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Can You Look Her in the Eyes?: The Fight for LGBTQ Equality in Red States
The Midwest can extend a welcoming hand or use that hand to slap you in the face.
The Rev. Ellis Arnold spent six years as a minister in Decorah, Iowa, a town of just under 8,000 people that sits on the border with Minnesota. Decorah is home to Luther College, a private liberal arts school founded by Norwegian immigrants. It is the kind of town people think of when they think of a small town in the Midwest. It has a charming downtown with coffee shops; a kitchen-goods store; thrift stores; art galleries; and restaurants that serve locally grown and locally sourced food.
But wedged in between Margaret’s Boutique and T-Bock’s Sports Bar & Grill is “Club 45,” the local Republican headquarters. Its window display is crammed with red shirts emblazoned with “Let’s Go, Brandon”; yard signs and flags supporting Donald Trump 2024; books by Bill O’Reilly; and a video screen silently playing images of young Republicans. On the door is a notice that Club 45 is also a drop-off spot for the community food bank. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, recently signed a bill reducing SNAP benefits into law. Tom Hansen, the local Winneshiek County GOP chair, has called Club 45 a place of inclusion, even as Republicans in the state pass laws restricting rights for LGBTQ Iowas.
Decorah is a place of contradictions. It is a place that bills itself as welcoming and open at a time when fewer and fewer Iowans are feeling welcome or accepted. The Midwest can extend a welcoming hand or use that hand to slap you in the face.
I meet Arnold in a coffee shop that used to be a JCPenney. The ceilings are high and the room is open, but it still feels intimate. That’s because, even as we talk, Ellis says hello to friends as they pass by with their coffee. We chat about people we might know in common — my college roommate, who ran an arts collective in Decorah, and ministers I’ve met in my reporting — each a small relational web drawing us closer together.
Arnold, who now serves as Associate Conference Minister within the United Church of Christ, still lives in Decorah. They tell me that in 2020, when they were serving as a minister at the local United Church of Christ, a parishioner came into their office to tell them exactly why they were voting for Donald Trump. It wasn’t, the parishioner told Arnold, a vote against them and their rights. It was complicated. Arnold, who identifies as trans, was devastated that this person they knew and loved wouldn’t care enough about them to vote to protect their life.
But when that parishioner was in the hospital, Arnold was there to minister to them, to hold their hand, and to pray.
It’s one of the messy contradictions and betrayals that exist in red states, where the people fighting for their rights are often fighting against friends and neighbors.
Iowa is one of many states where the Republican-dominated state legislature has passed laws banning transgender girls from competing in girls' sports, banning gender-affirming care for minors, banning trans students from using the bathroom that fits with their gender identity, and banning books with mostly LGBTQ themes from schools.
Decorah’s state senator, Mike Klimesh, is one of the many Republicans co-sponsoring these bills. This legislative session, Klimesh co-sponsored a bill that would “would prohibit any mention of gender identity from sex education materials used in kindergarten and would require parental consent before students were exposed to any such materials in elementary schools." I spoke to four of Klimesh’s constituents who said that they had called his office and asked to talk to him about how the bills would affect them and their children, but had not heard back. A fifth, Karen Trewin — a lifelong Decorah resident who went to college with Klimesh — said she did eventually get a response from him, but she was disappointed by the encounter and how difficult it was to get a response.
Trewin is a person of faith and understands the complications of opposing viewpoints. She laughs when I ask her if Decorah is a blue bubble in a red state. “No,” she says. “We all live together here, but to keep the peace, we don’t really talk about it.”
But Trewin felt she had a right to speak with Klimesh, her senator. “This is a democracy,” Trewin told me. “And this is a community. I wanted to tell him how his votes would impact his neighbors.”
I reached out to Klimesh, but he stopped responding after I told him I was an independent journalist. When your party has a stranglehold on the state, you don’t have to explain yourself.
His silence was striking but not uncommon in a state where the governor was sued for failing to comply with open-records laws and so many news stories contain the line “did not respond to requests for comment.”
Arnold told me that these kinds of necessary but challenging conversations can be tough to have when the inclination of “Midwestern nice” is to just ignore conflict; to pretend it’s not there. But speaking up can change minds. Just this week, Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green, who had refused to sign a declaration supporting Pride Month because of his religious beliefs, relented and signed it after a city council meeting where resident after resident spoke up in favor of the proclamation.
He stated at the meeting, “It’s not [that] you’re looking for me to agree — it’s to support the community. … And I think that’s something I really didn’t appreciate before, that I really didn’t take to heart.”
Green added, “I would say to Cedar Falls residents: We don’t have to agree to support. We don’t have to agree to care. We don’t have to agree in order to love each other and try to understand each other.”
In a state where queer people often feel they are fighting for their lives while their neighbors stick their fingers in their ears and chant lalala, Green’s statement is a bit of hope. Maybe someone will still listen.
That’s why Arnold, Trewin and so many of the other people I spoke to about the laws are so vocal in their opposition.
“Midwestern nice is a double-edged sword. It keeps us in harmony. But it’s only a false harmony that ignores the real harms,” said Arnold.
The Midwest can extend a welcoming hand or use that hand to slap you in the face.
As a queer resident of Decorah, Arnold cannot ignore the harms without hiding who they are. Neither can Gavy Smith. Gavy is 16 and her family has been living in the area for four generations. Her mother, Tiffany, bought their house from her grandmother, and she can’t imagine living anywhere else. Gavy has been unable to play sports since Iowa Republican Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law HF 2416, which bans transgender girls from joining girls’ sports teams.
Gavy came out as trans in fourth grade and told me that she never had a problem until HF 2416 was signed. She was just a kid playing volleyball and softball and running track with her friends. When she came out, the school had teachers educate their classes on what it meant to be trans. That moment, Gavy felt a little awkward, Gavy told me, but after that, no one said anything.
And then the Iowa legislature introduced HF 2416 and everything seemed to change.
Gavy and Tiffany went to the Iowa State Capitol to testify about HF 2416 in 2022. And what surprised her the most was how none of the lawmakers who were in favor of the bill that would restrict Gavy’s rights would look them in the eye.
“It was like I wasn’t even there,” Gavy said. The experience felt isolating.
“I wanted to be like, ‘When you're saying this stuff, look her in the eye. Can you look her in the eye and tell her everything that you're saying?’” Tiffany said.
While debating the laws restricting bathroom usage and who can compete in sports, lawmakers speaking in the legislature have argued they’re protecting the safety of cis girls and women. But in 2007, Iowa enshrined gender identity and sexual orientation as a protected class under Iowa law, allowing LGBTQ Iowans to use the bathrooms that align with their identity. And since then, there have been zero reported incidents of violence in public or school bathrooms perpetuated by trans people. Ironically, the new laws have made women and girls more unsafe — girls like Gavy, who just want to live their lives.
Tiffany says the laws have changed the way she sees people talking about trans issues. They’ve changed her community, creating conflicts that didn’t exist before.
“Nobody's ever said a word about it. But now I feel since the sports bill, in the last couple of years, people are not afraid to tell you how they feel. You can see it on Facebook.”
Tiffany said she’s begun blocking people on social media. “These are people that I've known my entire life, and I'm thinking, ‘Do they not know?’ I would never do that to other people, my friends, my family, or ... I would never do that, post stuff on social media, that I know is going to ... That would be hurtful about their child.”
Gavy’s life is impacted by the new laws. She misses competing in sports with her friends. She also says going to the bathroom at school is a pain in the neck. Her school has relabeled some of the bathrooms as unisex, but there aren’t many of them. And Tiffany is worried about the climate of hate and fear that these laws are inciting.
But even if her elected officials aren’t listening, Gavy has a message for them. “One, we're not going anywhere,” she said. “Two, we're going to continue fighting for what is right, and that we're just here to be who we are, just like everybody else is.”
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An earlier version of this newsletter mistakenly wrote that Trewin and Klimesh went to high school together. They actually both attended Luther College together.