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Antigay Iowa Legislator to Investigate LGBT Youth Event

Greg Heartsill
Greg Heartsill

Supporters of the Iowa Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth say right-wing forces are on a 'witch hunt' against it.

Iowa legislators will investigate a state LGBT youth conference to see if it included "inappropriate" content, even though the conference receives no state funds.

Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa House Government Oversight Committee, last week appointed two legislators, one Republican and one Democrat, to look into the Iowa Governor's Conference on LGBTQ Youth, which is held annually by Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting LGBT students from bullying, harassment, and discrimination, the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier reports.

The Republican chosen by Kaufmann is Rep. Greg Heartsill, vice chair of the oversight committee, who has a history of opposing the conference, The New Civil Rights Movement reports. Rep. Phyllis Thede will be the Democratic investigator; she "has been a strong advocate for safe schools," according to the site.

Much of the objection to the conference by antigay lawmakers like Kaufmann and Heartsill is based on an undercover report from last year's event by an attendee connected with Family Leader, an influential antigay group in the state. The attendee reported that the conference contained graphic discussions of sexual matters. "It's a conference teaching kids how to be confidently homosexual, how to pleasure their gay partners -- one session even taught transsexual girls how to sew fake testicles into their underwear in order to pass themselves off as boys," the operative said. This person's report also quoted a father whose daughter attended; speaking anonymously, he said the conference included much "crude" sexual content.

When the report initially surfaced, others who had been at the conference disputed the allegations. "There was nothing at the conference that I thought was inappropriate," Kerri Barnhouse, adviser to Iowa City West High School's gay-straight alliance, told that city's Press-Citizen newspaper last fall. While there was discussion of sexual health matters, the students who attended are mature enough to understand the information, and the Family Leader report "twisted and manipulated" what took place, she said.

Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, has said opponents of the conference are on a "witch hunt" and want to end the event. Of the Family Leader report, he said, "The distortions and mistruths being told about our conference are too numerous and outrageous to respond to individually."

Kaufmann first planned to have the oversight committee hold a hearing on the conference, then scaled back his plans and appointed the two members to investigate the event and report to the committee. Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she much preferred the new approach.

"I don't think there's enough there for a hearing. Plus, I don't know if Government Oversight really has the legal ability to hold a hearing about a school function like that," she told the Courier. "But we still are going to talk about it, and that will give the people planning that conference a better approach for future years."

The conference receives no state funds, but some school districts may pay for students or teachers to attend, which led Kaufmann to frame the investigation as centering on misuse of taxpayer funds. "I want whatever happened to be brought out to light," he told the Courier. "Whatever that is. I'm not going to try to twist it to be one way or the other. And there's nothing wrong with asking questions as to what happened. And if something did happen, what do we do to make sure that taxpayer dollars aren't being used to push content that's not suited for minors without parental notification."

Monson noted that Heartsill has tried to pass a bill that would require parental consent for students to attend the conference and may use his new appointment in another attempt.

"He's going to use this spot to bully and harass Iowa Safe Schools to try and get that passed in addition to stopping kids from coming this year by distorting the event," Monson told The New Civil Rights Movement. "Most of our attendees are rural kids who come with teachers and their parents. Every year these youth get to meet a major figure in our community. ... Homeless youth from one of our shelters come annually, and for those kids rejected by their families to know everything is OK, that's why we do this. Heartsill has no shame in wanting to hurt our most vulnerable youth."

This year's conference is set for April 29. Despite the name of the event, which is now in its 11th year, the current governor, Republican Terry Branstad, has nothing to do with it. He allows the conference to keep the name because it was started under former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who is now a member of President Obama's cabinet as secretary of agriculture.

Meanwhile, a move by Branstad has some LGBT activists questioning his commitment to ending the bullying of young people. His just-released budget proposal for the fiscal year that will begin in July includes no direct funding for a bullying prevention office he created by executive order last fall.

"If the governor is serious about bullying prevention in the state, he needs to fully fund research-based solutions to this critical issue," Monson told the Associated Press.

A spokesman for Branstad said the funding is expected to come out of the new money allocated to the state's three public universities. One of them, the University of Northern Iowa, will run the bullying prevention office.

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