Above: Lindsey (left) and Jenny Smith and their children at their Des Moines home.
A More Perfect Union
Writer: Barbara Dietrich Boose
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
You can’t doubt Lindsey Smith when she says she has “the all-American family.” She is an English teacher at Roosevelt High School; her spouse owns a financial services business. Happily married since 2010, they’re raising their 5-year-old twins and 4-year-old son in Des Moines’ Waterbury neighborhood.
Nor can you doubt Lorrie Hanson when she calls her son, Arthur, a “typical teenager.” The Nevada High School freshman is a 4.0 student in the school’s talented and gifted program who reads voraciously, tutors a college student in Spanish, cares deeply for his family and friends, and is “witty and a little snide,” Hanson says.
How the Smith family is different from most of their neighbors is that Lindsey and her wife, Jenny, weren’t able to legally marry until the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage. When Jenny gave birth to their twins, Jude and Abram, in 2011, Lindsey had to go through the adoption process to ensure both mothers’ names were placed on the babies’ birth certificates.
“That was really emotional for me, that I had to go before a judge to justify that I’m worthy of being a mother,” Lindsey says. “It was degrading.”
Arthur Hanson is different from most of his classmates in that he was born female but at age 7 began refusing to wear anything pink or lacy and, on his third day in eighth grade, came out as male. He has felt largely supported by his family, friends and school, but after he and his mother were featured as “transgender in the rural Midwest” in the Nevada Journal in February, someone left voice messages at his high school and home threatening to kill, brand and otherwise harm him. (An Ames man was jailed on harassment charges as dsm went to press.)
“I’m a serious mama bear when it comes to my kids,” says Lorrie Hanson. “I’m still worried, because we know there are people out there who aren’t welcoming. You never know who they are or where they’re going to be.”
Uncertainty and a mix of guarded optimism and concern characterize the current mindset of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) individuals and their allies. On one hand, legal protections for rights such as same-sex marriage have been won; on the other, according to the progressive advocacy organization People for the American Way, in 2016 some 100 “religious freedom” bills were introduced in state legislatures that would allow anyone to discriminate against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.
“Our nation has stood on freedom of and for religion. It used to be a shield, but now it’s a sword,” says Donna Red Wing, a longtime LGBTQ activist who on Jan. 1 became director of the Eychaner Foundation, a Des Moines-based nonprofit organization committed to promoting tolerance and nondiscrimination. “This is not religious freedom as our founders envisioned. It’s really dangerous.”
Gary Moore, a longtime activist in Des Moines, considers the 2016 election and current political climate to be a wake-up call. “I remember the days when the police would go into gay bars and arrest every other person at the bar. They’d print the names in the newspaper the next day, destroying lives,” says Moore, who has worked as a psychiatric medical social worker. “Some people think that couldn’t happen again. But some of us who are older say, ‘Yes, it can.’ ”
Moore and Red Wing, who point out that their sexual orientations were once considered a psychiatric diagnosis, share a fear of complacency. “Now we know we have to fight for everything,” Red Wing says. “We have to do all we can to protect our legal rights and find our humanity. Civility was the first casualty of the presidential campaign. It set a tone not only for elected people to act badly, but for everyone to act badly.”
A New Generation
Arthur Hanson and his peers give reasons for hope as the generation that is growing up being aware of LGBTQ people and issues. Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of One Iowa, a nonprofit organization working toward equality for LGBTQ people, sees the nation’s youth as a “bright spot” in advancing toward greater equality.
“I think we can look forward to society becoming more inclusive through our young people, because they’ve grown up with LGBTQ not as an issue,” he says.
“We also see more kids courageous enough to come out at an earlier age,” many supported by their families, teachers and communities, he adds.
That’s a change from how many in his generation matured, before marriage equality and other protections against LGBTQ discrimination were implemented, Hoffman-Zinnel says. A native of Pomeroy, Hoffman-Zinnel felt like “the only gay kid” growing up. “I suppressed all my emotions and feelings until I was in college, when I realized there are a lot of other LGBTQ people,” he says. “A lot of us had to be really good actors growing up.”
