August came to the upper Midwest in early June this year. It was already eighty degrees when I loaded into Cookie, my van, at six AM. She doesn’t have AC anymore. The vent fan’s effectiveness fluctuates with road speed and elevation. I was channeling a seventies road trip movie trope with my windows open, driving into the morning sun.
I got to Ottumwa around noon. It was over ninety. I emerged from my van, hot and stiff, into the reinvigorating Queerness of ABBA, animating the pre-Pride assembly in Central Park. Pride was in the town square, surrounded by the courthouse, city hall, public library, and a Catholic Church. A volunteer showed me where to set up, opposite the bandshell, under a tree. Someone had created and hung giant rainbow curtains around the stage.
I hadn’t really remembered to include Iowa as a red state until I forgot to request Friday night off from my bartending job and I needed to find a Pride close to home for Saturday. When I pulled up the ACLU’s anti-LGBTQ legislation map, there was Iowa, right next door, waving at me with almost thirty bills introduced in just their last session. That’s a little too close to home.
Iowa is Minnesota’s neighbor. I lived there as a child. I’ve never associated it with far-right activism. My uncritical, childhood perception of Iowa mostly consisted of good schools, civic participation, and warm, intelligent, practicality. As an adult, I’ve had a vague notion of Iowa as a purple state.
Apparently, that was the case until 2016. Iowa sided with Democrats in six of seven national elections between 1992 and 2012. It was the third state in the nation to codify same-sex marriage way back in 2009. Abortion rights were reaffirmed by the state supreme court as recently as 2019. Then Donald Trump won the state by over 9% in 2016, a 15-point swing over from Obama’s victory in 2012 by 6%.
Along with the consequential Trump effect, their governor, Kim Reynolds, has been a major influence on Iowa’s shift to the far-right. She started as the Clarke County treasurer, a county with less than 10,000 people. She is an avid Trump supporter with potential national ambitions. She has advocated the full roster of anti-LGBGTQ legislation being workshopped across the nation.
Of the twenty-nine bills introduced, she was able to sign three into law this year. In March, Iowa banned gender affirming health care for minors, also prohibiting anyone “knowingly” aiding or abetting a minor with care. On the same day, she passed a Trans bathroom ban for K-12. In May, she was able to push through a busy education reform bill similar to the one in Arkansas. This legislation rolled in four other stand-alone anti-Queer bills for efficiency.
It has the familiar “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” language for K-6, parental permission requirement for pronouns and names of choice, no STI/HIV instruction, provisions for book bans, and mandatory reporting of non-conforming gender expression to parents. It also contains the right’s favorite white supremacist agenda item, sweeping reform of school voucher programs, which promises to gut public education in urban areas and practically eliminate it in rural Iowa.
Already having been dubbed Florida of the North, Ron DeSantis praised Iowa’s governor for “safeguarding freedom in Iowa” during his Presidential campaign launch there recently. He repeatedly framed Iowa and Florida as partners in a Republican crusade for “common sense.” Kim Reynolds name has been floated as a possible, less boring than Pence, family-values running mate for Trump in 2024, so that’s probably why Ron was flirting so aggressively.
Ottumwa is not Key West, but they organized a darn festive Pride, defying association with the joyless, gubernatorial tyranny of either state. The full day of scheduled entertainment began with the animal Pride march.
There were two bouncy houses and a tractor ride for kids. Family-friendly fun is observably more critical in the planning of small-town Prides, along with local, small business involvement. These displays of civic participation and responsibility strategically undermine negative preconceptions of Queer identity in smaller communities.
Ottumwa Pride was largely organized by school teachers who want their community to be a safer place for their students. They were outraged by what they saw as governmental overreach into how to teach and care for their students. I didn’t ask everybody, but I was unsure if any of the Ottumwa organizers were Queer. Trump’s influence, the anti-racist uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, and aggressive anti-Queer legislation all seem to be factors in mobilizing left-leaning allies in small towns. The emergence of small-town Prides has accelerated in the past three years. This was Ottumwa’s third Pride.
The sentiment I heard repeatedly throughout the day when I asked about all the anti-LGBTQ legislation was, “This isn’t the Iowa I know.” Even though there are some rabid Trump supporters and Christian Nationalists in Iowa, people told me they are a disruptive minority who are vastly overrepresented in Iowa’s political environment. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa GOP spent money and political clout to defeat more moderate Republicans in state primaries in 2022. This has intensified the far right’s domination in state politics.
There was a small, well-behaved counter-demonstration to Ottumwa Pride. Fifteen people with home-made signs quietly filed in across the street soon after I was set up. They blew through a lot of glue sticks and printer ink just to stand stoically in the blazing sun for two hours, largely ignored. A few people parked their trucks in front of them, blocking them from our view. A local church, tabling at Pride, brought them water.
Aime Wichtendahl thinks local, grassroots organizing, and elections are the key to incrementally nudging Iowa back toward the middle. She became Iowa’s first openly-Trans elected official in 2015, winning a city council seat in Hiawatha, a small suburb of Cedar Rapids. Her campaign slogan was “Stand with Local Businesses.” She did not center her Transness in her race.
Aime described herself as a poly-sci nerd in high school. She was a Republican until her late teens. Though she travels the state to speak out against Iowa’s anti-Trans legislation, she focuses on schools, roads, and local businesses when serving her Hiawatha constituency.
“Republicans don’t have solutions for anyone…GOP donors are anti-everything but white supremacy.” Aime believes Democrats can claw back influence in Iowa by running for every level of local government and focusing on issues that are important to rural communities, like closer access to groceries and medical care. “Iowans don’t like this culture war dumpster fire… I believe Iowans are fundamentally fair people…Democrats haven’t been the best at addressing rural populations.”
I hadn’t realized I had been interviewing the keynote speaker until Aime got up from our chat and walked up onto the stage. She is a dynamic speaker. It’s easy to see her political appeal. She knows her audience and understands what motivates them. Getting elected by focusing on the needs of her local community she cares deeply about has provided her a broader platform to fight for things affecting her personally.
Cara Galloway, one of the founders of Ottumwa Pride, is also a city council member there. She told me Ottumwa used to be reliably blue before they turned out for Trump. But there are signs they have limits on their tolerance for the current GOP moral panic. When Cara ran for city council, there were two vocal, anti-LGBTQ candidates mimicking the style of the governor. “And our community said, we’re not going to have that on our city council.”
She also told me Ottumwa elected its first gay mayor, two women for city council, and its first Black council member. She informed me of the growing immigrant population. Jobs at JBS, a large pork processing plant in town, and a lower cost of living attract people to the area. Ottumwa is becoming more diverse which Cara views as a positive. She wants everyone to feel comfortable in her town and that’s why she entered politics. “If I’m not going to run, who is?”
She helped found Ottumwa Pride the same day one of her friends, who is gay, told her there was nothing for his community in town. She and a couple friends met at a local bar and planned Ottumwa’s first Pride. She also started an HRC chapter in town.
She works in child welfare and suicide prevention. When I asked about the recent anti-Trans legislation, especially the Education Reform Bill, she thought about the youth she works with. “I’m terrified for them…Sometimes the only safe place they have is school, and now we’ve taken that away from them.”She has faith in optimism and pragmatism, inspiring my faith in her. She sees hope in Pride. “When we start to change our communities, we start to change our state…Ottumwa has a lot of potential and I can’t wait to see what we do.”
Kristen Payne was also present during the initial planning meeting for Pride. She is also a school teacher, a realtor, and an artist. She sponsors the GSA in her school. I kept trying to catch her with a free moment to talk, but she’d been emceeing the entertainment all day. After a wardrobe change, she also competed in the amateur drag show with an homage to Hocus Pocus. I was able to finally catch her during the late afternoon entertainment.
She reiterated, “This isn’t the Iowa I know. Trump gave license for people to come out of the woodwork.” As a teacher, she’s been noticing more frequent displays of bigotry from her students in the last couple of years. She told me a story of some sixth-grade boys using a slur, and how she handled it. The teacher voice she reenacted gave me goosebumps.
She believes most Iowans either don’t care or are supportive of LGBTQ issues. Like most of the people I talked to, she wishes politicians would concentrate on practical issues that affect her community. She described the Education Bill as “heartless.” She thinks democrats are way behind in grassroots organizing and that’s allowing these culture war distractions.
Ottumwa’s state senator, Cherielynn Westrich, co-sponsored the Trans Bathroom Ban in schools. Kristen responded by showing up to a charity bakeoff, with Cherielynn in attendance, wearing rainbow attire. Kristen is also the one who wrote questions to Ottumwa’s city council candidates about Pride events. That’s when the two homophobic candidates revealed their extremism and it cost them their elections.
As the sun set, vendor tents came down. The grassy slope in front of the stage started to fill. The professional drag show began with seasoned performers in from Des Moines. Iowa was unsuccessful at passing a drag ban and Ottumwa seemed thrilled.
