Where All Are Welcome

Young people in the metro and across Iowa are working to make their schools more inclusive and safe.

Writer: Kellye Carter Crocker
Photographer: Ben Easter

School is back in session, but for many LGBTQ students, simply showing up is a daily act of courage.

The state has taken important steps to protect these vulnerable young people, and attitudes toward LGBTQ folks are improving. Still, many students say their schools feel unwelcoming, unsafe and even hostile, which studies show takes a significant toll on academic achievement, health and well-being. 

“LGBTQ students are at an astronomically high risk for harassment” and for turning to dangerous coping behaviors such as self-harm, drugs and alcohol, says Becky Smith of the nonprofit Iowa Safe Schools. “At the end of the day, every single student has a right to feel safe and supported at their school.”

LGBTQ students have always been part of Iowa classrooms, Smith says. But compared with closeted, older generations, more students are coming out and at a younger age. Educators often don’t know how to respond, especially as more transgender students speak up about their needs. “I think gender identity is really at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement now,” Smith says.

Support and Community

From Iowa’s capital to its tiniest burgs, a growing number of LGBTQ young people are launching school clubs to offer support and create a safe community for all. (It’s not uncommon, for example, for straight kids who are perceived as gay to be bullied.) A few Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) popped up in Des Moines-area high schools in the 1990s. They grew more common after 2007, when Iowa became the nation’s 10th state to pass a comprehensive Safe Schools Law.

The problem, Smith says, was that groups generally lacked the knowledge and organizational support to continue after their founders graduated. “The GSAs kind of fell apart,” she says, “and they’re starting from square one.” 

In response, Iowa Safe Schools created the Iowa GSA Network two years ago, says Smith, who coordinates the effort. Since then, the organization has identified and worked with about 100 GSAs in Iowa middle and high schools, with a goal of establishing at least one in all 99 counties. “We’re seeing students as young as 11 saying, ‘We need to create a safe space in our schools,’ ” says Smith, who also works with students, teachers, counselors and administrators to address individual cases of LGBTQ bullying.

Last spring, Iowa Safe Schools also launched the Iowa Queer College Coalition, hiring a coordinator to help LGBTQ students connect with the resources and support they need as they continue their educations at Iowa community colleges and public and private colleges and universities.

Smith works with students who want to create GSAs, helping them establish ground rules and procedures, positive relationships with educators and students, and leadership succession plans. “We give them the tools so they can advocate for themselves,” she says.

Understanding Rights

A lot of Smith’s work entails educating students about their rights. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a teacher or principal to tell students that GSAs aren’t allowed at their school.

But the federal Equal Access Act—a Reagan-era policy initially designed to protect school prayer and Bible study clubs—also covers GSAs, Smith says. Under the law, all secondary schools—grades seven through 12—that receive federal money and allow at least one club to meet at school must allow all other clubs to do the same. 

It doesn’t matter if some people feel uncomfortable about students discussing sexual orientation and gender identity issues—or fear parents and school board members will be offended, Smith says. Students have a right to meet.

Still, some school officials warn students against creating a GSA, saying bullies might target members. But they can’t ban clubs “simply because of a perceived threat,” Smith says. “The hypotheticals we come up with—as if there’s going to be total anarchy in the whole school—are often much worse than what happens. I think students as a whole are very accepting and open to the idea. I mean, if you don’t want to attend the GSA, you don’t have to.”

Led By Students

Students decide what they want their GSA to be, based on their particular school and community needs. In Iowa, they have names like Pride Squad, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and GLOW (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever). “These groups really function as peer-to-peer victim services and support groups,” Smith says. “It provides a place where students can come and simply be who they are.”

Some groups have worked with administrators to convert a teacher’s restroom into a gender-neutral one, for example, or with history and English teachers to highlight LGBTQ people in the curriculum. They’ve also hosted game nights, sold concessions at football games—while handing out information about how to be a good LGBTQ ally—and have held teacher-training sessions.

Teachers don’t have to be LGBTQ experts—or even agree with everything a student says—to offer support, Smith says. “People can be allies in even the smallest ways, day to day,” she says, and that can make all the difference for students who need it.

Now a senior at Norwalk High School, Jaden Deal seeks to dispel myths about gay people. Some students “expect me to be the stereotype,” he says, “but I look like them. I’m no different than they are. I just like guys.”

Finding His Squad

It was a glorious day. Summer vacation was new and felt endless and bright with possibility. The day dawned sunny and hot, north of 90 degrees, and if you were a Norwalk kid, you wanted to be at Wildflower Park, splashing in the pool and munching Skittles from the snack bar.

