2019 LGBTQ Legacy Leaders

Writer: Luke Manderfeld
Photographer: Jami Milne

As any regular reader of dsm magazine knows, we’re longtime advocates for equal opportunity for all. And we recognize that society has been slow to acknowledge the contributions of its minority groups. In one small step to correct that, we have partnered with the advocacy group One Iowa to honor community leaders who have made our state better for all Iowans.

Our LGBTQ Legacy Leader awards celebrate the courage and convictions of Iowans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. Long marginalized socially and politically, they have nonetheless worked to improve the world around us. We also selected one individual from outside the LGBTQ community to honor as an Ally, someone who has embraced and promoted LGBTQ Iowans as friends and colleagues.

Learn about the honorees on the following pages and hear from them in a video, created by Duane and Dylan Huey of Good Plan Productions, on our website, dsmmagazine.com. Join us in honoring—and being inspired by—this remarkable group at a public reception Oct. 24 in the ballroom of the Temple for Performing Arts. Also at the event, the 2019 graduates of One Iowa’s Leadership Institute will be presented.

Sharon Malheiro

Sharon Malheiro
For the Underdog

Sharon Malheiro grew up hearing tales of discrimination toward her family. Her mother’s side came from Italy, her father’s from Portugal. She was told they were treated differently because of their nationality. And that didn’t sit right with her. 

“I’ve always been someone who fights for the underdog,” Malheiro says. But it wasn’t until law school at Drake University that she seriously considered advocacy. 

When Malheiro started practicing law with the Davis Brown Law Firm in 1990, there were a number of discriminatory laws against LGBTQ people. It was personal for Malheiro, who was still coming to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian. She had been out to herself for years, but she was just starting to come out to others.     

She remembers walking through a state office building one afternoon in the late 1980s and spotting a protest against a proposed bill protecting LGBTQ Iowans against hate crimes.  

“They had these huge banners and all these chants,” says Malheiro, 62. “I knew I was gay, so it was scary to me. I couldn’t fathom the level of hate. That started my thinking about this needing to change.”

Malheiro was involved with the LGBTQ Community Center of Central Iowa, and she gathered a few other members who were politically active. They started local, helping pass an anti-discrimination ordinance in Des Moines in 1991. 

Sixteen years later, in 2007—thanks in part to Malheiro’s advocacy—Iowa outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Malheiro played a key role in ushering the case through the courts.

Malheiro says she was able to become such a tireless advocate because of her position. She viewed it as her duty to give a voice to the voiceless. And because her workplace was unbiased, she didn’t fear losing her job. 

“I had the privilege, and I needed to use it and advocate for others who did not have the protection in their employment,” Malheiro says. “That was back when people hid who they were because they could be fired for being gay.” 

Malheiro continues to dedicate volunteer work to LGBTQ issues, contributing pro bono legal work and remaining active in various organizations. 

“Sharon is a leader at work and in our community because of her ability to clearly articulate her position and then to work to build consensus on the issue,” says Deborah Tharnish, a longtime co-worker at the Davis Brown Law Firm. “Sharon is passionate about her work to bring equality to the LGBTQ community, and she strives to include others in the work.”

Legacy of Service:

Co-founded One Iowa and is a member emeritus on the organization’s board of directors. 

Served on the Iowa Supreme Court’s Task Force on Gender and Racial Bias in the Judicial System and the subsequent committee to ensure the task force’s recommendations were implemented.  

Led the fight to add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class in the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Partnered with Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ law firm, to accomplish marriage equality in Iowa in 2009. 

Provides pro bono legal counsel for the Aids Project of Central Iowa and is a cooperating attorney with the LGBTQ-focused Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

Jeorgia Robison

Jeorgia Robison
Coming to Grips

The thought constantly bounced in the back of her mind: As early as 14, Jeorgia Robison can recall thinking about suicide. But until 2010, a year after she was unwillingly outed to her family as transgender, Robison hadn’t seriously considered it. 

That’s when she moved into the planning stages—how and when she would take her life. Now Robison, who sought therapy and fully transitioned to a female in November 2015, considers herself lucky to be alive. 

