LGBT rights in Iowa

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Map of USA IA.svg
StatusLegal since 1978
(Legislative repeal)
Gender identityTransgender people may change legal gender, medical treatment required
Discrimination protectionsYes, sexual orientation and gender identity are protected characteristics
Family rights
Recognition of relationshipsSame-sex marriages performable and recognized in the state, civil unions and marriages performed in other jurisdictions recognized.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in the U.S. state of Iowa have evolved significantly in the 21st century. Iowa began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on April 27, 2009 following a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court, making Iowa the fourth U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples may also adopt, and state laws ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.


Prior to European settlement of Iowa in the early 19th century, several Native American tribes inhabited the region. These include the Dakota and Omaha peoples. Among these people groups, perceptions toward gender and sexuality differed significantly to that of the Western world. The Dakota recognize individuals known as winkta who were assigned male at birth but act and behave as women. Likewise, the Omaha refer to such individuals as mix'uga.

When the Iowa Territory was established in 1838, it adopted all its laws from the Wisconsin Territory. This included an anti-sodomy law providing punishment of up to three years' imprisonment. In 1843, shortly before statehood, the Iowa Territorial Legislature enacted Iowa's first criminal code. It made no mention to sodomy, making it legal in Iowa. In 1860, the Iowa Supreme Court, in the case of Estes v. Carter, noted the lack of such a law. The state made no effort to overturn this decision or enact a sodomy law.[1]

In 1892, a statute was enacted, providing for imprisonment of between one and ten years for sodomy, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The law punished consensual activity as well. The first criminal conviction occurred in 1890, in the case of State v. Todd. Fellatio (oral sex), whether heterosexual or homosexual, was made criminal in 1902. Over the following years, the courts convicted multiple people of sodomy. In 1911, the state passed a sterilization law, under which "moral or sexual perverts" could be sterilized; anyone twice convicted would be immediately sterilized. In 1914, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Iowa overturned this law as unconstitutional. The state appealed, and in 1917, in Davis v. Berry et al., the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling. 49 people were sterilized under the law. In 1929, however, the state enacted a new sterilization law. This law, different from the previous one as it guaranteed some due process rights to the defendants, was not overturned until 1977. By 1948, 891 Iowans had been sterilized under the statute. In 1955, the state passed a psychopathic offender law, under which any person "having criminal propensities toward the commission of sex offenses" would be treated as "mental psychopaths" and sent to psychiatric hospitals. That same year, the murder of a boy in Sioux City led to the mass detention of several gay men who were sent to asylums, despite none of them having been convicted of the crime.[1]

In 1976, in a bitterly divided 5-4 ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court held that heterosexual sodomy could not be prosecuted. "There [is] no compelling state interest in the manner of sexual relations performed in private between consenting adults of the opposite sex not married to each other", the court wrote. It did not address same-sex sexual activity in its ruling.[1]

Legality of same-sex sexual activity[edit]

The state's law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity was repealed in 1978.[2][3] Following the 1976 Supreme Court ruling, which held that heterosexual relations could not be prosecuted under the state's sodomy statute, the Iowa General Assembly passed a comprehensive criminal code which made no mention to sodomy. The age of consent is 16, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Recognition of same-sex relationships[edit]

Iowa has provided benefits to same-sex partners of state employees since 2003.[4]

Iowa has allowed for state recognition of same-sex marriages performed in and out of the state since April 3, 2009, after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld a ruling by the Polk County District Court in Varnum v. Brien which effectively forced the state to rescind any outstanding discrimination against same-sex couples who wish to have their marriages recognized and licensed under state law.[5] Iowa marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples for the first time on April 27, 2009.[6]

In response to the decision, several attempts to amend the state Constitution, either by presenting a ballot initiative before the voters or calling a state constitutional convention, to ban same-sex marriage have failed.[7]

Three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices who participated in Varnum were removed from office as the result of judicial retention elections in November 2010.[8] following a campaign by groups opposed to same-sex marriage.[9] However, in November 2012, a fourth member of the Iowa Supreme Court that participated in Varnum was retained after vigorous campaigning by groups opposed to same-sex marriage and groups supporting same-sex marriage and judicial independence.[10]

Adoption and parenting[edit]

Joint adoptions by same-sex parents have been legal since a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2008.[11] Iowa law allows individuals and married couples, regardless of sexual orientation, to adopt.[12]

Birth certificates[edit]

On December 12, 2012, ruling in Buntemeyer v. Iowa DPH, a state court ordered the Iowa Department of Public Health to list the names of two women, a married lesbian couple, on the death certificate of their stillborn son.[13] The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments that same day in the department's appeal of a decision in Gartner v. Newton that ordered it to enter the names of two women as parents on a birth certificate.[14] On May 3, 2013, the court unanimously affirmed the lower court's ruling in Gartner and said that "By naming the nonbirthing spouse on the birth certificate of a married lesbian couple's child, the child is ensured support from that parent and the parent establishes fundamental legal rights at the moment of birth".[15]

Discrimination protections[edit]

Since 2007, Iowa has outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.[16] The state's largest city, Des Moines, has had a non-discrimination ordinance of its own since 1991.

Hate crime law[edit]

Iowa's hate crime law covers hate crimes based on sexual orientation but not gender identity.[17]

On March 8, 2016, the Iowa Senate approved a bill, in a 27-21 vote, that would have added gender identity to the law.[18] However, the bill subsequently died without a vote in the Republican-controlled House.[19]

Although Iowa's hate crime law does not cover crimes based on gender identity, U.S. federal law includes such crimes since the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law in October 2009.

Gender identity and expression[edit]

Transgender people in Iowa may alter their legal gender by submitting a petition to the court. An amended birth certificate may be issued upon receipt of a notarized affidavit from a physician and surgeon stating that the sex designation of the applicant has been changed by the reason of surgery or other treatment.[20]

In March 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court declared that sex reassignment surgery must be explicitly covered under Medicaid programs. However, a month later, the Iowa General Assembly quickly passed a "budget bill" in the final last hours of the legislative session, banning state funding for sex reassignment surgeries, which reversed the Supreme Court ruling. Days later, the bill was signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds.[21][22][23][24][25]

Conversion therapy[edit]

On March 17, 2015, the Iowa Senate voted 26-24 to ban sexual orientation change efforts (conversion therapy) on LGBT minors.[26] The bill, however, died without a vote in the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives.[27]

On April 8, 2016, the Iowa Board of Medicine announced it would look into a proposal that sought to ban the use of conversion therapy on LGBT minors. The board, however, denied a petition from members of the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council, which wanted an administrative rule prohibiting Iowa doctors from practicing conversion therapy on minors. Instead, the board said it would form a subcommittee to study the topic.[28] On August 12, the board declined to take action on a ban.[29]

On August 12, 2016, the Iowa Board of Psychology voted down a proposal to prohibit state-licensed professionals from engaging in conversion therapy. The board unanimously agreed that such practices should be banned, however, they argued that the General Assembly should ban it and not a professional board.[30] The board added that any person may file a complaint if there are concerns about a psychologist's practice and any complaint regarding conversion therapy employed by a licensed psychologist will be investigated.[31]

Public opinion[edit]

A 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) opinion poll found that 59% of Iowans supported same-sex marriage, while 33% opposed it and 7% were unsure.[32]

The same poll found that 68% of Iowans supported an anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity. 23% were opposed.[33] Furthermore, 55% were against allowing public businesses to refuse to serve LGBT people due to religious beliefs, while 37% supported allowing such religiously-based refusals.[34]

Public opinion for LGBT anti-discrimination laws in Iowa
Poll source Date(s)
Margin of
% support % opposition % no opinion
Public Religion Research Institute January 3-December 30, 2018 723 ? 68% 28% 4%
Public Religion Research Institute April 5-December 23, 2017 895 ? 68% 23% 9%
Public Religion Research Institute April 29, 2015-January 7, 2016 1,103 ? 71% 24% 5%

Summary table[edit]

Same-sex sexual activity legal Yes (Since 1978)
Equal age of consent Yes (Since 1978)
Anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation Yes (Since 2007)
Anti-discrimination laws covering gender identity Yes (Since 2007)
Same-sex marriages Yes (Since 2009)
Stepchild adoption by same-sex couples Yes (Since 2008)
Joint adoption by same-sex couples Yes (Since 2008)
Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals allowed to serve openly in the military Yes (Since 2011)
Transgender people allowed to serve openly in the military X
Right to change legal gender Yes
Access to IVF for lesbians Yes
Conversion therapy banned on minors No
MSMs allowed to donate blood No/Yes (Since 2015: one year deferral period)


  1. ^ a b c The History of Sodomy Laws in the United States - Iowa
  2. ^ "Iowa Sodomy Law". 2007-03-09. Archived from the original on 2013-11-03. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  3. ^ William N. Eskridge, Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 (NY: Penguin Group, 2008), 201n, available online, accessed April 10, 2011
  4. ^ National Conference of State Legislatures: "States offering benefits for same-sex partners of state employees", accessed April 16, 2011
  5. ^ Des Moines Register: "Unanimous ruling: Iowa marriage no longer limited to one man, one woman," April 4, 2009 Archived June 29, 2012, at, accessed March 13, 2011
  6. ^ "Iowa gay marriages delayed," April 7, 2009 Archived 2009-04-10 at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  7. ^ Iowa Independent: Jason Hancock, "Gronstal: No gay marriage vote in 2010," December 31, 2009 Archived July 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  8. ^ Des Moines Register: "Iowans Dismiss Three Justices," November 3, 2010 Archived July 28, 2012, at, accessed June 26, 2011
  9. ^ NPR: "Gay Marriage Foes Back Push To Oust Iowa Justices," October 25, 2010, accessed June 26, 2011
  10. ^ Des Moines Register: "Voters retain Justice David Wiggins," November 7, 2012, accessed November 13, 2012.
  11. ^ 365Gay,com: "Iowa Supreme Court strikes down gay marriage ban," April 3, 2009 Archived 2011-06-05 at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  12. ^ Human Resources Campaign: Iowa Adoption Law Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  13. ^ Iowa District Court for Polk County, Buntemeyer v. Iowa DPH, December 12, 2012. Retrieved December 17, 2012
  14. ^ Danielson, Dar (December 12, 2012). "Supreme Court hears birth certificate case involving same-sex parents". Radio Iowa. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
  15. ^ Neuman, Scott (May 3, 2013). "Iowa Court: List Both Same-Sex Parents On Birth Certificates". NPR. Retrieved May 3, 2013.
  16. ^ Human Resources Campaign: Iowa Non-Discrimination Law Archived 2012-03-11 at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  17. ^ Human Resources Campaign: Iowa Hate Crimes Law Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine, accessed June 26, 2011
  18. ^ "Bill Adding Transgender Protections to Hate Crimes Law Passes Iowa Senate". One Iowa. March 8, 2016.
  19. ^ IA SF2284 | 2015-2016 | 86th General Assembly
  20. ^ Iowa, National Center for Transgender Equality
  21. ^ Nick Morrow (3 May 2019). "Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds Signs Bill with Discriminatory, Anti-Transgender Provision". Human Rights Campaign.
  22. ^ Alex Bollinger (1 May 2019). "Iowa may soon stop covering transgender care through Medicaid". LGBTQ Nation.
  23. ^ John Riley (30 April 2019). "Iowa Republicans vote to prohibit Medicaid dollars from paying for transgender surgery". Metro Weekly.
  24. ^ Gigi Sukin (9 March 2019). "Medicaid to cover sex reassignment surgery in Iowa". Axios.
  25. ^ Anya Crittenton (8 March 2019). "Iowa Supreme Court strikes down ban on coverage for trans-related surgery". Gay Star News.
  26. ^ "Iowa Senate votes to ban gay conversion therapy". The Des Moines Register. March 17, 2015.
  27. ^ IA SF334 | 2015-2016 | 86th General Assembly
  28. ^ "Iowa Board of Medicine to study conversion therapy ban". The Des Moines Register. April 8, 2016.
  29. ^ Iowa medical, psychology boards mull conversion therapy rule
  30. ^ Iowa Board of Psychology Votes Down Proposal to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy
  31. ^ Iowa state board explains vote against banning conversion therapy LGBTQ Nation
  32. ^ Public opinion on same-sex marriage by state: Iowa
  33. ^ Public opinion on LGBT nondiscrimination laws by state: Iowa
  34. ^ Public opinion on religiously based refusals to serve gay and lesbian people by state: Iowa