Allegations From Bob Vander Plaats' Anti-Gay Group, The Family Leader, Sparked Legislative Inquiry
Iowa lawmakers are moving forward with an investigation into a statewide LGBTQ youth conference, in response to allegations from an anti-gay group that last year's event included sexually explicit content.
GOP Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, who chairs the House Government Oversight Committee, last week appointed two members of the panel, one Republican and one Democrat, to investigate the annual Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth, now in its 11th year. The Republican appointed by Kaufmann to investigate the conference is Rep. Greg Heartsill, who serves as vice chair of the oversight committee and has led a hateful legislative crusade against the conference in recent years.
Organized by the nonprofit advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools, the educational conference is the largest of its kind in the nation, drawing more than 1,000 students, parents and teachers from across the Midwest to address issues like bullying, homelessness, suicide and sexual health among LGBT youth and teens.
Although the conference doesn't directly receive any taxpayer funds, it has come under fire from some GOP lawmakers as well as the The Family Leader, the Iowa anti-LGBT group led by Bob Vander Plaats, which sent an undercover operative to the event last year.
“There were only two sessions [among more than 20] that had anything to do with bullying," the Family Leader's anonymous spy later alleged in a rather salacious report. "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's report went on to quote a father, also anonymous, who said his daughter left the conference early because she was "absolutely distraught."
"It was crude. One presenter told students who asked whether anal sex hurt that, as a lesbian, it really depended on how big the device is that their partner straps on," the father said. “My daughter went to listen to the comedian, Sam Killermann, thinking it would at least be funny. But instead, Killermann explained how pleasurable it is for gay couples to eat each other’s behinds and how to use different flavors of [oils] to make it taste better."
Conference participants flatly denied the undercover operative's allegations. Kerri Barnhouse, adviser for the Gay Straight Alliance at West High School in Iowa City, said the Family Leader "twisted and manipulated" the conference, while students who attended launched a letter-writing campaign to Vander Plaats.
Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, suggested that people like Vander Plaats, Kauffman and Heartsill are waging "a witch hunt" aimed at shutting down the event.
"I have no words to describe the violation of civil liberties – and common human decency — it is to listen into the conversations of young people in settings where parents and youth are encouraged to have an open dialogue about tough issues," Monson wrote, adding that the "campaign of pure hate" has led to Iowa Safe Schools representatives being called "child-molesting enablers, fags, dykes, queers, and homos."
"If a supposedly responsible adult can unleash untruths and distort an event like our conference in such a way as to garner such hateful reaction directed at the LGBTQ community, can you imagine what our youth face when bullies hear those same messages?" Monson added.
Despite his fringe views, Vander Plaats enjoys considerable influence among the state's Republicans, marked by his power player status in Iowa's GOP presidential caucus, in which he's endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz this year.
In response to the undercover operative's report, Heartsill sent a letter to school superintendents — which Monson described as "creepy" — asking how many people from their districts attended the conference and whether they covered any of the costs, including transportation. Then, Kauffman scheduled a legislative hearing on the conference for October, but later postponed it before reviving the investigation last week.
Heartsill also introduced an unsuccessful amendment last year that would have required students to obtain parental consent before attending the conference. During debate on the amendment on the House floor, Heartsill infamously acknowledged that he didn't even know what "LGBTQ" stood for.
Monson told The New Civil Rights Movement that the other lawmaker appointed by Kaufmann to investigate the conference, Democratic Rep. Phyllis Thede, has been a strong advocate for safe schools. However, Monson said he believes Heartsill will attempt to use the investigation to leverage support for a similar amendment this year.
"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 said. "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 in Des Moines. To support the conference, which is funded entirely by donations, go here.
Images via Iowa Safe Schools/Facebook