“I call it climbing on a cliff and looking into the abyss,” Robison says. “I hit the panic button.”

Robison grew up in a military family in the 1960s and ’70s; when she was 16, her family settled in Cedar Rapids. The one constant in her youth was the feeling of being different. She was never quite comfortable around her peers. She poured all her efforts into being a man, but now admits that was just a filter.

Robison says she carried her family’s military mindset, which stressed conformity. At 21, she married a woman. She graduated with distinction from the University of Iowa College of Law and started a job in 1986 at a Marion law firm, where she still works today. She had three children with her wife. 

“I was just jumping through all of the hoops,” she says. 

When she was 17, Robison told her future wife about her gender identity, despite not fully understanding it herself. She didn’t tell another person until confiding in a therapist when she was 27. It wasn’t until the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s that Robison realized there was a community of people like her. 

“You really are petrified of your own self, and you live in denial for so long,” Robison says. “But then you realize you’re not the only one. Maybe I’m not just so far out and weird.” 

After her darkest days in 2009 and 2010, Robison came to grips with her identity. She publicly came out in 2010, and lived as a man in her profession but as a woman privately. In late 2014, Robison started taking transition hormones, which helped ease her darkest thoughts. She fully transitioned in 2015 to overwhelming support.

Because of her own experience, Robison is passionate about helping other transgender individuals find their own path, both legally and personally. 

“Without Jeorgia, I do not know where I would be today,” says Aimee Wichtendahl, a Hiawatha City Council member and Iowa’s first openly trans lawmaker. “During the early days of my transition she was there with a friendly ear and strong support. … Most of all, she kept a light on my passion for public service and to never stop trying to change the world for the better.”

Legacy of Service:

Member of the One Iowa Action board of directors.

One of Iowa’s first transgender attorneys and a strong role model.       

Active in the local transgender community via PFLAG-Cedar Rapids, and occasionally contributes to Transformations Iowa, a support group for transgender and nonbinary people. 

Guitarist for the blues band Blue Scratch, which competed in the 2017 Iowa Blues Challenge.

Involved with Marion Christian Church.

Sonia Reyes-Snyder

Sonia Reyes-Snyder
Breaking Barriers

During El Salvador’s long and bloody civil war, from 1980 to 1992, more than 75,000 people were killed. Sonia Reyes-Snyder grew up in the heart of it, in San Salvador, the nation’s capital. Her mother worked two full-time jobs, yet the family still lived in poverty. Soldiers roamed the streets at all hours. 

It was a dangerous upbringing, but one that brought Reyes-Snyder to the United States. With her father and a few other relatives already living in California, Reyes-Snyder was 16 in 1992 when she entered the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. 

“For the first time in my life, I was able to be a teenager,” says Reyes-Snyder, now 43. “I enrolled in high school. It was great.” 

After graduating from high school a few years later, Reyes-Snyder learned of educational and professional opportunities available in Iowa. She moved to Des Moines in 1997 and started her first job in advocacy in 2002 as a bilingual shelter advocate at the local Family Violence Center. 

Still, she says she felt depressed at that time. She sought therapy, which helped her realize she was queer, a term she hadn’t known before. That was in 2003, and she was married to a man and had two children. Coming out was a traumatic experience as she had to leave her home and community and build a new support system. 

“Many of the people I was surrounded by turned their backs on me,” Reyes-Snyder says. “They didn’t agree with the fact that I was queer. I had to start over and meet new people as a single mom.” 

Reyes-Snyder started volunteering at organizations around Des Moines in hopes of building a new network. She continued to ascend professionally, and by 2011 she was a bilingual case manager at Proteus, a nonprofit that assists immigrants and migrants. She was promoted to regional director in 2013. In 2016, Reyes-Snyder was named the executive director of the Iowa Office of Latino Affairs. 

“A lot of times I’m the only person of color and the only person out as queer,” she says. “A lot of times, we’re forgotten. It’s my job to make sure we are included in the planning.” 

Through her work with minorities, she recognized there wasn’t a distinct organization for LGBTQ individuals of color. She wanted to change that, and started the Iowa Queer Communities of Color Coalition earlier this year.

