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Families with trans kids wonder whether Iowa is safe place for them

The Sliekers family is comprised of (from left to right) Dessie, Justin, Calvin and Lilith.
Catherine Wheeler
The Sliekers family includes (from left to right) Dessie, Justin, Calvin and Lilith.

When Johnna Joy's daughter Alice went to her Atlantic elementary school the first day after spring break, the school had made a change.

"They sent out a memo right after the bill got signed and frustratingly ended with 'have a nice day,' and we did not have a nice day," Joy said.

The letter explained the new lawthat says students must use bathrooms or locker rooms that match the sex listed on their original birth certificate. Meaning, Alice, who is a transgender first grader, has to use the nurse’s or school counselor's single stall bathroom at school from now on.

"Even though she doesn't have to use the boys' room, she has to use less convenient restrooms. She has to use restrooms different from her peers. It’s othering," Joy said. "The first day back she said she didn't want to go to school because she was nervous about the bathroom situation."

Families with trans kids across Iowa have had to have difficult conversations as anti-trans legislation has been passed in the legislature. On the same day the bathroom bill was signed, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a ban on gender-affirming carefor minors. That law takes effect in September for those who have been receiving care.

Lilith Sliekers, a trans teen in Ankeny, said that last one really has her really worried.

"One, it's upsetting because laws are meant to be rules, and rules are meant to keep people safe. But there is actively nothing that is keeping safe with this one. It's actually just making everything worse," Sliekers said. 

The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law estimates this law will affect 2,100 trans children in Iowa. LGBTQ advocates and many major medical organizations argue that laws banning gender affirming care for minors will cause more harm to kids, who are already facing mental health challenges. Fifty-two percent of trans and nonbinary youth in Iowa report seriously considering suicide in the past year, according to a Trevor Project survey.

Sliekers’ family has already decided they’ll go out of state for some of her medical care. But the family is worried about what restrictions might come next, like banning some insurance coverage or not letting kids leave the state to access care, like lawmakers in other states have proposed.

"Probably, like, forced detransition, I really hope it doesn't come to that, and that's the extreme. But that kind of seems like the extreme path we're going down. I'm worried about the bill, but I'm more worried about what's to come," Sliekers said.

Parents of young trans kids are also worrying for the future.

The Bjorklund family lives in Ankeny, IA.
Jill Bjorklund
The Bjorklund family lives in Ankeny.

Jill Bjorklund is a mom to Lily, a 7-year-old trans girl in Ankeny. She said they have a while before Lily would be in need of the gender-affirming care that’s now banned here, but since these laws have been introduced, Lily has been more anxious about impending puberty.

"We're getting to the point where she almost fears that puberty, knowing that's the date that we would have to be really pursuing other options for our home," Bjorklund said. "Children should just fear puberty for like, body odor, right? We shouldn't feel that our family's livelihood could be disrupted because of it."

Lily Bjorklund said it's stressful to know these laws are getting passed despite pushback from people like her.

I just feel sad. We all feel sad sometimes, and being sad is not a good feeling. I don't want to every night go to mom and be like, 'When will this stop? Will I have to keep fighting forever?' It's just unfair.
Lily Bjorklund, 7 years old

It’s hard to balance wanting to fight these laws with making sure her child is safe and happy, Jill Bjorklund said.

"I fear on a regular basis I will stay too long and I will have caused so much induced depression or anxiety in my child living in Iowa as a transgender person, that her daily safety and happiness outweighs the long term goals that we might be able to overturn this. Maybe in five years, we're in a different place and it's safer here, but what does that five years look like for her?" she said.

It’s time for Johnna Joy's family to leave Iowa. They were planning to get married next year to their partner Kat, who is trans. Instead, their family is saving up to move their daughter out of state.

"Instead of planning, you know, our celebration of queer love, we are planning our escape, because our family is now a persecuted class in Iowa," they said.

Joy said this goes beyond just laws.

"What it's doing to the whole culture, of trying to scare trans folks away and back into the closet—trans people have always existed and will always exist. But that's the attack. It's all just trying to eliminate us from the public sphere. So, it's not really about bathrooms it's about our existence," Joy said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

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