Through its Iowa Pride Network, One Iowa assists students in forming and sustaining alliances in their schools. Students are connected to resources and workshops to help them find community, create safer school environments, work toward equality and learn about LGBTQ issues and history.
“The most important work we do is to serve as a catalyst for creating safe and welcoming environments for people to feel comfortable as individuals, employees, colleagues and customers,” Hoffman-Zinnel says.
Another postelection “silver lining” he’s observed: The number of people who have contacted One Iowa wanting to get involved in support and advocacy has increased.
“Now we need to figure out how to harness and sustain all that energy,” he says. “We have a number of volunteer activities and events. We also encourage people to get engaged in the political process and reach out to their legislators.”
One Iowa and other advocacy groups have supported two bills filed by Iowa Sen. Matt McCoy: Senate File 73 would expand Iowa’s hate crime definition to include offenses committed against transgender individuals; had it been law, it would have meant the individual who left threatening voicemail messages against Arthur Hanson could have been accused of a hate crime. Senate File 74 would prohibit sexual orientation change efforts—so-called “conversion” therapy—for minors.
Hoffman-Zinnel also advocates on LGBTQ issues in the city’s business community as a member of the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Inclusion Council, which consists of about 30 representatives of Central Iowa businesses and nonprofit and civic organizations that are committed to creating inclusive cultures and growing diverse customer bases. While that mission may sound “Iowa nice,” it also makes smart business sense.
“I think our businesses really get it,” Hoffman-Zinnel says. “They understand that to be competitive, we need to create an environment that welcomes new talent and retains the talent we have.”
Nathan Ritz, director of the Inclusion Council and the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s program director of talent development and youth leadership initiative, says a welcoming environment is important as the city seeks to attract new employers and amenities.
“Our community is expanding economically faster than ever. Our companies want to build and cultivate relationships with all customers and prospective employees,” Ritz says. “We need to continue to lead and be progressive. If we get negative press, that could set all our progress back. People don’t want to do business with discriminatory organizations.”
Ritz says Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Principal Financial Group are two “pace-setting companies nationally” in embracing inclusivity. Rona Berinobis, Wellmark’s vice president of inclusion and organizational development, credits CEO John Forsyth for instituting policies, such as benefits for employees in same-sex marriages, when he joined the company two decades ago. The company created an 18-member inclusion council that sponsors events, communications and community service activities relating to all forms of diversity.
“Beyond being the right thing to do, we want to be a viable company that employs a diverse workforce and serves a diverse group of customers,” Berinobis says.
As of press time, One Iowa was planning to recognize Wellmark’s inclusion efforts at its annual gala April 7. The Principal Financial Group was the first recipient of that award, in 2016, for its commitment to diversity and inclusion, writ large in a video titled “It Gets Better,” produced to inspire hope among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. The video, which featured three Principal employees, won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award.
“We showed the video at an employee event, and there was not a dry eye in the room,” says Heather Schott, Principal’s assistant director of diversity and inclusion. “We see inclusion at the Principal as a business imperative. Diversity means everyone and how we maximize the talents of our entire workforce and best serve our customers.”
Health care providers also see inclusiveness as vital to their mission. “In addition to advocacy and education, the kinds of health care services we provide to patients are important,” says Rachel Lopez, public relations manager with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. Historically, Planned Parenthood was among the first health care organizations to embrace serving LGBTQ patients. “Our providers are highly trained to provide compassionate, nonjudgmental care that is crucial to building trust with patients and protecting their reproductive and overall health.”
Allen Vander Linden says he’s at “that age where I’ve seen it all.” The Des Moines resident, 73 and now retired, revealed his sexual orientation to his wife in the late 1970s, when Iowa had no laws protecting him from losing his job or custody of their two children. While the experience was difficult for the entire family, they remain close, including Vander Linden’s husband, Michael Thompson.
“There has been so much progress. I never thought that I’d ever be married [as a gay man],” Vander Linden says. “I know anything can change, but at this time, I’m feeling pretty good.”
