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Meet the Teenager Challenging Iowa’s Anti-LGBTQ Legislation

Iowa teen Puck Carlson is pushing back against Iowa legislators’ attack on LGBTQ youth through activism and a lawsuit.

Puck Carlson is a high school student, an activist and a plaintiff in the Lambda Legal/ACLU of Iowa lawsuit against Iowa’s anti-trans bill SF 496.

When Puck Carlson was in third grade, some kids at their school decided to start a basketball team, but it was only for boys. “I didn’t care at all about basketball,” Puck told Truthout. “I’ve never been the sports type. But my friend Rachel wanted to join the team, and I sort of realized, oh, they’re not going to let her on. Because she’s a girl. And I think we made like a petition. That was the year we got Chromebooks. And so I typed up a little thing and inserted a photo of a basketball.” According to Puck, the ensuing arguments about who could be on basketball teams led to the school nixing any basketball teams of any kind, but the memory lives on.

Starting a petition “is so vintage Puck,” Eric Johnson, Rachel’s father, told Truthout. “And one of the things that has really marked their friendship with Rachel is loyalty — extreme loyalty, extreme sticking up for each other.”

Eight years later, Puck remains a loyal friend. They’ve also become an activist, an organizer and a spokesperson for the Lambda Legal/ACLU of Iowa lawsuit challenging Iowa’s SF 496, a sweeping education bill that removed books from school library shelves and targeted LGBTQ students, including Puck and their younger sister, and one of a raft of anti-trans bills introduced and passed in Iowa last year.

The Rise of Anti-Trans Legislation in Iowa

On March 22, 2023, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 538, a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, and SF 482, a bill requiring anyone in a public school to use the bathroom matching their sex assigned at birth. Both bills — contrary to normal legislative custom — were “deemed of immediate importance” and went into effect immediately.

“I was in my second period class when the teacher told us that the bathroom bill had passed,” Puck said. “And it was a lot more shocking than I thought it was going to be.” Puck’s younger sister is trans, and the bill would have an immediate effect on her. “I remember I just got up and I walked over to look out the window, because I was like, I am too close to tearing up right now, and I don’t really want to do that in front of the whole class,” Puck said. Puck did not burst into tears that day, but their love for their much younger sister solidified their resistance to the wave of anti-trans legislation in the state.

Not long after that, Puck found a chance to fight.

On Instagram they saw a post from an LGBTQ rights organization describing a statewide walkout and urging students to organize to join it if their school was not already on the list of participants. Puck thought, “OK, well, someone’s surely done [Iowa] City High already, because we’re a big school. And I looked on the list, and it was not there.” Puck got more information, recruited some friends and organized a walkout that took place four days later. Afterward, they said, “I started doing the other ones because more bills got passed, and people started coming to me and being like, ‘Hey, are you gonna do another walkout? Can I help?’”

Puck Carlson poses with their parents, Richard and Ulrike Carlson, at their home in Iowa City.
Puck Carlson poses with their parents, Richard and Ulrike Carlson, at their home in Iowa City.

SF 538 and SF 482 were joined two months later by SF 496, a multipart education bill that set out to deny the very existence of trans people in Iowa schools. Among its other provisions, the law bans instruction “relating to gender identity or sexual orientation” in grades K through sixth, requires all K-12 public schools to remove books containing “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” (unless, of course, that book is the Bible, which is given a specific exemption), and requires any school staff member to out any student who requests any gender-affirming accommodation, including a request to use specific pronouns, by reporting them to their parents or guardians, even if they know such a report may result in a student being abused or kicked out of their home.

Beyond Book Bans: How Legislation Challenges the Existence of Trans Students

The book ban portion of the bill has received the most attention, as book challenges and bans have skyrocketed around the country. Iowa’s bill is also almost comically unclear regarding its implementation. Schools were left with no instruction on what books they were to remove or how to identify them, leading to massive variation in what books were removed from district to district. The Mason City school district even used AI in an attempt to figure out what books it had to pull from its collection.

But the law’s other prohibitions may cut even deeper for the kids affected by them. As the motion for a preliminary injunction filed by Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Iowa states, the bill’s provisions, “coupled with draconian enforcement provisions and the message sent by the law’s enactment, communicate to all LGBTQ+ students that they are too shameful to be acknowledged.”

Percy Batista-Pedro is another plaintiff in the lawsuit against Iowa’s anti-trans bill. He and his mother Belinda Scarott live in Waterloo, Iowa, where Percy has felt under increased threat at school since the passage of SF 496.
Percy Batista-Pedro is another plaintiff in the lawsuit against Iowa’s anti-trans bill. He and his mother Belinda Scarott live in Waterloo, Iowa, where Percy has felt under increased threat at school since the passage of SF 496.

“I am scared of being harassed if I wear Pride apparel, or if I talk about my identity in class,” noted plaintiff Percy Batista-Pedro in a November 2023 press conference. Ulrike Carlson, Puck’s mother, described the devastating effects of the legislation on her younger child, Puck’s sister, in her declaration. “After passage of SF 496, [the] school removed all safe space stickers and LGBTQ+ pride flags from classrooms and other spaces. After this happened, [my daughter] was often reluctant to go to school. She expressed on numerous occasions that she felt unsafe or as if somebody was ‘watching her’ because she was different.” Carlson notes that prior to the law’s passage, “books about gender identity were available in classrooms and the library” and teachers were able to provide “child-appropriate explanations” about the trans identity of students. No more. Now her daughter — and her teachers — operate in “a climate of distrust, worry, and fear.”