The night revealed professional lighting and a fog machine.
Children rushed the stage with pilfered dollar bills. There were death drops on concrete. The emcee broke both her heels. The crowd was captivated and joyous. The show wound down with the mandatory “Born This Way.” And even though I’m sure Lady Gaga was aware a gay anthem would be lucrative, her opportunism did not stop me from tearing up as I watched the crowd scream and rattle their glow sticks, while the pig-tailed Queen strutted through the grass in broken heels.
After the show, spectators were invited on stage for a dance party. The deejay played until eleven. I didn’t know Iowans stayed up that late. I was watching from a picnic table off to the side when Kristen, who was picking up trash, came and sat next to me. She asked me how long of a drive I had. I told her I was going to stay in my van. There happened to be a municipal campground in the middle of town. She thanked me for coming, even though I was grateful for permission to be a witness to the day. She left but came back a few minutes later to tell me I had a room at the Hotel Ottumwa, a block away. She told me someone had canceled so they had an extra room. I didn’t know if that was true or if she was just representing the Iowa I recall from childhood.
I had a shower and slept with air conditioning that night. This year I decided to seek out Queer resistance and Queer joy. I decided to just drive to a specific small town on a specific day, and it’s always there. There is always community waiting to welcome me like family. Our community always creates beauty in the face of adversity.
After I got home, I had a chance to talk with Max Mowitz, who works for One Iowa, an LGBTQ rights organization in Des Moines. Max volunteered for One Iowa in high school when it was created to organize for marriage equality. After college, they moved back to Des Moines, continuing to volunteer until they started working there. They also help run the Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund.
Max brought up Iowa’s progressive history and its history of racism. They think the current moral panic over Transness is influenced by conservative media and an organized, top-down political strategy. They believe rural organizing can shift these patterns.
Max wants people in blue states/areas to recognize the cool work being done in red states. “Looking down on the South or red states really undercuts the amazing organizing happening there…There needs to be less of a pitying or disparaging conversation…To dismiss them is not a kind thing to do and it’s not solidarity…It makes you fragile in your perception that it could never happen to you.”
I also spoke with Max’s boss, Keenan Crow. Keenan’s passion for political and legislative analysis was immediately evident. They were the one who compiled the anti-LGBTQ legislation information on One Iowa’s website that had been so valuable to my research. They did their undergrad work in Political Science. After an unsatisfying job at Apple, and helping a friend with their political campaign, they returned to school to get their masters in public policy.
They had volunteered with One Iowa in college and came to work there just as marriage equality was achieved nationally and the organization had to pivot to a multi-issue advocacy group. They found their vocation as a lobbyist working on HIV decriminalization, creating new directions for their organization.
Keenan also believes most Iowans truly don’t care about Trans issues. They wouldn’t think about them if they weren’t asked. They think conservative legislators are made up of cynics and true believers. But Keenan pointed out that all of them believe in the political expediency of using Trans people to create the current moral panic. They think it will take much longer for the belief in that expediency to wane than the actual moral panic.
Keenan predicted at least a few more years of anti-Trans legislative attacks. Then, as if they were a soothsayer, they predicted the next focus will center on religious freedom. I talked to them a week before the Supreme Court ruled on the 303 Creatives case, allowing discrimination against Queer people by business owners who claim serving them conflicts with their religious beliefs. They said if that case was decided negatively, it would undermine many of the state protections Iowa put in place before turning bright red. Keenan is worried the next frontier in Republican cruelty will include state-sanctioned discrimination in medical care.
Sometimes, these attacks feel so well-organized, so strategic. It’s diabolical. Then I watch Marjorie Taylor Greene talk and think, what a ding dong. Both are true. For every Kim Reynolds, there’s a Lauren Boebert. Their collective ability to inflict harm should not be underestimated. Their strength should not be overestimated.
Every time I get in my van to drive to a small-town Pride, I know I’m going to meet caring, intelligent people, see spontaneous joy, witness beauty. It’s important to remember how scary it might be for some Queers to gather and celebrate. They do it anyway. Pride might not be a riot anymore, but it’s still defiant.
If you’d like any more information or are interested in resource sharing or solidarity work, here are some links to your Queer community in Iowa:
Ottumwa Pride: firstname.lastname@example.org
One Iowa: https://oneiowa.org/
One Iowa’s lobbying arm: https://oneiowaaction.org/
Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund: check them out on the socials.