Reyes-Snyder is proud of her work for marginalized communities, but she beams when talking about her two children, Lizbeth and Yahriel Salinas-Reyes, who are both college students and passionate about activism themselves. 

“I know what it feels like as a mother to want to give your family the best possible,” says Jeannete Brown, chair of the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs. “I cannot think of a better example of a Latina immigrant that has broken down barriers of homophobia, class and language to get to where she is.”

Legacy of Service:

An advocate for Latinos and LGBTQ immigrants through her work with the Office of Latino Affairs.

Earned the 2018 Iowa Latino Leadership Award from the United Latin American Citizens of Iowa. 

Serves as the director on the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa board of directors. 

Co-founded the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame. 

Serves on a number of local boards, including as president for Al Exito, a Des Moines group that helps develop Latino youth.

Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson
In the Spotlight

It’s been almost 25 years, but Jonathan Wilson vividly remembers the exact time he came out to the world: 10:24 p.m. 

The date was Jan. 25, 1995, and Wilson, a lawyer and Des Moines Public School Board member for 12 years, asked to address the standing-room-only crowd and cameras broadcasting across the state. The topic at the meeting that night: homosexuality in the public schools. The meeting was called in response to a curriculum proposal that included education about sexual orientation.

At 10:24 p.m., it was Wilson’s turn to speak. He read his prepared statement, which included coming out as a gay man. In the hours leading up to the moment and in the time afterward, he assumed he’d have to wind down his law practice. What was the response from the community going to be? 

Over the next few days, the support was overwhelming. His office phone rang nonstop. But one call still sticks with him. 

“A woman called me and said, ‘Mr. Wilson, you don’t know me, but my husband and I have a gay son,’ ” the now 74-year-old Wilson recalls. “She said, ‘Because of what you did last night, we don’t think he’s going to kill himself.’ ”

Despite the immediate support, Wilson underwent a grueling reelection campaign against a Republican challenger, who had the support of GOP presidential nominees flooding into the state in preparation for the 1996 election. 

Wilson faced death threats and was escorted in a bulletproof vest. Police warned him to stay indoors. Wilson eventually lost the election in September 1995, which saw almost three times the normal turnout, despite winning three times before. But his mark was made.

After his loss, Wilson was motivated to start the First Friday Breakfast Club, an association of gay men and Iowa’s largest breakfast club. To date, the organization has given more than $250,000 in scholarships to high school seniors. 

“[The loss delivered] a wake-up call to gays and allies on the need to organize and build strength in numbers,” says Rekha Basu, a Des Moines Register columnist who has long covered Wilson and the LGBTQ community. “Wilson was intrinsic to that effort, both as a symbol of strength and pride and by helping to start the First Friday Breakfast Club for gay men.” 

When Wilson grew up, same-sex intimacy was a crime in many states, including Iowa. He married a woman with whom he stayed for 25 years and had two children.

A lot has changed in Iowa LGBTQ rights since that school board meeting, and Wilson is proud to have been a pioneer of change over the past quarter of a century. “It’s an incremental progress,” he says. “That’s the whole deal. Create learning moments and keep educating people. That’s been my approach.”

Legacy of Service:

Was a member of the Des Moines school board for 12 years before coming out as gay and losing a reelection bid in 1995. 

Advocated for policies at the Davis Brown Law Firm to recognize same-sex partners of gay and lesbian employees. 

Founded and served as president of the First Friday Breakfast Club, an association of gay men that has given more than $250,000 in scholarships to Iowa high school students.

Served as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington, D.C., a political action committee for openly gay and lesbian candidates. 

Was chairman of the Blank Park Zoo board of directors.


Terri Hale

Terri Hale
All About Love

Terri Hale’s support for LGBTQ individuals started as a child whose two best friends were gay, even if she didn’t know it at the time. She learned to love them as people first, which helped to form her inclusive mindset as an adult.  

As her career flourished at Principal Financial Group, Hale’s circle of friends included more people of different sexual orientations. In 2010, a year after Iowa’s marriage equality ruling, Hale and her husband decided to attend a One Iowa gala. 