Birth of an Organizer

Against that backdrop of fear, Puck began to organize. Some of their earliest meetings took place at the Faith United Church of Christ in Iowa City. According to Pastor Ryan Downing, the church (which was the first open and affirming congregation in the state) had decided to open its doors, literally, to organizers who needed space to meet in the wake of the state’s anti-trans legislation. Puck and their friends used the church space to meet and make posters.

Downing sat in on one of the early planning meetings. “In an earlier career, I was a union organizer, and so I thought I would, you know, share any wisdom I had on how to organize this walkout and the rally,” Downing told Truthout. “Puck already had it all together. They showed just some really good, basic instincts about what it means to be a leader and what it means to be both protesting what is wrong with the world while at the same time fostering and giving people a sense of community and hope.”

When asked about what they’d learned about organizing, Puck told Truthout. “I think a lot of it is learning how to delegate and learning how to reach out, because the whole point of a protest is a community building exercise. And if you’re not building community while you’re doing it, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Democracy Starts at Home — and at the PTO

According to Eric Johnson and Lisa Leech, parents of Puck’s friend Rachel, Puck was always a community builder. “When they were little they were kind of a ringleader,” Johnson told Truthout during a conversation at a neighborhood gathering spot. “For sure,” agreed Leech, describing a time in third grade when Puck commanded Rachel to meet her at a local park at midnight. (According to all involved, the plan did not go through.)

But Puck also got to see democracy — and community-building — in action as a young person. Johnson, Leech and Puck’s mother were all members of the elementary school Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and the kids all came to the meetings — or hung out in the gym and played while they were taking place. “People think of PTOs as staid organizations,” noted Johnson. But, Leech added, “the Twain PTO is where the whole ‘let’s get air-conditioning in the schools’ thing came from. Puck was able to see that from the beginning, even though they were babysitting in the gym. And they actually saw a result out of that that improved their daily lives.”

The voices of all the plaintiffs and their families are powerful ones, but Puck has become something of a spokesperson for the case, quoted widely not only in the local press but also nationally. “I had my worries and my doubts about doing the protests and I had my worries and my doubts about doing the lawsuit … about whether my story was strong enough,” they admitted. But Puck had another reason for pressing on.

“I want to speak on my sister’s behalf, because she is the most important thing in my life. She’s the strongest person I know. And I hate that in a lot of ways, because she should not need to be. And so anything that I can do for her, I will, even if that means like, doing things I’m objectively a little bit terrified of.”

No one who knew Puck growing up is surprised that they have become an activist and an organizer. “It’s the combination of the strong sense of justice and the kind of organizing energy and the kind of sense of urgency that she seems to have about things. Like, let’s do this now,” said Johnson.

Lambda Legal attorney Nathan Maxwell works closely with Puck Carlson and other students and families involved in the lawsuit.
Lambda Legal attorney Nathan Maxwell works closely with Puck Carlson and other students and families involved in the lawsuit.

What Comes Next for the Case — and for the Organizer

The legal team working on the SF 496 lawsuit had high praise for Puck’s organizing efforts. Nathan Maxwell, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, spoke with Truthout and said of Puck that they’re “not just seeing what’s the big problem — it’s what’s the 10 tasks that get me to solving the big problem?” In an email to Truthout, Thomas Story, staff attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, exclaimed that the youth activist “should be thinking about law school!”

Judge Stephen Locher issued a preliminary injunction against SF 496 in December 2023. Books are allowed back on school library shelves, and the ban on any discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in K through sixth instruction was struck down. But the fight is not over. The requirement that schools “out” students who request to use preferred names or pronouns remains, and a preliminary injunction is just that — preliminary.

The state of Iowa filed an appeal against the entire injunction in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in January. On April 16, five major publishers announced they were joining Penguin Random House and the Iowa State Education Association in their suit against the book banning provisions of SF 496.

Nathan Maxwell noted in an April 17 email that Lambda Legal had filed a response to the state’s appeal. Earlier this month, 800 LGBTQ+ youth in Iowa gathered for the 19th annual Governor’s Conference put on by Iowa Safe Schools, another plaintiff in the Lambda Legal lawsuit. “No matter how many laws you make that go against the LGBTQ+ [community], you will never bring us down,” said one participant, referring to the Iowa legislature’s anti-trans legislation.

Puck is finishing their senior year of high school in Iowa and will be attending college in New York in the fall. They remain hopeful that the lawsuit may change things legislatively, but they also still see the value in protest.

“It is so easy to become hopeless. It is so easy to just give up … and say I can’t change this anyway,” Puck told Truthout. “And the thing is, you can’t necessarily change it legislatively, because that’s what a lawsuit is for. But what you can change is the day-to-day life of individuals around you.”

Puck said they are thinking of writing a guide to organizing protests to help keep hope alive in their community.

“What you can change is what you do, and who you talk to, and how you talk about things,” they said. “And I think protests can give people the hope that it takes to keep doing that.”

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