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.