out at the beginning of class, and he's like, 'Hey, by the way, this isn't going to be using nongendered terms, and I'm sorry about that.' I was like, 'Yeah, cool.' But the health teacher didn't do anything to, like, change it so it was less gendered, which he totally could have," they said.

Brigit Stevens said she knows school officials are dealing with a lot and in many cases doing their best.

"At the same time, I don't think people understand that either being silent or not making the adjustments along the way to recognize the entire class body actually does do harm," she said.

Families and advocates are worried about howthe slew of anti-LGBTQ bills making their way through the legislature could make students in the community feel even more isolated and if bullying could worsen, especially if they become law.

Bethany Snyder (left) sits with her child, Agatha (center), and husband Kris Maul (right).
Bethany Snyder
Bethany Snyder (left) sits with her child, Agatha (center), and husband Kris Maul (right).

Kris Maul is a parent to a genderfluid and omnisexual kid in central Iowa. Maul's and his wife Bethany Snyder’s child Agatha left public school in Waukee because of bullying.

Maul said as a trans person and parent, he’s scared for kids who are growing up without support at home, like he did. He said bills like the one requiring a parent be told if a student wants to change their preferred pronouns at school, would make it harder for kids to know who to trust.

"The thing that scares me the most is what about the small number of kids where school is truly their only safe place, and that's going to be taken away from them. And they're going to feel totally alone, and like they have nothing. That just breaks my heart," he said.

LGBTQ students at many schools have started GSA clubs where they feel connected to their peers and can talk about what's going on. There are more than 200 GSAs in the Iowa Safe Schools GSA network.

"All these groups are definitely acting as a social safe space where students attend, like typically like once a week, or even twice a week for some groups, and just be in community with other people who kind of share their same experience, and have some similar identity components of them as well," said Hannah Mitchell, Iowa Safe Schools' GSA coordinator. "They all are pretty welcoming and somewhat tight knit."

Stacy Schmidt, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, is an advisor for the school’s GSA. Schmidt said proposed changes from the legislature could take away opportunities for kids to have a supportive adult in their lives.

"You're setting that child up to be constantly on guard, and to really develop that fight or flight mechanism and finely honed that based on having to hide who they are and not have the opportunity to talk about that with anybody that can be trusted," she said.

According to the Trevor Project, 71% of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. say laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQ young people have harmed their mental health. Forty-five percent of transgender and nonbinary youth say they’ve experienced cyberbullying and online harassment as a result of anti-LGBTQ policy debates.

While in Iowa, 38% of LGBTQ youth report recent politics has negatively impacted their wellbeing "a lot," while almost half said "sometimes."

The Snyder-Mauls and the Stevens each said they’ve thought about potentially leaving Iowa because of the political climate and concerns about their children’s safety.

But in the Stevens family, Berry is the most adamant one about staying put.

"I don't want to leave my friends to have to deal with this on their own, especially with me and my family being so accepting and leaving and then not having an accepting place to go to," they said.

Some bills have made it past critical deadlines and votes. One banning gender-affirming care for minors is awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds' signature. Another that bans gender identity and sexual orientation from school curriculums in kindergarten through sixth grades has passed the Iowa House and awaits Senate consideration.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.