But Jaden Deal left the pool early that day. He doesn’t remember why, but he does recall intentionally splashing a teenage boy shortly before. Annoying older guys was something of a hobby for him then. As Jaden padded toward the locker room in his flip-flops, damp beach towel draped around his neck, smelling strongly of chlorine, which he never could seem to scrub off, the teen yelled something like, “Yeah, that’s right. Leave, queer boy!”

Jaden continued through the locker room, which led to the pool exit.

“He doesn’t even deny it,” the bully hooted.

Jaden stopped, heart thrumming. His mother had taught him not to take crap from anyone. He strode back to the locker room entrance. “That’s right,” he shouted. “I didn’t deny it.”

Then he left again, boarded his bike, and pedaled three blocks home. He was 10.

Now a 17-year-old senior at Norwalk High School, Jaden is a lifelong Norwalk resident who grew up living with his grandparents and dad. (Two years ago, he and his dad moved into their own place. His mom lives in Des Moines.) Although he didn’t know any gay people, Jaden says his home was free of prejudice.

Yet, from a very young age, before he knew what “gay” meant, Jaden worried about being different. “Boys like girls, and girls like boys, and that’s how it is,” he says. “I would have crushes on guys, and I would force myself to have crushes on girls.”

When Jaden challenged the bully at the pool, it was the first time he’d acknowledged he was gay to anyone—even to himself, completely. “I think in that moment it really sparked,” Jaden says. “It was like, you know what? I think I am.”

After that, Jaden was out, at least to his peers. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I didn’t care too much,” he says. He and a friend laugh now about how he called her home phone shortly after his pool epiphany. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m gay. I like boys.’ I think I hung up after that,” Jaden says, laughing at his awkwardness. 

Jaden also posted the news on his secret Facebook account. “I said, ‘I’m a gay little boy,’ and I put a laughing face after that. It’s so embarrassing. Cringeworthy,” he says, laughing again. “Everybody already knew, but I was just clarifying it.” 

Well, not everybody. About four months into fifth grade, Jaden was on Facebook on their home computer when his dad suddenly walked into the room. Jaden quickly closed the site, but his dad told him to log back in. Jaden wasn’t old enough to join Facebook, but he’d wanted an account to play games. “He was kind of mad—‘My son has a Facebook? What the heck?’ ” says Jaden, who scurried from the room.

Not long after, his dad called him back and asked about the post. “He was expecting me to say I was joking,” Jaden says. “But I said, ‘I’m gay,’ and he was like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ ”

His dad didn’t treat him differently, but he thought it might be a phase, Jaden says. “Every once in a while, he’d be like, ‘Are you still gay?’ and I’d say yes. That was the extent we talked about it.”

While his dad wasn’t mad or disappointed that his son was gay, Jaden says, he wanted to keep it quiet. “He knows there are mean people out in the world, and he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Jaden says. “He was scared. It was years later I found that out.”

Upon hearing the news from her ex-husband, Jaden’s mom introduced her son to one of her gay friends in Des Moines. “He was really flamboyant,” Jaden says. “It was like, do I have to be that to be gay? I was very confused.” Their meeting lasted five minutes.

At school, Jaden was used to being teased for not being a jock, but the tone of the teasing shifted when he came out. 

“It was more, ‘Ooh, gay boy, get away from me,’ ” he says. 

He had always enjoyed riding bikes and tossing around the football with his buddies, but everything changed the following year, in sixth grade. “Once we switched to middle school,” he says, “they were gone.” 

The girls were friendly—to a point. “All the girls wanted that gay best friend, I guess. But we would never see each other outside of school,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with my dad and a lot of time with my TV.”

Middle School Hell

He wasn’t bullied physically, Jaden says, then casually adds, “Maybe a trip somewhere here or there.” They called him names—the usual slurs, plus “Gayden” (a play on his first name). They refused to partner with him. They snickered and gossiped about him—and made sure he knew it.

After Jaden confirmed to a friend that he liked a guy in one of their classes, she blabbed to the boy. Everyone, it seemed, was staring and laughing at him. “I didn’t know what to do,” Jaden says. “It’s not outright bullying but just the fact that kids are talking about you and laughing, it makes you feel bad.”

In fifth grade, he enjoyed singing in the honor choir. But Jaden dropped the class after only one semester in middle school because of one boy’s constant bullying. 

Harassment from other students often made it difficult to focus. It got so bad at times, Jaden would walk out during class and seek refuge in Principal Beth Ward’s office. Ward, whom Jaden calls “absolutely amazing,” listened and offered suggestions. “The advice she gave me was very helpful,” he says. She asked him to document the abuse, and she met individually with boys who were tormenting him. The bullying would stop for about a month, then start again. Finally, Jaden asked Ward to act as a mediator in one-on-one meetings between him and the bullies. “Those talks helped me through a lot,” he says. 