The ruling was still controversial, even a year later, with opposition expressed in letters to the editors of Iowa newspapers. Hale went into the event expecting a backlash from the LGBTQ community, presuming that they would fight anger with anger. 

But what she found was happiness. It wasn’t about hate, but love. 

“They didn’t need to stoop to that level,” Hale says. “They focused on how grateful they were to legally marry the people that they loved.” 

Hale, 64, was struck by her experience. She confided to a gay co-worker that she wanted to do something to help the community. She considered writing a letter to the editor herself, but her friend had other ideas. 

“My friend said they needed straight allies like me,” Hale says. “They needed my voice. They needed me to speak up because others who don’t understand the LGBTQ community might listen to me.” 

She attended a meeting for Principal’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group, which fostered discussions of inclusion and diversity. Through that group, Hale had a hand in creating a number of projects, including Principal’s “I’m An Ally” campaign, an Emmy award-winning “It Gets Better” film and a diversity forum called “It’s OK to Ask.” For her dedication, she was named Principal’s 2014 Impact Player of the Year. 

Hale retired from Principal in 2017, but has continued her advocacy. She serves in various capacities for One Iowa and mentors LGBTQ individuals in the community.  

“Terri is a legend within our Principal walls, and as you might notice, that is spilling over into the full Des Moines community,” says Heather Schott, assistant director of diversity and inclusion at Principal. “As she retired from Principal, she has taken on a visible role in the fight for LGBTQ equality.”

Perhaps what spurs Hale the most in her activism is the ability to talk about these issues. She encourages anyone who doesn’t understand LGBTQ issues to ask questions. She’s more than willing
to answer. 

After all, she says, her job as an ally is to educate people. “I have people who ask me why I support the LGBTQ community,” Hale says. “That opens up conversations, and they can admit they don’t understand. That’s an important part of being an ally.”

Legacy of Service:

Helped lead a diversity initiative at Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, her former employer, and earned 2014 Impact Player of the Year award from the company. 

Works as vice president of the Hale Group, an advocacy, consulting and communications firm focused on aging and care-giving issues. 

Serves on the One Iowa board of directors and several committees.

Chairs planning committee for One Iowa’s LGBTQ Senior Summit.

Mentors several LGBTQ individuals, focusing on developing skills to help them advance their careers.

George Belitsos
A Safe Haven

When George Belitsos was a teenager, he came out to his parents—no small feat considering society’s antipathy toward homosexuality in the 1950s and ’60s. His family was supportive, which Belitsos considers a blessing.

“Their support was the springboard to my whole commitment to values of inclusiveness and equality,” Belitsos says.  

George Belitsos

Born in Boston, Belitsos moved to Cincinnati when he was a teenager after his father was transferred for work. Belitsos graduated from the University of Cincinnati and traveled to Ames in the early 1970s with the intent of earning a doctorate from Iowa State University. 

For as long as he can remember, Belitsos wanted to work with troubled kids. When he arrived in Ames, he was hired by the local YMCA to help youths near the university. 

Belitsos wanted to create a safe haven for these kids. He looked for a youth homeless shelter to emulate, a search that led him to Omaha, where he found an organization dedicated to children. In 1971 and 1972, Belitsos created his own shelters in Ames under the YMCA banner. He left the YMCA in 1976 and founded Youth and Shelter Services (YSS), a nonprofit organization focused on homeless children and their families.

From the outset, Belitsos pushed to include LGBTQ youths, who experience high rates of homelessness. The organization’s employment policy included opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation at a time when such policies weren’t common. 

“There were some hitches,” Belitsos says. “The attitude was, gay people shouldn’t be working with kids. I’ve had board members resign because we were too progressive or took stands in support of our LGBTQ youth. We’ve lost donors. In the early days, we lost some community leaders. But for the most part, Ames and Iowa have been very supportive.”

YSS continued to be a voice for LGBTQ rights with Belitsos at the helm. During the fight for marriage equality in Iowa in the years leading up to 2009, Belitsos enlisted YSS to file an amicus brief—a written statement on a court case from a party not directly involved—to the Iowa Supreme Court. Many opponents of marriage equality argued that LGBTQ people were not good parents, and thus shouldn’t marry and start families. YSS was the only Iowa-based nonprofit and child welfare organization to submit a statement in support of LGBTQ parents, Belitsos says. 

