By Jae Moore
Caption: Getty Images, Nov. 7, 2023: Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorses Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Iowa GOP caucuses; both governors urged and signed anti-LGBTQ legislation and supported extremist book banning group Moms for Liberty in their respective states
The freedom to read and other critical civil rights issues were clear winners of the 2023 election. Voters in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Iowa, among other states, rejected 70% of candidates endorsed or aligned with anti-LGBTQ extremist organizations in local school board elections, potentially creating momentum for equality-minded voters and candidates heading into the 2024 presidential election.
— Daily Kos Elections (@DKElections) November 8, 2023
The 2023 results in Iowa, where all but one candidate backed by book banning extremist groups lost their school board race, may forge a new path for voters, candidates and campaigns as the state prepares for its caucuses in January. Voters can review the record of book banning and targeting LGBTQ people and youth, and the harm and chaos inflicted on students, educators, and taxpayers.
Iowa’s Governor, Kim Reynolds, is looking to be an influential voice in the GOP caucuses, recently endorsing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Both governors have leaned into anti-LGBTQ legislation, policy and rhetoric in their states (DeSantis’ LGBTQ record here; Reynolds’ LGBTQ record here).
Over the last months, Gov. Reynolds signed into law Senate File 538, which bans access to mainstream medical care for transgender youth under age 18; Senate File 482, which bars trans youth from the bathroom and changing rooms they feel safest in; and, at the heart of this article, Senate File 496 (SF 496). This bill has been referred to as Iowa’s follow-up to Florida’s “Don’t Say LGBTQ” law, requiring school libraries to pull so-called “sexually explicit” books, without detailing what actually violates the law. The bill also prohibits calling students by anything other than the name and pronouns on their student registration (or face being outed to their parents), and restricts teaching K-6 students about gender identity and sexual orientation. School administrators, educators, and staff who fail to comply could be subject to disciplinary action.
Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy at One Iowa Action, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and advancing LGBTQ rights, told Iowa Starting Line the book ban law is unclear for a reason: “They wrote a vague law so that as soon as enforcement actions began, they could say, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous’ to the ones that they didn’t agree with and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we meant’ for the ones that they did agree with, and never actually have to take a stance on what should or shouldn’t be implemented.”
A week after the election in which voters rejected school board candidates endorsed by book banning groups, and months after the bill was signed into law, Iowa’s Department of Education provided additional guidance to SF 496. The guidance indicates that books which do not “describe or visually depict a sex act” (the meaning of which is now graphically detailed) can remain on school shelves. But the state’s teachers’ union, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), said the guidance harms education and wastes taxpayer and educational resources: “The proposed rules do nothing to address the chilling effect the law created,” noted ISEA President Mike Beranek. “So far, hundreds of book titles have been pulled from shelves across the state and we’ve created ridiculous amounts of paperwork over topics like student nicknames. Public education professionals will still continue to spend valuable instructional time trying to meet vague state mandates.”
Here is a timeline of Gov. Reynolds’ and extremists’ attacks against LGBTQ and ally Iowans, as well as targeting books by and about LGBTQ people:
- October 2021: Education Chair of the Polk County chapter of Moms for Liberty (M4L) Teri Patrick reportedly sought criminal charges against the West Des Moines school district over Gender Queer. The district’s building-level review committee, established to review book challenges, determined the book should remain on school shelves. Following an appeal by Patrick, the decision was upheld by The Teaching and Learning Services Committee: “There is value for our LGBTQ students in having access to this book considering the challenges they are facing in addition to possibly not having support from their families.” Patrick then took her appeal to the district’s school board, which also decided to retain the book. When that didn’t work, she took her challenge to the Iowa Board of Education, and once again failed.
- January 2022: The Pella Public Library Board of Trustees, appointed by Pella’s City Council, heard arguments for and against keeping Gender Queer on public library shelves. Following review, the library board decided to keep the book. Said Library Director Mara Stickler, “Public libraries need to meet the needs of the entire community, not just one portion of it.”
- February 2023: Gov. Reynolds spoke at a town hall event hosted by M4L in Des Moines. Reynolds thanked the organization for joining her in support of anti-LGBTQ policies that include a ban on mainstream essential health care for transgender youth and that prevent transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. “Thank you for speaking out, for your refusal to stand quietly by while we’ve seen the radical left treat our kids like their personal property,” Reynolds said. “Not on your watch. Not on my watch. Not on our watch.” Every major medical association supports health care for transgender people and youth. 45% of LGBTQ students report they avoid the bathroom at school because they feel unsafe.
- March 2023: Gov. Reynolds signed a bill banning mainstream medical care for transgender youth and another banning transgender youth from the bathroom aligning with their gender identity. Reynolds falsely claimed that the health care supported by every major medical association was “uncertain science” and falsely claimed “these are irreversible therapies and procedures.” Puberty blockers have been safely used for decades, and are reversible.
- May 2023: Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 496 into law, prohibiting instruction on LGBTQ topics, requiring schools to out students without their consent, and banning books with “explicit sex acts.”
- May 2023: High schoolers spoke up against Reynolds and her moves to enact anti-LGBTQ policies during a ceremony honoring the state’s top performing students.
- July 2023: Following a Freedom of Information Act request, Annie’s Foundation, an Iowa-based nonprofit that fights book bans, obtained a list of nearly 400 titles banned from Urbandale schools. In response, PEN America wrote and shared an open letter to Urbandale school officials, urging them to return these books to school shelves.
- August 2023: The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) urged the Iowa Department of Education to provide clarification to SF 496: “We are writing because it appears that Iowa school districts are confused about how to implement this new law,” said NCAC Executive Director Christopher Finan. “This confusion is harmful to students because it encourages schools to err on the side of caution and unnecessarily remove books that are valuable to students.”
- August 2023: Urbandale schools narrowed their list of banned books to 64. Though the district claimed they placed a pause on books written by LGBTQ authors or that include LGBTQ subject matter, the revised ban list still includes several LGBTQ titles, such as Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue, that contain sexual content.
- August 2023: Mason City schools turned to Chat GPT to determine which books to ban. Bridgette Exman, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told PopSci that her team implemented the process to save time by asking the generative AI program to flag titles it deems sexually explicit. “We do have a legal and ethical obligation to comply with the law,” said Exman. “Our goal here really is a defensible process.” In all, 19 titles were removed from school shelves (one was later returned).
- September 2023: In order to avoid potential litigation, the Urbandale and West Des Moines school districts began placing disclaimers on Little Free Libraries. The Urbandale notice read: “This ‘little library’ is not funded, sponsored, endorsed or maintained by the Urbandale Community School District and is not in any way part of the Urbandale Schools library program.”
- October 2023: The Des Moines Register sent open records requests to all 326 Iowa school districts and created a database of books that have been removed from school shelves. Though only a few dozen districts responded at the time of writing, PEN America reported that at least 450 titles (comprising over 1,000 books) were pulled.
- October 2023: During a press conference, Gov. Reynolds falsely characterized the books that school districts were banning to comply with the state’s new book ban law, angrily replying to a reporter asking for clarifications about the law: “Our kids and our teachers deserve better, they deserve the tools to help these kids succeed, not a damn distraction on a nasty pornographic book that should never, ever be in a classroom.” Reynolds did not say what tools would help students succeed, or how SF 496 helps students succeed, or how schools should comply with SF 496.
- November 2023: Little Village magazine published a list of the 527 books banned so far in Iowa schools.
- November 2023: Iowa’s Department of Education provides clarification on SF 496.
