City High Alum Harper Steele and Actor Will Ferrell Visit City High’s Gender Sexuality Alliance Club

Harper Steele and Will Ferrell visit Iowa City during their cross-country road trip documentary.

Harper Steele and Will Ferrell pose for a photo with the City High GLOW club

Lauren Koch and Natalie Kuhlmann

With spring break inching closer, many students and residents of Iowa City, Iowa were preparing to get away from the windy and wet March weather. This bleak, gray Wednesday was no different. A post on a local news website, however, would spark rumors, social media posts, and speculations that sent everyone into a frenzy and turned small-town Iowa City upside down. The article in question reported the sighting of actor and comedian Will Ferrell at a downtown local bar.

Many know Will Ferrell from popular movies like Step Brothers, Daddy’s Home, and a Christmas classic, Elf. Some may even remember his Saturday Night Live days, where he played a wide variety of hilarious characters. However, what a lot of people may not know was that while on SNL, Ferrell made a lifelong friend with Emmy-winning SNL senior writer, Harper Steele. 

Steele and Ferrell had been on many road trips throughout their 30-year friendship; however, this one was extra special. It was the first road trip the two had gone on since Steele’s transition from male to female. Because of the significance of this trip, they decided to dedicate a documentary to it. 

Steele, an Iowa City High alum, returned to her hometown school for the first time since her graduation in 1979, interested in learning more about the LGBTQ+ resources provided at City High. After hearing about the recently founded GSA club, formerly known as GLOW club (Gender Sexuality Alliance), Steele set up a meeting to discover more. 

Jennifer Barr is the advisor of the GSA Club this year, succeeding past sponsors Jill Humston and Tony Balcaen. When asked about what GSA club’s message represents, Barr explained the need for the LGBTQ+ community of City High to express themselves comfortably.

“We’re about creating a safe space for students in the LGBTQ+ community. We obviously have a big population of students in the community and at school. Actually, this year, all of our members are freshmen, so it’s nice to provide a space for new students who haven’t found their people yet.”

John Bacon, the principal of City High, commented on the importance of the GSA club to City High’s inclusivity of its students. 

“It’s more important than ever that our kids at City High feel fully supported, included, and valued for who they are. We’re all in this together at City High, and it’s crucial we have organizations that help kids feel welcomed here,” said Bacon, “It’s very important to me that we work hard as staff to do that, whether it’s orchestra,  basketball team, or robotics club, or wherever you belong to. I want students to feel that they are part of something here in this great big school. The GSA club is a wonderful support system.”

Barr recalls her initial reaction to Ferrell’s production company reaching out 3 weeks ago, and her uncertainty about the legitimacy of the organization.  

“At first I thought, ‘Is this real? Are we getting punked?’ Then, Mr. Bacon called me to his office, and that’s when I knew this was really happening. The producers said they wanted it to be quiet and small so we kept the secret pretty well for three weeks,” Barr said. 

Mr. Bacon explained his shared doubt of the credibility of the emails, and revealed that he even considered not responding. 

“It was very mysterious, I thought at first it was some type of a weird scam hoax thing. I almost didn’t respond because it was so random and had no specifics,” Bacon said. “Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I wrote back. It sounded almost unbelievable at first, but the research we did on the internet proved they were legit.”

Mr. Bacon recounts watching Harper Steele and Will Ferrell entering the meeting on camera for the first time, and their gentle and kind attitude toward the kids. 

“It was nice to see that they were so incredibly kind and happy to be there with the kids. [Harper’s] very courageous.”

Barr recalls watching Will and Harper sit down to ask the GSA club members about their individual stories.  

“Harper started asking kids about their pronouns and what it’s like to be in the community at City High. Will sat quietly supporting his friend, while she proceeded to ask if there were any problems feeling safe at City High,” Barr said. “The part that amazed me the most is that despite struggling as a student here, she came back and gave hope to these kids.”

Barr described listening to Harper share her story with the students and how she opened up about feeling alienated in high school. 

“She said that she hung out with the ‘freaks’ and never felt safe or comfortable, as there was no gender/sexuality support back then. Finally, during her senior year, she found her people in the theater department, which was how she got involved in writing, leading to her future career.”

Barr found common ground when talking with Ferrell about their learning process by calling someone by different pronouns. 

“He said they would hang out together and always call each other bro, but now he realizes that bro isn’t an appropriate thing to say. He said he hopes that this documentary can serve as him being a model to others about how to treat trans people. I remember him saying it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you are trying,” Barr said. “One of my oldest friends in life transitioned from female to male at the age of 38. It was also hard for me just like Will, but I was able to change my thinking and tell my friend ‘You are you whatever gender you are.’”

Recently, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill banning gender-affirming healthcare for teens. Now more than ever, the LGBTQ+ students of Iowa need an advocate for hope, which is exactly what Harper Steele was for freshman GSA club member Morgan Watson. 

“Harper told us that it’s not all bad, because our generation is standing up to these terrible bills. She said once your generation is able to hold these decision-making positions, she thinks we’ll be in a better place. I never thought of it that way,” Watson said. 

Watson, who has been a member of the GSA club since seventh grade, explained how Harper Steele and Will Ferrell motivated her to continue their support for trans youth.

“Their story was very inspiring to me and made me want to advocate more for trans individuals, even though I’m not personally transgender. LGBTQ+ topics have always been a passion of mine, and it’s a community I feel safe in.”

During the discussion about the recent legislation passed, Barr remembers Steele reminding the kids to be optimistic about the future. 

“No matter what they said, Harper asked ‘But don’t you feel hope?’” Barr said. 

Mr. Bacon opened up about how his conversation with Harper before filming helped him to understand the importance of treating everyone with respect and equality.

“After meeting such a wonderful person like Harper, it made me think about how others are trying to restrict transgender rights, and tell them what they can and can’t do. I wish that the people responsible for this legislation can have the experience to sit down with a person like Harper, and really get to know them as I did. I think it might be different if they’ve actually conversed with someone who has been on a different journey in life”. 

“At first I didn’t know that Harper was a City High grad,” Bacon admits. “I mean, what an accomplished person with what she’s done in her career, and her personal story of courage. I think she’s someone that belongs in our Hall of Fame. I’m planning to nominate her this coming June.”

Mr. Bacon is nominating Harper Steele in the hopes that the story of her bravery and confidence can continue to instill hope and freedom of self-expression into the hearts of generations for years to come.