September 17, 2019

Transgender Advocacy at Beloit Lays the Foundation for Iowa Challenge

Tobias Gurl’12 is no stranger to working in small groups to make an impact.
  • Tobias Gurl’12 started advocating for transgender student housing rights at Beloit. Now, he’s moved up to healthcare issues at the statewide level.
    Photo by: Rebekah Welch

Across the country, transgender people are embroiled in a fight for adequate healthcare. In March, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Medicaid and other public insurance policies had to cover transition-related care. However, one month after that ruling, an amendment to the Health and Human Services budget bill threatened to block the state from fulfilling that right. Within 24 hours, the amendment passed and was on its way to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk.

Tobias Gurl’12, an Iowa resident at the time, sprang into action, co-organizing the Transgender Action Group coalition of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. The group was able to generate publicity materials and create a plan to meet at the Capitol the next day to request a meeting with Reynolds, and they were able to get on the schedule the next morning to discuss the amendment with Reynolds’ Deputy Chief of Staff Paige Thorson.

A trans man, Gurl is no stranger to working in small groups to make an impact—a talent he credits to organizing for change at Beloit College.

Gurl says he didn’t come to Beloit looking to be an activist. When he applied for housing for his first year, he checked “any roommate” on his form. He says he saw that element of chance as “part of the quintessential college experience.” He was paired with a cisgender woman—a person whose gender identity and birth sex match. By the end of the year, he applied to live in a single on a men’s-only floor, which received pushback from college staff overseeing the residence halls.

“That triggered a full push for me and the other out trans people at the time to look into what it was like for us on campus,” says Gurl.

The political science minor co-founded the Trans Rights and Representation Committee, a group of about 10 students dedicated to advocating for trans rights on campus.

That work showed him the power of small, unofficial groups. Armed with support from RAs and some faculty members, the group fought for gender-neutral restrooms and housing and worked with Admissions to make more educated room assignments for prospective trans students, among other issues. The unofficial student group also held informational workshops at the Sexuality and Gender Alliance special interest house, geared to educating the campus about LGBTQ issues.

Darrah Chavey, professor of mathematics and computer science, was a regular attendee at those workshops and an ally for the group, offering support and suggestions.

“He was raising the consciousness on campus—making sure that people understood these issues and how significant they were,” Chavey says of Gurl.

The group strategized to solve problems trans students were facing, using tactics from their political science classes like identifying key players, using actionable language, and pushing conversations up the ladder. They were able to pilot a gender-neutral housing program by the end of the year.

“The small communities I was able to tap into across clubs on campus made it possible to make change,” says Gurl.

For now, the fight for healthcare in Iowa wages on. Despite meeting with Gurl and other activists, the amendment was signed into law and went into effect immediately. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the organization’s national chapter, and the LGBT and HIV Project filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa in May. Gurl has relocated to Seattle for a new job but still plans to be involved in changing Iowa’s law by continuing to spread the word.


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