From the first day of kindergarten, when he arrived covered with poison ivy, Jaden says, “I was the odd one out. I was in and out of groups, trying to find people to be friends with.”

But that changed in seventh grade, when Jaden met a bisexual boy a year older. They became boyfriends and, soon, Jaden was part of his boyfriend’s group of friends. These older guys smoked and drank—though Jaden says he never did—and were considered troublemakers and outcasts, he says. “It was like a newfound family for me,” Jaden says. “They were actually interested in me as a person.”

Even after his boyfriend was sent to reform school, Jaden continued to hang with his new friends. One day during the summer before eighth grade, they were at Wildflower Park—the same park with the pool—when some of the guys started tearing the thin branches off a newly planted tree.

Jaden was about 30 feet away, seeking shade at a picnic shelter and talking to some girls. He says he wasn’t involved in the vandalism. But when a police officer arrived, that didn’t matter. Jaden and the others were banned from the park for a year.

It was a wake-up call for a guy who’s dreamed of attending Harvard since childhood, when he visited an uncle who was a student there. Jaden didn’t want to be in trouble. 

As he distanced himself from his only friends, Jaden turned to music. A trumpet player since fifth grade, Jaden began visiting the band practice room more. There were other kids hanging around, too. It took about two years, he says, but “we all became our group. We called it our squad. It was basically all band kids.”

Jaden plays in Norwalk’s jazz band, the show choir combo, and last year was part of the school’s first mini pit orchestra for the musical. This fall he’ll be head drum major, and last year he played cornet in the prestigious All-State Band. He plans to audition for All-State again in October.

‘Band Saved My Life’ 

Meanwhile, he watched as some of his former friends dropped out of school and were sent to juvenile detention and even prison, he says. “I think back, what would have happened if I didn’t play an instrument and I wasn’t in band?” Jaden says. “It’s just so weird to think about, because band saved my life.”

He considered a music career but it didn’t seem practical. He’s leaning toward majoring in political science and, after interning with Iowa Safe Schools, is interested in working with nonprofits. 

Jaden—who spent seven weeks at a leadership program at Princeton University this past summer—already has an impressive résumé. By the time he graduates from high school next spring, he also expects to have earned a two-year degree from Des Moines Area Community College. He’s on the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council, which provides a youth perspective to the Legislature and governor; is president of the Iowa Student Learning Initiative, an education-improvement effort; and is one of 24 teens nationwide chosen for Citizen University’s Youth Power Program, which promotes civic service and community engagement.

Because of Jaden’s efforts, a Norwalk High School junior will serve on the school board as an advising, nonvoting member starting second semester. He also works at Hy-Vee’s Market Grill.

Supportive Group

Last year, Jaden founded his school’s GSA, called Spectrum. “We didn’t want it to be just the gay club,” he says. Although the group initially focused on LGBTQ issues, it’s become a broader discussion group. At one meeting last year, the group—which included Democrats and Republicans—discussed a school shooting that was making headlines. “They were having a civil discussion,” Jaden says. “It blew my mind because some of the stuff that was going back and forth, I’d never thought of. The students were educating each other.”

Although initially resistant, Jaden says he’s even become friends with the guy who bullied him out of middle school honor choir. “I think he grew to understand that what he’d been told at home about gay people was not true for everybody,” Jaden says. “I think a lot of people demonize gay people.”

Young straight guys seem to worry about gay guys hitting on them, Jaden says. “I ask, ‘Do girls like you? Do all girls like you? Same with gays. It’s ridiculous because if girls don’t think you’re attractive, I probably don’t think you’re attractive, either.”

Getting to know each other as individuals, instead of focusing on labels, has made the difference, Jaden says. “They expect me to be the stereotype, but I look like them. I’m no different than they are. I just like guys,” he says. “I think once they can see themselves in me, that’s when they start to change their minds and their perspective.”

Prior to coming out as a girl, Logan Eaton “tended to bury my feelings … because if I didn’t have feelings, what people said couldn’t hurt.” Now the college freshman says she’s “so much happier than I was before.
I’m super excited to get my life on the road.”

True Colors

Logan Eaton didn’t plan to come out on April Fool’s Day. The then-16-year-old had agonized about how to tell her parents that she wasn’t the son they thought she was, drafting at least three versions of a letter to them. She’d already sealed the envelope when she realized the date. But after finally finding the words—and the courage—to tell them she’s a girl, she couldn’t wait another day.

