Trans Man in a Van: driving toward queer resistance in Wyoming.

It’s been twenty-five years.

When I told my friends I was going to a Pride in Laramie, Wyoming, their initial reaction was unanimous: Queer horror. I doubt any of us would have ever heard of Laramie had the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard never taken place there. Queer people are murdered every year, but there is something about the historical position and brutality of Matthew’s murder that clings in our collective Queer memory. The struggle for Queer acceptance took a turn in the late nineties. Twenty-five years later, Laramie remains “the place Matthew Shepard was killed.” I was curious to see how his specter would participate in a Pride there.

Minneapolis to Wyoming is a long drive, almost thirteen hours according to Google Maps. I could not predict how long Cookie and I would take. I was hoping to drive around ten to twelve hours and see if I could find a spot to land for the night. I stopped for gas at the Corn Palace after five hours, a surprisingly robust tourist destination and seed-art festooned truck stop in the southeastern quadrant of South Dakota. I assumed I would encounter some suitable parking lot in the remaining 560 miles to Laramie.

Loading Cookie near dawn for our adventure.

After nearly fifteen hours with nary a tree, I was pulling into a hotel parking lot in Cheyenne, a mere fifty miles from my morning destination. I managed to make myself a quesadilla before snuggling in between a semi and a mud puddle to pass out.

It was a quick and pleasant drive over a mountain pass after my required coffee and Spelling Bee. Laramie is a charming, Western mountain town with old brick storefronts and fluffy, cartoon clouds overhead. It’s the home of Wyoming’s only public university. Their mascot is the cowpoke. There are “Poke Pride” references everywhere which delighted my inner 12-year-old boy, especially since I came all this way for something gay.

I arrived in time for the morning assembly and sidewalk chalking before the Pride March. It took place in a small outdoor seating area between rail tracks and an indie coffee/tap house at the Western end of a main commercial corridor. There were a dozen youth making use of chalk provisions and some grown-ups in matching t-shirts handing out donuts. By the time we were set to march, about fifty people had assembled.

Kitty says, “zoinks, this guy’s gay.”

After taking some pictures of the art and checking out the pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, I introduced myself to some of the organizers. They remembered the email I’d sent letting them know I was coming and enthusiastically agreed to chat with me after the march. There were some speeches, then a proclamation from Laramie’s vice-mayor, declaring June Pride month.

Laramie’s vice-mayor reading a lengthy gay proclamation and a guy in head-to-toe gold lamé.

Everyone kept to the sidewalk and obeyed traffic lights on our five-block Pride March down Grand Ave to the Albany County Courthouse. There were multiple honks of encouragement from passing cars and only one woman made a bit of a stink-face when she had trouble navigating through crowd into an antique shop. There were volunteers as legal observers/security/traffic patrol at every light.

Laramie Pride March, paused for cross-traffic.

When we returned to our starting point, I asked one of the organizers if the coffee shop had good breakfast. The woman told me the breakfast burritos two blocks over were better and offered to buy me one. This gracious person turned out to be Trey Sherwood, one of seven Democratic representatives (out of 93) in the Wyoming legislature.

We landed at Night Heron Books & Coffeehouse (highly recommend). They had a Pride display and their book club book for the month was Gender Queer. We were joined by two of Trey’s friends, one being the Minority Whip in the Wyoming legislature, Karlee Provenza.

This turned out to be a valuable lesson for me: never leave your camera and notebook in your van. Trey and Karlee proceeded to break down the current political and cultural climate in Wyoming for over an hour, including scandals and conspiracies involving local and state officials, cops, hate groups, and even Karlee. I vaguely remembered that story from its brief twitter saturation.

Karlee got national attention from Fox News for this meme.

Trey has a Master’s degree in Public History and leads an economic development board for Downtown Laramie. She is also an organizer for Laramie Pride. Karlee has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and Law. She researches decision making in police use of force cases and has long been an advocate for police reform.

I’m still kicking myself for not retaining a physical record of this fortuitous and delicious encounter. Trey could not have been more gracious. It was a delicious breakfast burrito. Karlee made her confident, confrontational eloquence apparent immediately. Both battle overwhelming odds in the state legislature.