Attempts to ban books have continued at a record pace nationwide, according to the American Library Association, especially in conservative states and communities like Pella, where former President Donald Trump won 68% of the vote in 2020. https://t.co/dNki9lKM18
— KWWL (@KWWL) November 9, 2023
If the Nov. 7 elections are any indication, Iowa voters rejected this costly record of chaos and extremism. Of the 13 Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates who sought school board seats throughout the state, only one won their respective race. Candidates backed by ISEA, LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa Action, and local Democrats racked up win after win. Additional results:
- Johnston: Of the eight people running for four spots on the Johnston school board, which is composed of seven members, all four seats were filled by ISEA-endorsed candidates. Two of the candidates were also backed by One Iowa Action. Two M4L-endorsed candidates lost their respective races. Pro-equality members will hold a one seat majority over members with ties to Moms for Liberty.
- Marion: Eight candidates vied for four seats on the Linn-Mar school board. All three candidates endorsed by M4L lost.
- Mason City: Eight candidates vied for four seats on the district’s school board. All four winners were backed by ISEA.
- Pella: Voters decided that Pella Public Library should decide about book bans and challenges. A proposed referendum would have required the library’s board to make recommendations to the City Council, which would decide about contested materials and policy changes, a measure rejected by voters to keep the library in charge of its materials, access and policies.
- Urbandale: While two conservatives were among the six running for school board seats, all four ISEA-backed candidates won.
- West Des Moines: M4L’s Teri Patrick, who lost on repeated challenges and appeals to ban books while also trying to bring criminal charges against the school district, lost her bid for a board seat. All four winners of the at-large seats were endorsed by ISEA, and two were backed by One Iowa Action.
ISEA President Mike Beranek praised the results, noting that most new and incumbent candidates backed by the organization won – to the tune of 85%: “We saw the total defeat in the districts where we engaged the M4L candidates and their divisive agenda representing a vocal minority.”
“Results of yesterday’s elections demonstrate that voters spoke loudly and clearly about who they want to make crucial decisions affecting all students and educators in their local communities,” said @IowaSEA President Mike Beranek.https://t.co/J1LLu5zTlG
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) November 8, 2023
One Iowa Action’s Keenan Crow called the election results an “almost universal rebuke of M4L members.” Continued Crow, “It really is a referendum on the anti-LGBTQ and book-banning policies of the Reynolds administration and the politicians that supported her. It’s extremely encouraging to see that this book ban thing that we’ve been fighting against for several years or so is just not popular. They thought it was, but not only is it not popular, it’s toxic.”
In a statement released by One Iowa Action, executive director Courtney Reyes celebrated the wins. “Iowa voters told us what we’ve always known,” she said. “We know that extreme positions targeting children for exclusion and bullying are unacceptable. Most importantly, we know that kids deserve a safe, inclusive learning environment regardless of who they are or where they come from.”
.@OneIowaAction released a statement on yesterday’s school board elections in #Iowa.
The LGBTQ advocacy group endorsed school board candidates for the first time this year following new GOP-backed laws.
Most of their endorsed candidates won. https://t.co/rTVte44F1x pic.twitter.com/KxupUWxpPj
— Bleeding Heartland (@LauraRBelin) November 8, 2023
Polls predicted that backing book banning would be a disaster for candidates. As Iowans turn out to caucus in January, the current GOP contenders have long records of advocating against LGBTQ people and equality. Donald Trump, who racked up 200+ attacks against LGBTQ Americans in his one-term presidency, incited the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and who currently faces 91 felony counts, is the GOP front-runner in the race for the White House.
Iowa State University (ISU) Political Science Professor David Peterson told NPR that a recent poll shows Trump squarely in the lead ahead of Iowa’s GOP caucus, which could spell bad news for voter turnout: “At some point, it makes sense if that’s what’s going to happen, why bother paying attention [and why bother showing up on a cold January night] when you know what the outcome is?”
Voters in Iowa and elsewhere still hold the keys to decide who should lead the country and can review candidate records to decide the road ahead. Reporters and voters should continue to ask candidates to explain their views on book banning, LGBTQ equality, and what they intend to do about both.