She scrawled “This is not an April Fool’s joke” on the envelope, left it on the kitchen counter and headed to Mount Ayr High School, where she was a sophomore. “I needed to get it out there,” says Logan, 19, who graduated last spring in a class of 48. “I needed to tell them.”

Logan has lived in Mount Ayr since the end of fourth grade, when her family moved from Overland Park, Kansas. The southwest Iowa town—with 1,679 residents at the last census—is the Ringgold County seat. Logan’s parents were born in the area and have relatives “all over the place,” Logan says.

Almost immediately, Logan’s new classmates asked if she were gay. “It was the first time I really heard that word,” she says. The way they asked made it sound like they were fishing for something to make fun of her for, Logan says. “A lot of people, all the time, said I sounded like a girl, and I must be gay.”

Logan has an uncle who’s gay, and he brings his partner to family events, she says, but “back then, it wasn’t a thing people talked about.”

Eventually, in fifth or sixth grade, Logan decided that if so many people thought she were gay, she probably was. “I felt being gay was bad, and I shouldn’t be that way,” she says, “but I knew there was nothing I could do to change it.”

She struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide—but says she didn’t try to harm herself. “I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, so I was just dealing with it on my own.”

As a teenager, Logan discovered drag queen performers on YouTube. She was enthralled and thought that might be “really cool” to do herself someday. Over time, though, Logan says, “I started to realize it was more than me wanting to dress up and wear wigs.”

She was a high school freshman when Caitlyn Jenner came out in April 2015, and although Logan supported Jenner, it never occurred to her that she might be a transgender girl herself. Eventually, she discovered YouTube videos made by trans women. “The more I watched them, the more I realized, ‘That’s me,’ ” she says. “I think it finally made sense, and I actually felt that no matter what anyone else thought about it, I felt good about myself.”

Once she knew that, Logan went into full research mode, learning all she could about transgender people. “I needed to know everything right then because that’s who I am,” she says. “For me, when I want something, I go hard.”

She secretly bought a few girls’ clothes and wigs online, and when her parents and two younger siblings were out of the house, Logan tried them on. “I felt really good—it was like an image of what I could be,” she says. She hid them under her bed. “I’m really surprised my parents didn’t find out,” she says.

When Logan’s mom picked her up from school that day—April 1, 2016—she gave no indication that she’d read the letter. Logan’s sister, a fourth-grader then, also was in the car. Logan stewed in the back seat all the way home.

Shortly before writing the letter to her parents, she’d shared her secret with two girlfriends. “I was very cautious about who I told. I didn’t want the secret to get out,” Logan says. “They said they loved me no matter what. It proved to me that they really were my friends.” Her friends also cautioned her about telling her parents.

Logan didn’t question her parents’ love, but what would they think? What would they do? “It’s that fear of not knowing and not staying in control of what happens,” she says.

She’d told them in the letter that if they didn’t want her around anymore, she’d leave and they’d never have to see her again. “That was a way to protect myself,” Logan says.

Once home, Logan and her mom headed to the living room for a private chat. Her mother raised the issue of Logan leaving home. “She was like, ‘That’s never an option. Don’t ever think that. You always have a home here. We love you.’ ” Logan says.

While Logan was at school, her mom had already called physicians and therapists who treat transgender patients to set up appointments. “That was really good,” Logan says. “It just meant I could relax, and I didn’t have to fight anyone over who I am.”

Logan doesn’t remember specifically talking to her dad about it. “They accepted it, and they were still trying to figure out what it all meant,” she says. 

They waited to tell her younger siblings. When they did, her brother, now a high school senior, and sister, a seventh-grader, were supportive. “One time Mom was talking to my brother about something, and she messed up and said, ‘your brother’ and my brother was like, ‘You mean my sister.’ That was one situation when I felt really good,” Logan says. “My sister loves having a big sister who can curl her hair and put on her makeup.”

When her siblings had friends over, they were careful to shut Logan’s bedroom door so no one might accidentally see her makeup. She’d had her friends buy it for her when they were at Walmart together and then paid them back. “We were hiding it from the world,” Logan says, “but we were slowly telling people.”

Her grandmother with the gay son was accepting, and her other grandmother was, too. “She didn’t understand what it was at first, but she’s fine with it,” Logan says.

Logan was especially anxious about telling her great-grandmother, a very religious woman who lives in Creston. “She is one of my favorites, and I love her so much. I didn’t want to hurt that relationship,” Logan says. 

But she also didn’t want to keep such an important secret from her. “We had to tell her. I wanted to tell her,” Logan says. “She said, ‘Whatever makes you happy is fine.’ She still has problems with pronouns and everything, but she’s working on it.”