So is Arthur Hanson, the ninth-grade Nevada transgender student who in middle school founded a gay-straight alliance club.
“I went to a really trusted teacher who said yes to supervising it,” he says. “The kids in that room had a lot of fun and were happy to be there with a teacher who knew we were OK, just different.”
Being “just different,” members of LGBTQ communities say, shouldn’t be reason for discrimination, injustice and violence, but warding those off requires vigilance and activism.
“In my lifetime, who I am has been illegal in most states and has labeled me with a mental illness. I couldn’t get married; I could lose my job,” says Donna Red Wing. “Right now, it feels like we’re moving backward to the 1950s. But I will continue to fight the good fight; I have been for 30 years.
“We need to speak up, and we have to be strategic,” she adds. “We have to take action, from little—educate yourself, make that phone call to your legislator—to big—get arrested, run for office. The worst thing we can do is to be complacent. We can’t take our rights for granted.”
Iowa “has always been at the forefront of civil rights issues and more progressive than most of the states in the Union,” according to the Council Bluffs Community Alliance, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally organization that seeks to embrace and empower diversity. A look at progress for LGBTQ Iowans since 1970:
The University of Iowa becomes one of the first universities in the United States to allow a student LGBT group. It was also one of the first universities in the U.S. to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy.
Rich Eychaner, a Republican, becomes the first openly gay man in the United States to run for Congress, running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. The Des Moines businessman later founded the nonprofit Eychaner Foundation to promote tolerance and nondiscrimination.
On Nov. 14, District Judge Jeff Neary in Sioux City grants a divorce to a lesbian couple who had a civil union in Vermont, a year before Massachusetts allowed marriage equality. The case was appealed by conservatives to the Iowa State Supreme Court.
Iowa becomes the second state to allow full marriage equality for gays and lesbians. One gay couple was married before the judge put a stay on the ruling in Varnum v. Brien (see below) until the Iowa State Supreme Court could rule on the case.
Iowa becomes the fifth state to protect children from bullying due to sexual orientation and gender identity. It also becomes the seventh state to ban discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity, thus making these protected classes in the state.
On Jan. 18, the Iowa State Supreme Court rules that the non-birth parent in a same-sex couple can go through the adoption process.
On April 3, the Iowa State Supreme Court hands down a unanimous decision in Varnum v. Brien in favor of full marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Because of the stay on the 2007 District Court ruling, this makes Iowa officially the third state to allow marriage equality. And it’s the first state not on one of the coasts to allow marriage equality and the first state to rule on marriage equality with a unanimous decision.
On Feb. 18, Grinnell College announces its selection of Dr. Raynard Kington as its next president. Kington is the first openly gay African-American college president in the nation.
The Iowa Supreme Court rules that the Iowa Department of Public Health must list the non-birth mother as the second parent on the birth certificate of the child of a lesbian couple. This means that the non-birth parent no longer has to go through the adoption process.
Capital City Pride
An all-volunteer, grassroots nonprofit that hosts the annual Pridefest with the goal of promoting acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus
A male choir dedicated to advancing a positive image of gay people through music and community outreach.
Des Moines Pride Center
An all-volunteer organization supporting the LGBTQ community and allies.
A foundation dedicated to promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, preventing bullying, and investing in education through student scholarships.
Human Rights Campaign
National organization working to advance civil rights for LGBTQ people.
Iowa Safe Schools
An organization whose mission is providing safe and supportive learning environments and communities for LGBTQ youths and allies.
National legal organization focused on achieving full equality for LGBTQ people.
An organization dedicated toward full equality for LGBTQ individuals in Iowa through grass-roots efforts and education.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland
Offering a range of health care services as well as resources and education.
Resource for men for free and confidential HIV and STD testing, prevention education and referrals.
The Project of Primary Health Care
Offering a full continuum of HIV services, from testing to treatment.
Synergy Clinical Services
Behavioral health clinic offering a range of specialized services for LGBTQ individuals.
Capital City Pride will host its annual Pridefest June 9-11 in Des Moines. The event will include a parade as well as entertainment. For details, go to: