by Nate Monson, Executive Director, Iowa Safe Schools
On April 3rd, Iowa Safe Schools held our 10th Annual Iowa Governors Conference on LGBTQ Youth. The event hosted over 1,000 attendees including students, college-aged youth, educators, parents, faith leaders, mental health providers, and more who care about the well-being of LGBTQ students in our state. This year’s speakers included the former Prime Minister of Iceland and first out head of government in the modern era - Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir; the first out WWE Superstar Darren Young; and Abbe Land the CEO of The Trevor Project which is a national LGBTQ youth suicide prevention hotline.
Our conference provides the only opportunity for many LGBTQ youth in Iowa to connect, learn, and grow as leaders. Workshop topics have included the coming out process, homelessness, mental health resources, parent and families, legal information, faith, bullying prevention, transgender youth, health issues, and suicide prevention. This event is not state sponsored and private funds are raised over the entire year to cover its cost.
On April 13th, Bob Vander Plaats and the Family Leader sent an email to their followers making absurd accusations regarding the conference. Vander Plaats boasted that he snuck a spy into the conference who was able to listen into presumably private conversations among youth, and even managed to covertly tape some sessions.
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. Recording someone without their consent is wrong even more so when that person is under the age of 18.
What has since followed Vander Plaat’s email to his followers has been a campaign of pure hate. I’m an adult and can handle being called names. But I find it sickening that Iowa Safe Schools and I have been called things like child molesting enablers, fags, dykes, queers, and homos. This language and the response by Vander Plaats only proves the importance of this event and illustrates the grim reality LGBTQ youth face in Iowa. Imagine what LGBTQ youth are called in the hallways in schools they walk into every day? 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?
It is estimated that every five hours an LGBTQ teen attempts suicide. And for every 200 attempts – one is successful. Four days before Vander Plaats sent out his email – a 16 year old Trans youth named Taylor Alesana completed suicide. That’s a story we know about, and there are many others that remain in the closet. Iowa has not been immune to LGBTQ youth completing suicide including Kenneth Weishuhn and AJ Betts.
I am disheartened by the depths Vander Plaats and the Family Leader will sink. The distortions and mistruths being told about our conference are too numerous and outrageous to respond to individually. I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran household with two amazing parents. This is not a Christian vs. LGBTQ issue. This is about someone who has decided to cross a line of common human decency. Unfortunately, his targets are young Iowans who thought they were coming to a safe space.
My message to Vander Plaats and the Family Leader is simple. Words matter. We are not going away. We will work twice as hard to ensure more students have a place to go. Iowa Safe Schools has started a private campaign to raise the funds for 200 additional students to attend the 11th Annual Iowa Governors Conference on LGBTQ Youth which will be held in April 2016. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/were-we-at-the-same-conference-bob Because this event is not state sponsored – it takes the resources of caring Iowans who do not want another LGBTQ teen to decide that suicide is the only answer.