Belitsos retired from YSS in 2015 but is still involved in activism through his volunteer work. YSS continues to serve thousands of children and families every year. 

“Countless youth continue to benefit from the kindness, generosity and steadfast belief in the potential of each child, held by [Belitsos],” says Andrew Allen, president and CEO of YSS. “His legacy can be seen through the comfort, smiles, lessons and accomplishments experienced by those he has served.”

Legacy of Service:

Founded Youth and Shelter Services in 1976. The organization earned the Partner 

in Progress Award by the Iowa Pride Network and the Gay Straight Alliance. 

Received the 2010 Organizational Award from the Friends of Iowa Civil Rights.

Earned the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 from Gov. Terry Branstad and first lady Chris Branstad. 

Founded and serves on the Central Iowa Service Network against Human Trafficking. 

Serves on the board of directors of the International Rotary Action Group against Slavery. 

Karen Mackey
Born for Advocacy

Karen Mackey’s parents were a powerful pair. Her mother was a leader in local civil rights issues. A white woman, she married a member of the Santee Sioux tribe who was also a civil rights activist. 

They preached servant leadership to their daughter Karen, who remembers wanting to be involved in equality issues as early as age 15. She was also raised in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood, a luxury not afforded to many minorities, she says. 

“I was raised knowing I had many, many opportunities that most kids of color never had,” says Mackey, now  63. “I had to make the most of that, and it was a necessity to give back to the community.” 

At the same time, Mackey was grappling with her own identity. She didn’t quite understand her feelings during her high school years, but one thing was certain: She didn’t want to deal with them. It was the early 1970s, and she was afraid of the consequences if she came out in mostly conservative Sioux City. 

But during her first year at Morningside College in Sioux City, Mackey fell in love with a woman. When she was 19, she came out to her parents, who responded harshly. They cut off ties, and Mackey was forced to quit school. 

Mackey and her parents rectified their relationship five years later, and by the time Mackey was 30, she wanted to finish her education. She graduated from Morningside in 1990 and earned a law degree from the University of Nebraska in 1994. 

Her calling to advocacy led her to a four-year stint as a public defender in the Omaha Tribal Court, where she represented defendants and collaborated with social service agencies to ensure they received necessary assistance.  

In 2004, Mackey started what she viewed as a dream job, becoming the executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission, which investigates discrimination allegations in the city’s public services. Eight years later, Mackey co-founded the Siouxland Pride Alliance. 

“Karen has a deep compassion for all vulnerable or marginalized people, from Native Americans to immigrants to African Americans to the LGBTQ population,” says Susan Leonard, who has worked with Mackey in several endeavors. “I have seen how she attends to young people who have been mistreated or abandoned by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

Her community work today includes a variety of LGBTQ organizations and Sioux City nonprofit groups, including one-off acts of kindness, such as finding homes for local LGBTQ youths forced out of their homes. She’s also a mentor through her work as a judo instructor. Mackey is a sixth-degree black belt, an elite rank, particularly for women.  

“Everything in my life prepared me for what I do now,” Mackey says. “Even bad experiences helped me relate to other people. I have empathy for what they are going through.”

Legacy of Service:

Works as executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission. 

Co-founder of the Siouxland Pride Alliance. 

Chairs the board of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs and serves on the board of the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

Serves on the board of the Siouxland Human Investment Partnership
and the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland.

  • Show Comments (1)

  • Susan Leonard

    Thank you for honoring these deserving people. They are an inspiration to all of us.

Comments are closed.

You May Also Like

How We’re Celebrating the Holidays

Ballet Des Moines. Photographer: Jami Milne 1 Last year, Ballet Des Moines performed a ...

Local Musician Creates ‘Anthem for Des Moines’

Andrew Hoyt, a Grimes native, is passionate about Des Moines. So much so, he ...

Discover Ways To Help Fight Food Insecurity

Join us for a fast-paced, action-oriented look at what you and your organization can ...