The family kept the secret for a year, but as Logan’s junior year wound down, she decided she’d start dressing as a girl on the first day of summer vacation. “I wanted an easy way to come out to everyone,” she says.

On the last day of Logan’s junior year, the high school teachers and others gathered in the library before school. Logan sat in the back with two of her aunts. Another aunt, who teaches in the elementary school, sat with the teachers.

Becky Smith and Joshua Merritt from the nonprofit Iowa Safe Schools spoke first. They explained what transgender means and talked about the state’s Safe Schools law. “They said no matter what anyone here feels about it, I am protected by law, and they have to protect me,” Logan says. “The whole way through, my heart was racing. That’s all I can remember. My heart was racing.”

Logan’s mother spoke next, explaining how difficult it had been for her daughter, including the depression she’d endured. “She was shaking and nervous and crying,” Logan says.

But Logan remained dry-eyed and impassive. “I don’t get very emotional very easily,” she says. “I tended to bury my feelings as much as I could because if I didn’t have feelings, what people said couldn’t hurt.”

During a Q&A, a teacher asked some “really not-nice questions,” particularly about Logan using the school restrooms. “That confirmed to me, ‘Oh, don’t talk to him about your problems,’ ” says Logan, who remembered the teacher being critical of Jenner when she came out. “It was OK. I never really liked him anyway.”

Many of the teachers hugged Logan and her parents afterward. “They were crying, too,” she says. “It was a really good experience.”

Then they headed to the auditorium. 

Logan sat high in the back, in the sound booth. It was comfortingly familiar since she ran sound for most school performances, including plays, musicals and choir concerts. She also played trumpet, electric bass and stand-up bass in various school bands and spent a couple of years on the student council, in FFA and running cross-country, among other activities.

Straight Allies 

Onstage, Smith and Merritt again took the lead, talking to the students about LGBTQ issues and how straight kids can be good allies. Logan’s mom spoke next. “A lot of the kids were crying,” Logan says. “A lot of my friends sat in the front row.” Watching from above was “kind of like an out-of-body, near-death experience,” she says.

After the assembly, as supportive texts blew up Logan’s phone, one of her male friends ran up and gave her a hug. “It made me really happy that he shared his emotions that way, no matter what anyone thought,” she says.

The next day, the first day of summer vacation, Logan dressed as a girl, though she doesn’t remember what she wore. Throughout the summer she saw people from school—at her Shopko job, at bonfires at friends’ houses and other get-togethers, and driving around town. “I talked about it with my girlfriends but not with any of the guys,” she says.

When Logan returned to school her senior year, “it was pretty normal,” she says. 

Logan, who’d never had trouble making friends, says she gained even more after coming out. “I actually liked myself now, so I had more confidence,” she says. “I felt like everyone was judging me as a boy.”

Homecoming Court 

Last fall, her class voted her onto the homecoming court. “I was so excited,” Logan says. “I loved playing princess when I was a kid.” When her father escorted her at the Thursday-night coronation ceremony in the gym, Logan says, “my heart was pounding so hard.” The next night, she proudly walked onto the football field with both her parents as the court was presented to the cheering crowd during halftime.

Each of the girls on the court was paired with one of the homecoming king candidates. “Between us girls, we decided who was with who,” Logan says. She was paired with one of her good friends. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she says.

Logan is just starting her freshman year at Northwest Missouri State University, about an hour south of home. Both her parents and several other relatives are alums, and Logan says she fell in love with the campus and the city of Maryville. She’s majoring in pre-law and rooming with one of her best friends from home. 

Almost every new student arrives at college feeling eager and a little nervous. Logan has additional concerns. Everyone at home knows her story, she explains, and it’s nerve-wracking to wonder how new people in a new place might react. 

But she’s also looking forward to this next phase of her life. “I am so much happier than I was before,” she says. “I’m super excited to get my life on the road. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m kind of ready for whatever life throws at me.”

LGBTQ: What Does It Mean?

Language changes and evolves. Here’s a mini-glossary from GLAAD, which has advocated for LGBTQ rights for more than 30 years.

Lesbian: A woman who’s physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to women.

Gay: A person who’s physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to the same sex; can refer to men or women. “Homosexual” is considered an outdated, derogatory term.

Bisexual: People who are physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to those of the same gender or another gender.

Transgender: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Queer: Some, especially younger people, have reclaimed this once derogatory term for someone whose sexual orientation isn’t exclusively heterosexual and who might not relate to terms such as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The rebooted “Queer Eye” notwithstanding, the term isn’t universally accepted in the LGBT community. The “Q” can also stand for “questioning.”

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