The Republican Wyoming Freedom Caucus attempted to censure Karlee over her Instagram post in recognition of Trans Day of Visibility earlier this year. (See above.) Ultimately, Wyoming’s own cultural affection for the First and Second Amendments prevailed over Republican hypocrisy.

Karlee formally apologized for the distraction her post caused but reiterated her support for “armed self-defense for the LGBTQ community.” Nothing is quite as heart-warming as meeting intelligent, brave strangers standing in the way of your oppression. It was worth the drive just to meet these two.

Wyoming’s state nickname is the “Equality State.” It earned this moniker by becoming the first state in the nation to grant women the right to vote in 1869, fifty-one years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Apparently, there were some ulterior motives. The men in the sparsely populated frontier territory, at the time, were hoping to generate positive national publicity. More importantly, they hoped to attract more women to their state where men outnumbered women 6 to 1.

The official state motto is still “Equal Rights,” but Wyoming has always been conservative. That’s the tricky part about “rugged” libertarian idealism when you also prefer capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. “Don’t tread on me” seems like all you need until People of Color and the Queers move into the neighborhood.

Wyoming is the least populous state in America. It has roughly the same number of people as Milwaukee. It is the second whitest state after Vermont at almost 93%. It is only slightly behind Montana in leading gun ownership per capita. Its LGBTQ population is estimated at about 3.3%. That’s a lot of wide-open space for white people with guns to intimidate whoever causes them discomfort.

Though a familiar slate of anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in Wyoming legislature this past season, only a bill prohibiting Trans girls and women from participating in sports on teams or in divisions aligning with their gender was signed into law. Wyoming seems to be hesitant to curtail individual liberties, maintaining their motto, but they aren’t in a hurry to legislate against discrimination either.

Wyoming repealed anti-sodomy laws in 1977. They weren’t banned nationally until 2003. That same year, the legislature defined marriage as a union between a male and female. But Wyoming reversed that in 2014, a year before the Obergefell decision. In fact, in the intervening forty-six years, every anti-LGBTQ bill introduced was defeated by appealing to the purported Republican principle of limited government interference in private decisions.

However, repeated efforts to enact hate-crime legislation have failed since Matthew Shepard’s murder. There has also never been a state-wide anti-discrimination law that includes LGBTQ civil rights, except those mandated federally. The Trans sports ban marked a turning point for the “Equality State.” The Republican governor called the bill “draconian,” but let it pass into law without his signature, straddling the divide between right-wing extremists and the rest of his party. The ironically named, far-right Freedom Caucus in the legislature has been infiltrating the more traditional libertarian Republican hoedown in Wyoming and gaining influence since Trump’s election.


After my undocumented, but enlightening brunch, I moseyed on down to Washington Park for Laramie Pridefest.

Ah, the flags of my people.

They had a full day of speakers and performers planned. Tabling was limited to local non-profits, churches, and organizations so I began wandering about in my “Nobody Knows I’m Trans” t-shirt, smiling and introducing myself, hoping somebody would want to talk to me on camera.

I passed this tough-looking guy with a big, black cowboy hat, holding his girlfriend’s hand and wondered if they had just stumbled into this event. I even thought he might be trouble. On my pass back through the crowd, I spotted him again. He’d taken his shirt off and I caught sight of two long, familiar scars on his chest. I smiled at him. He said he liked my shirt. I told him about my project and they both sat beneath a pine tree with me to tell me their story.

Chance and Caitlyn have been together for a few years. They’re saving up to homestead somewhere in the middle of Wyoming in the near future. They didn’t want to say where. Chance is a bartender at the Laramie American Legion. He’s out to his boss, but not the patrons. Caitlyn identifies as Ace.

Chance came out at as Trans at sixteen and started testosterone at eighteen. He’s nearly thirty now. He went to high school on the East Coast but seems comfortable in his cowboy boots and black Stetson. He told me he’s had great luck in finding supportive employers and health care in Laramie, but usually remains stealth to minimize his exposure to violence. “This is still Wyoming,” he said.

I talked to Jake, a Transman from Laramie, who was in high school in the late 90s. Jake was bullied in school after being outed as queer by a friend. After Matthew Shepard was murdered, Jake was threatened with the same fate. He said the teachers did nothing at the time, but he credits the response to Matthew’s murder for significant change in Laramie. It was the first city in Wyoming to pass anti-discrimination ordinances and there are now GSAs in both the middle and high schools.

Jake moved shortly after high school to Virginia then Tennessee. He describes this period as his “psycho-Christian phase.” He went to school for youth ministry and married a man, who turned out to be Bisexual. None of that turned out well. After a messy divorce, he moved back to Laramie where he began his transition and his mom moved back to be supportive of her son.

Antonio Serrano came to Laramie Pridefest to keep people safe. His day job is Advocacy Director of the ACLU Wyoming. He is also the founder and director for Juntos, an immigrant advocacy organization inclusive of intersectional oppressions.

“There’s a lot of neo-Nazis, fascists, white supremacists, those guys around Wyoming…You see in the news how they’re getting stirred up by the rhetoric of politicians. It trickles down to community events like this.” Antonio illuminates for me what should have been an obvious reality about Wyoming and is truly the source of my trepidation about red states in general. Anti-LGBTQ legislation is undeniably harmful to the populations it targets, both practically and psychologically, but the inflammatory rhetoric from elected leaders emboldens extremists to threaten and carry out violence against our community. Wyoming is the perfect model for legislating libertarian ideals while enforcing a conservative social hegemony through extrajudicial intimidation.

Antonio tells me even though many or most Wyomingites may support same-sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people, it’s difficult to organize a substantial resistance to potential legislation affecting any marginalized population. There are just not enough people who feel strongly enough to show up. “You’ll talk to five organizers on one issue and then you go to another issue, and it’s the same five organizers…I’m a firm believer in spending time in community…trying to build up that strength, that solidarity, little by little.”

When I ask if he’s got anything to say to blue states, “Red states are the battleground. We are the front line…This is where things are going to go bad first. Don’t forget about people like us, fighting in some of the most dangerous places. It’s the Wild West. No joke.”

The PFLAG chapter in Laramie made everyone lunch.

Everything began winding down in late afternoon. There were no counter-demonstrations as a few had feared. Patriot Front is active in Cheyenne, but they didn’t make the drive to kill any Queer joy that day. Maybe there was a sale on khaki cargo pants at the fancy fascist outlet mall. People started taking down their tents. A volunteer security guard pulled me aside. I’d noticed him noticing me earlier.

He wanted to know if I’d been to the Matthew Shepard Memorial yet. He told me how close it was and the best way to get there with all the construction on campus. He said the vigil was the night before so there should be fresh offerings on it. I’d planned on going before I left, but there was something about his investment in my seeing it that gave my pilgrimage weight. I thanked him and he thanked me for driving all way from Minneapolis. I guess news gets around in a small town.

I’ll bet this sign was different in 1998.

I parked a few blocks away at the main entrance to the University campus. He’d told me to park on the other side, but I couldn’t imagine the walk around the construction fences could be that arduous. I ended up walking almost all the way to where he told me to park.

I don’t know what I was expecting. I made my way to the other side of an endless construction fence guarding some underground maintenance work and found a bench.

“You changed everything. You made us all immortal.” (handwritten on offered thesis paper)

Withered, weathered, and haphazard offerings left at a memorial possess their own specific alchemy. They honor a memory and stranger’s grief. Because Matthew was Queer and I’m Queer and he was murdered and I’m still here, this memorial and these offerings assume my solidarity and a bigot’s shame. His murder is part of my history because it represents a possible Queer fate. Matthew was at Pride all day. I had to find him to say goodbye.

I was back on the road with a few hours of daylight left. I went over the mountain pass and through Cheyenne, into the infinite plains of Nebraska. I decided to take the road more traveled on the way home and was rewarded with a Love’s Truckstop off the interstate just as the sun was setting.

I love Love’s.

Upon my return home, I reached out to a librarian I’d met at Pride but didn’t get a chance to speak to. Eli is an outreach librarian in Laramie. They identify and overcome barriers to access for the public library there. They spoke to me about librarians in Wyoming organizing to combat book-banning efforts.

Eli told me there wasn’t much of a campaign in Laramie to ban certain books. They recalled one parent upset over a board book for babies that depicted possible same-sex coupling in the animal kingdom. They said Gillette, in northeast Wyoming, has had a “horrific experience” with book challenges.

Gillette experienced a population boom in the early 2000s with a sudden expansion of its fossil fuel industries, predominantly coal. The recent decline in coal use nationwide has led to an economic downturn in the area. The loss of easy money left many sad, mediocre white men vulnerable to the rhetoric of national book-banning organizers. Why deal with your frustration due to your own inadequacy when you can take it out on a vulnerable minority: a tale as old as time.

Gillette was targeted by Mass Resistance, a seasoned, well-funded, national anti-LGBTQ organization. Their sole function seems to be to distill the current national moral panic into an especially toxic, concentrated, local conservative emergency. They motivate disgruntled conservatives off their couches into Library Board meetings. They even provide flyers and talking points.

In Gillette, they succeeded in forcing the Campbell County Public Library to sever association with the Public Library System and The American Library Association which had offered them some protection from censorship. Prior to July 2021, no one from the public ever came to library board meetings. They also succeeded in getting the former board chair to resign and they’ve gotten little interest from people willing to run for the position.

I also asked Eli about their experience in Wyoming and Laramie, specifically as I had with everyone I’d talked to. They liked Laramie. They liked how beautiful Wyoming is. They experienced some antagonism when they were younger and told me sometimes small-town stereotypes are true. They graduated from the University of Wyoming and had gone to the Matthew Shepard Symposium, an annual social justice conference there, a couple times. Eli was a small child when Matthew was killed.

“I remember deciding I didn’t want to be the bearer of that memory anymore. I carried so much inherited history and trauma as a visibly black person. I am less visibly Trans or gender non-conforming. I chose not to center Matthew Shepard’s legacy, death, the after-effects as part of my Queer experience.”

There were many reasons Matthew Shepard’s murder got the national attention it did. The preceding decade and a half of sustained Queer activism pushing for AIDS research funding and basic human empathy had earned some legitimacy from mainstream American culture by 1998. Someone started making a documentary almost immediately. Matthew’s parents, who had never been activists, became prolific advocates for LGBTQ rights. And Matthew was a sweet-looking, young, blond, white boy.

I’m grateful Eli brought up race. There are complications surrounding Matthew’s continued presence in the American Queer consciousness. Dozens of Queers are murdered every year. The overwhelming majority being Trans Women of Color. Overlooking intersecting oppressions, especially race and class, is also part of our collective Queer struggle. Sylvia Rivera preached about it at the first Pride.

I’d thought about this before I left but didn’t know how or when to address it in an article about Queer solidarity. The end of the 90s also marked a pivot away from more radical Queer activism toward assimilation and integration into dominant society. Matthew’s murder wasn’t directly responsible for that strategy direction, but his was a normatively empathetic face as a symbol of our oppression. The world got a little safer for handsome white gay boys and remains as dangerous as it ever was for gender non-conforming folks, particularly if they’re Black or Brown.

I also had the pleasure of connecting with Sara Burlingame, executive director for Wyoming Equality. Her father mapped small towns throughout the inter-mountain West. She told me about growing up in “single-wide” mobile homes in remote locations. She organized her first pro-choice rally at fifteen in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. She graduated high school early and went overseas to the UK where she found her first girlfriend.

Upon her return to the US, she moved to Cheyenne and volunteered for United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming which became Wyoming Equality. Sara reiterated the reality of the top-down nature of the national anti-LGBTQ siege red states are currently contending with. She told me anti-Trans and CRT legislation was focus group tested before experimental bills were disseminated to red states that had little progressive organizing infrastructure. This began around 2016 with the Trans bathroom ban in North Carolina.

When I asked about her to speculate on the goals of this strain of conservative Republicans, she said they want to both inflict damage on real people, but they’ve also realized it’s a winning political message. It organizes and energizes extremist impulses. That strengthens their overall movement on many levels. It creates ideological borders for more libertarian Republican legislators in Wyoming. The Freedom Caucus, which is also a nationally organized and funded activist arm, is able to oust more traditional Cowpokes if they err on the side of individual liberty.

She says she used to worry less about militia groups because they used to fight with each other. Now they see themselves as vigilante enforcers of this Nationalist political ideology and they’ve found ways to work together and recruit. The publicity they get from their reactionary or violent actions animates authoritarian politicians, who then passively or stridently endorse their tactics.

Wyoming Equality is part of the Equality Federation, an affiliation of state-based policy activists who strive to identify and develop leadership and provide support to organizers in individual states who work to defeat anti-LGBTQ attacks. Wyoming is part of a red state coalition within that network. I wonder if they would let me sit in on meetings. Sara is a bottomless fount of detailed Queer updates from all my potential destinations.

She told me, “In Wyoming, I worry we don’t have time. Our fight is ceaseless. We do it because we love Wyoming uniquely. This is our home, and I really do believe it has all the ingredients to be the best place on earth.”

Wyoming is beautiful. Could we take it over? Imagine coordinating 500,000 Queers. We’d be late. I worry about the vague timeframe she mentions. I’ve felt this urgency before. This project is slowly revealing the larger structure of the fight we’re in, whether we know it or not. I don’t think either side knows exactly where we’re heading.

If you’d like more information or are interested in resource sharing or solidarity work, here are some links to your Queer community in Wyoming:

Laramie Pridefest:

ACLU Wyoming:

Wyoming Equality:


Trans Man in a Van: driving toward queer resistance in Iowa.

Iowa has fancy rest areas.

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.

How’d they get those big gay curtains up there?

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.

These adorable llama butts didn’t win, unbelievably.

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.

Republicans hate gay tractors.

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.”

Aime Wichtendahl addressing Ottumwa Pride.

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.

Somebody told this kid he wasn’t allowed to say ‘gay’ anymore.

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 (right), President of Ottumwa Pride and a decent Bette Midler.

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.

Ursula was always a Drag Queen.

The night revealed professional lighting and a fog machine.

Drama and spectacle.

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:

One Iowa:

One Iowa’s lobbying arm:

Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund: check them out on the socials.

Next stop: Laramie, Wyoming

Trans Man in a Van: driving toward queer resistance in Arkansas.

Ty Bo Yule

Ty Bo Yule13 min read·Jun 172

I think I have everything.

I hit the road at 7AM on a Friday morning, only an hour later than I had planned. Set up for Ozark Pride in Hardy, Arkansas, was to begin the next morning at 11AM. My destination for that night was Springfield, Missouri, the last big town on the way to Hardy. Google maps told me it was an eight and a half hour drive. I thought I could make it in twelve.

My van, Cookie Monster, is not built for speed. It only theoretically has cruise control. It has a tape deck, but my cassette collection from the 80s has long since melted. I listened to public radio, then classic rock for as long as I could. Then I shoved my cell phone in my bra strap, by my ear, so I could listen to podcasts for the last two hours of my drive.

I was grateful to finally arrive in Springfield around nine. It was raining on a dark county highway for the last hour of my drive. I pulled into a strip mall and cooked dinner in my van by the light of a Jimmy Johns. I found a large parking lot between two hotels and settled in for the night. I had a weed drink while I finished the Spelling Bee then slept like a big, gay bear.

Rice and beans and weenies.

The next morning, I made coffee in a Home Depot parking lot and was back on the road by seven. I was excited to see my friends again. I had been to Hardy’s first Pride in 2021. The two and a half hour drive from Springfield to Hardy is a long, uninterrupted roller coaster of wooded hills and dead armadillos. Hardy is a tiny hamlet of 743 in the middle of the Ozarks in rural Northern Arkansas.

It’s an unlikely place for a Pride celebration. Hardy was a known sundown town not that long ago. It is still potentially unfriendly to people of color and non-normative individuals who may find themselves wondering where to park their distinctively queer van after dark.

One of the first sights upon entering Hardy.

Arkansas, as a state, has the distinction of being the first in the nation to ban gender-affirming care for minors in 2021. A judicial stay on enforcement of this law remains in place while the legal challenge, brought by four Trans youth, is ongoing. Most of the few providers for Trans healthcare, however, have left the state or discontinued that portion of their practice. Trans individuals that receive gender affirming care in Arkansas now have fifteen years to sue for malpractice, instead of two, making it additionally difficult find insurance.

They were the second state to ban Trans girls from playing sports. They recently passed their own version of a “drag ban”, which prohibits performances in public spaces, that may “appeal to” intentionally vague “prurient interests.”Arkansas governor and unironic SNL skit, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, just signed into law her own version of Florida’s “don’t say gay” education reform, which not only bans any mention of LGBTQ issues before fifth grade, but mandates restroom and changing room restrictions. School employees must get parental permission to use preferred names and pronouns. The bill also centers charter schools, a decades-long Republican project to gut public education and usher in a new age of de facto segregation.

There is a new bathroom ban for adult Trans people, who could be charged with misdemeanor sexual indecency, if they use the public toilet aligned with their identity while a minor is present. It was amended to add “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire” after considerable dissent. Sanders also banned the word “LatinX” for all official purposes as one of her first actions as governor.

This has all taken place in the last two years, since I went to Hardy’s first Pride. Over 500 similarly intentioned bills have been advanced this year in nearly every state with varying degrees of success. (For a well-researched and fascinating account of this top-down legislative siege, I recommend “The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality” podcast by TransLash Media.)This legislation has had the added effect of sanctioning and promoting organized, aggressive, and occasionally violent anti-Queer demonstrations at family-friendly Queer events.

As I drive past the Confederate flags announcing my arrival in Hardy, I wonder what I always wonder about authoritarian ambitions. What is the end game for these American Christian Nationalists? They clearly want to legislate Queers back into the closet. Are they trying to force everyone they don’t like out of their states? Do they want genocide? A new civil war? The Rapture? Are Republican politicians using this recycled moral panic cynically to distract from declining living standards and capitalistic plunder of the middle and working classes?

It doesn’t matter. They are currently making life demonstrably more difficult and dangerous for Queer people in areas that weren’t welcoming to begin with. What is the strategy for Queers in red states? Most of them can’t or don’t want to leave. I found Queers in those places do what Queers everywhere have always done — organize, build community, create joy, and defy bullies.

I turn off the winding county road onto a steep, gravel path I know ends in a terrifyingly narrow concrete slab across a decent sized river. I make it to the other side and drive into the country field where a small sanctuary of love and rainbows is being assembled.I never get tired of this. It’s always worth the drive.What kind of audacity does it take to put on Pride in this place in this time? No matter how far I go to see it, it’s like coming home.

I take my place on the vendor side of the field and set up my little display. There are about a dozen vendor/organization tents. I walk toward the ample, yet decaying covered wooden stage. Next to it, Ozark Pride has a new tent, with their retro 70s chic logo. Abby gets up to hug me and tells me to set up wherever there’s room. We met last time I was here.

Next to Ozark Pride’s tent is Engaging Arkansas Communities, a non-profit providing free STI and HIV testing as well as support and prevention services. I meet Kimberly and Kodee who agree to come talk to me when they have time. I continue down the line of enthusiastic vendors, introducing myself and making new friends when I spot Brennan, the Ozark Pride President and someone who made an impression on me the last time we met.

Brennan came out as Trans exactly two years earlier, the night I was last there, at the Pride afterparty and drag show. Since then, he’s started HRT and organized two more Prides. He’d just had surgery on his knee and was in a wheelchair, being pushed through the soft grass by his wife while he directed support staff.I leaned over to hug him while he tells me the speakers for the show just caught fire. I had noticed a couple drag Queens earlier so I asked how he felt about Arkansas’ fresh “drag ban.” “First thing I did when I heard about it was organize a drag show,” he drawled. I smiled and nodded, but I saw he had his hands full so I ambled back over to my tent.

Kodee came by to chat and check out my book. They agreed to sit for my first interview of the day. Kodee is Trans and lives in Little Rock. They started transitioning at 27. They are HIV+ and explained to me Arkansas also criminalizes people with HIV. If you don’t inform a sex partner of your status, you could be charged as a sex offender even if you don’t transmit the virus.

When I ask about how it is to be Queer in Arkansas and if they’ve ever thought of moving, they tell me they don’t have much of an issue personally, but are concerned for the Queer youth. “If we leave, who’s going to speak for them?” When I ask about the future of Queer in Arkansas, they just smile and tell me, “They (Queer youth) aren’t going to take this shit.” They feel like things might improve when the older generation dies. Wait it out — valid strategy.

Kodee’s coworker, Kimberly, approached my display next. She said telling her own story might help others having similar struggles so she was glad to have an opportunity to share it with me. Kimberly was in an unhealthy relationship eight years previously and then she lost her grandmother. She went through a struggle with meth and tested HIV+ at some point.

She beamed when she talked about her activism work. She loves helping people. She met her husband on an HIV+ dating app and they’ve been married for three years. They have a two-year-old and her husband’s daughter and toddler also live with them.When I asked about Arkansas’ anti-LGBTQ legislation, she replied, “I’m a very loving person. I’m a Christian. Everyone deserves to be their true selves…If we’re not giving support, where does that leave them? …Sometimes, you don’t know the impact you’re going to make on someone, but you still have to try.”

My old buddy, Abby, came over. She’s one of the organizers. She got involved when she met Mama Catherine (another organizer’s mother) at Walmart and she prayed over Abby and invited her to join Ozark Pride.Abby has a twin sister but never felt accepted growing up with her grandparents. She started wearing boys clothes at a young age and knew she liked girls. She told me about her past mental health struggles, but those issues were improving with medication and a new loving relationship.

She and her fiancé are trying to get back on their feet after their house with all of their belongings and savings burned down earlier this year. They’re living with friends in an even smaller town. Abby said she can’t find a job, but got on disability.

When I asked how it was being Queer in rural Arkansas, she said, “I’m loved. I have so many friends…Everything I know is here, so you risk it.” She’d like to move to Texas, eventually, “I wanna see what the world has to offer.” But for now also thinks the situation will improve when the old people die in 5–10 years. Damn boomers.

It was hot. I got up to watch the drag show. Somebody drove to Walmart and picked up a speaker. It wasn’t meant to handle outdoor events, but nobody is complaining. Everybody is cheering and tipping. The Queens’ heels are sinking into the grass, but that doesn’t stop the death drops. A drag King’s dog joins his dad in the act. Watching little kids watch drag Queens is one of my very favorite activities.

Aubi Gold, Mother, Haus of Mineral (center, in blue, in case you were confused)

During an intermission, I asked some of the performers how they felt about Arkansas’ new “drag ban.” None of them seemed intimidated. Aubi Gold, Mother of the Haus of Mineral of Fort Smith, Arkansas, replied, “I’ll walk into any gas station, Walmart, Dollar General. I do not care. Look at me.” In a later Facebook exchange, she told me she “grew up in a small town, just like Hardy,” so she wasn’t “scared of a little rough and tough battle.” Aubi is impressive. She is a talented performer and a natural leader.

It’s late afternoon. The drag show has ended. People are starting to pack up. There is no after party this year. Hardy won’t allow Ozark Pride to use their civic center any more. They claim there was property damage and theft the last time, but consensus seemed to be that was a “load of horseshit.” I have two more interviews I’ve been waiting to do.

The first is with Chase, a drag King I met in 2021. He and his wife and kids live in Thayer, Missouri, close to the Arkansas border. He’s been transitioning for ten years and says it’s the best decision he ever made. He got into drag watching Rupaul, but didn’t start performing until he saw his first King perform at a gay bar in New York. He loves the community created by drag culture and also loves glitter. There is still some in my van.

Hardy crowned their first Queen and King.

When he first started transitioning, he drove to Lincoln, Nebraska for care. His primary care physician is now unbelievably in Arkansas, but he informs me there is only one that he knows of. He says Missouri is no better, but his family and community are there. “I have fought for a long time for who I am and who I wanna be. Where I’m at now, with the support group I have around here, I will continue to fight…for the people who don’t have a voice. It’s the youth I’m concerned about.”

I finally get another chance to talk to Brennan. He’s been busy. His voice has dropped dramatically since I saw him. He says testosterone has helped his mental health. He is the only out Trans man in the area. He thinks about moving to Arizona, but his wife wants to stay in Hardy, so he’s staying.

He got involved organizing Ozark Pride just before the first one by answering a Facebook ad. I asked him how he felt about the day. “Well, everything that could have gone wrong happened (but)…Oh man, I looked out at one point and counted 83 people in the bleachers. And to see that compared to the first couple years, it was amazing. To see how far we’ve come in the last three years, it’s such a sense of accomplishment.”

Me and Brennan.

It was something to be proud of, a perfect Pride. It was time to pack up. I drove back to Springfield and found the same hotel parking lot to crash in.

On the drive home the next day, with time to think, I realized I wanted to know more about organizing efforts in Arkansas. The legislative attacks are taking place on a state level currently, coordinated nationally. Full-time, local activist organizations are often the only resource for strategizing large targeted actions to counter these authoritarian efforts in the capital. Often, these organizations are also founded and run by small groups of dedicated individuals, united around a purpose.

Rumba Yambú is one of the founders of inTRANSitive. They migrated to NW Arkansas as a youth and found activism in junior high when they hand-drew fifty flyers announcing the first Day Without Immigrants march in Springdale in 2006 and organized their friends to hand them out.

After emerging as Trans, they were frustrated at the absence of an organization that confronted the intersectional oppressions faced by Trans immigrants. InTRANSitive started as a Facebook presence to organize against TERF recruitment in Fayetteville in 2017.

I hadn’t ever thought of TERFs as a centrally governed entity that engaged in recruiting, but I know conservative strategists have highlighted “gender critical” feminists’ and “detransitioners’” perspectives as an effort to inflate the scope of their anti-Trans campaign. Were there conservative-funded gangs of TERFS hyping Trans controversy in NW Arkansas before the legislative attack?

Yambú tells me inTRANSitive was self-funded until they testified against the gender-affirming care ban at the state legislature in 2021. They think it was no accident this legislation came to Arkansas first. It was a test case. They say Arkansas didn’t have the organizing infrastructure to fight. National LGBTQ funding organizations took notice of inTRANSitive’s efforts and began to invest in Arkansas.

With the funds, they were able to purchase a building and open the first Transgender Community Center in Arkansas in Little Rock. They provide advocacy and services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. They advocate for and provide translation services for Trans immigrants. They have education and community care spaces for Trans people and have Youth programming. They also provide direct financial support mostly to black and brown Transwomen.

Yambú and InTRANSitive are a strategic leaders against the current anti-Trans legislative attacks. They have organized digital and grassroots campaigns against the massive conservative political agenda in Arkansas. When I asked Yambú if there is anything they’d like Queers in blue states to know, they answered, “It’s eventually going to come to you and there’s proof of that. That’s what I tell funders.”

Tig Kashala, Director of Operations at Lucie’s Place, based in Little Rock, also agreed to meet with me over Zoom. Lucie’s Place was created in 2011 after the suspicious death of Lucille Hamilton, a Trans community member in Little Rock, while traveling to Louisiana. It is a Black-feminist, Trans-led, intergenerational collective providing direct services and advocacy to LBGTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

After being run as a traditional non-profit, the organization was reclaimed by Trans and Queer organizers of color, returning it to its grassroots foundations. Kashala runs their drop-in center with a free closet. Kashala got their first professional credit in costume design at fifteen. They’ve taken their passion for costuming and transformed the free closet into a style consultation resource for gender non-conforming folk that visit.

Kashala grew up in what they described as a religious cult. They have a deep understanding of a Christian Nationalist mindset. “They are not failing at critical thinking, they live in an echo chamber…Conservatives operate in a state of cognitive dissonance. They can’t and won’t come to terms with real situations.” They were kicked out of their congregation as a teen.When asked what they want Minnesota Queers to know, “There are organizers in the South. There is a resistance movement. Southerners need a lot of support right now. Don’t write off Southern states as full of Hillbillies.”

I didn’t personally meet any hillbillies in Arkansas, just a ton of innovative, brave, passionate Queer organizers.

Little Rock is also home to the House of GG — The Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat and Historical Center. This is the legacy project of Trans revolutionary, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.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 Arkansas:

Ozark Pride:


Lucie’s Place:

House of GG:

Next stop — Ottumwa, Iowa.