Iowa GOP Tries to Shut Down Anti-Bullying LGBTQ Youth Conference, Calling It “Obscene”

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann.
State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 29, 2013.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo courtesy Iowa Legislature.

The Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth is a vital resource for gay, bi, and trans kids in Iowa—an annual gathering where students, parents, and educators work together to combat bullying and suicide in Iowa schools. Republicans want to shut it down. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa House Oversight Committee, has scheduled a hearing to investigate the conference, alleging the most recent gathering contained “obscene material.” The conference isn’t actually sponsored by the state, but Kaufmann is concerned because some Iowa schools use taxpayer money to transport students there.

What “obscene material” is Kaufmann describing? A breakout session at which social justice advocate Sam Killermann and adolescent sexuality expert Dr. Karen Rayne discussed sexual health. In 2015, extremist anti-gay fringe group the FAMiLY LEADER sent an undercover operative to monitor the session and reported that, during the Q&A, Rayne actually answered students’ questions about sex. Her session is hardly the focus on the conference. But Kaufmann has seized upon it as a justification to investigate and possibly terminate the conference, now in its 11th year. (Students who attended vigorously deny Kaufmann’s claims.)

This isn’t the first time Iowa Republicans have targeted the Governor’s Conference. In 2013, 16 Iowa Republicans threatened to defund a community college because it donated $1,000 to the event.

“We cannot in good conscience vote to give taxpayer dollars to people or groups who pervert the Bible [and] teach our youth to engage in dangerous behavior,” the legislators wrote. Once again, the FAMiLY LEADER was behind the power play. At a news conference announcing the threat, FAMiLY LEADER Vice President Chuck Hurley demanded of the event’s organizers:

Stop coming after my kids and other people’s kids with evil propaganda. Stop twisting the Bible and stop using our tax dollars to do it. … Stop exposing impressionable school children to evil.

Among the Republican legislators pushing to defund the college was Rep. Greg Heartsill, now vice chair of the Oversight Committee. Earlier this year, Heartsill pushed an amendment designed to prevent students from attending the Governor’s Conference, requiring written consent from parents before a student could participate. A Democratic lawmaker asked Heartsill whether he knew what the acronym “LGBTQ” stood for. Heartsill had no idea.

Yet still these anti-gay legislators continue to bully the anti-bullying conference, with Heartsill ranting about sex ed and the “LGBTQ lifestyle”—while somehow declining to mention presentations by faith leaders and former Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. I asked Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools (which sponsors the conference) whether he was concerned about Kaufmann’s investigation, which he describes as a “witch hunt.” He told me the whole situation was disappointing.

“The conference is such a moving experience,” Monson explained. “The kids have a great time. National leaders come. It’s turned into such a great day for the kids. And it just keeps growing like crazy.” Monson also values the now-controversial sexual health session. “It’s all about giving LGBTQ kids a chance to talk about LGBTQ sexual health—sometimes for the first time in their lives,” he told me.

I asked Monson what he thinks the ultimate goal of Kaufmann’s investigation might be.

“To shut down the conference,” he said.

Will Kaufmann succeed? I asked.

“Well, we’re announcing the date of our 2016 conference on the day of Kaufmann’s hearing,” Monson responded cheerfully. “Does that answer your question?”