Aime Wichtendahl, Iowa’s first-ever openly transgender elected official, has been at the forefront of all the protests and efforts to stop a flood of anti-LGBTQ+ bills. The two-term Hiawatha City Council member is also the One Iowa Donna Red Wing Advocate of the Year for 2021. Read what this leader, parent, elected official and activist has to share after two protests and an appearance before an Iowa House subcommittee trying to stop a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
CEDAR RAPIDS – I was leaving a protest of former Vice President Mike Pence’s appearance at a nearby Pizza Ranch a few weeks ago, when I was stopped by a man driving through the parking lot.
After I explained that we were asking the conservative echo chamber to stop trying to roll back LGBTQ+ rights, the man pointed to the Iowa flag I was carrying.
“You know, I am really happy to see that flag,” he said. “It represents us all.”
Protests, speeches yet anti-LGBTQ+ bills advance
The words on that flag are, “Our liberties we prize, our rights we shall maintain.” They’re why I joined more than 1,000 others at Sunday’s “Rally to Resist,” why I spoke before a House subcommittee two weeks ago, and why I joined about 50 others a few weeks ago to protest Pence on a cold, windy day.
Sadly, our efforts haven’t stopped the Iowa Legislature’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. Now, in addition to “Don’t Say Gay” bills that limit the mention of gender and sexual identity in the classroom, and “Out if Trans” bills that require teachers to out transgender kids to their parents, there are more.
Two more bills are now advancing that would ban gender affirming care for minors. Two more moving forward are “bathroom bills” that also specifically targeted trans youth, preventing them from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.
Pence, Iowa Republican legislators are hurting transgender people
Now this week, we have Iowa visits from presidential hopefuls Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and Nikki Haley. They, and Iowa Republicans pushing the anti-LGBTQ+ bills, are all trying to one-up each other on anti-transgender bona fides happening among conservatives everywhere.
None of them are saying anything new. They’re all regurgitating the same phrases right now, railing against “radical gender ideology,” “indoctrination,” and claiming to stand up for “parental rights.”
In reality, all of these politicians are advocating for policy that will endanger others’ lives.
Pence, in particular, functions below the radar with little fanfare. But he is just as dangerous. Earlier on the day he visited Cedar Rapids, Pence’s group Advancing American Freedom was in federal court fighting a Linn-Mar School District policy that allows students to chart their gender transition plan, without consulting their parents. Pence’s group is also funding ad campaigns nationwide that say the same thing.
Our challenge clearly extends beyond the Iowa Legislature.
If these Republicans in Iowa and nationwide have their way, our queer students could lose everything, including the ability to go to school in peace. Our queer youth won’t be acknowledged by the names and pronouns that match their real gender identity. They’d have fewer protections from bullying and harassment of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students.
They’d be unable to receive the health care they need. They won’t have as many opportunities to receive sound information about gender and sexual identity. Their mental health would suffer.
Queer students supported by parents, faith leaders, veterans, each other
But as the protests I’ve attended show, there is hope. Queer students in Iowa have the support of parents, faith leaders, veterans, caregivers, business leaders and each other.
The day after my House subcommittee testimony, thousands of youth conducted a school walk-out statewide. The Rally to Resist was organized quickly, yet over 2,000 people gathered in front of the capitol to shout loudly that bigotry is not what Iowa is about.
Concluding Sunday’s Rally to Resist were four young activists from Iowa WTF, the group that led the statewide student walk-out.
“You fear us,” said David Lee, one of the student walkout leaders. “You fear how the world may change if you can’t control our education, our identities, and our will to fight. And yes, we are angry, frustrated by your refusal to hear us when students across the state are being vulnerable with you by sharing their stories, expressing their pain, and you don’t listen to our voices, much less engage in meaningful dialogue with us.
“This movement is sustained by love. We do this out of love for our families, for our children, love for our friends, and love for ourselves — and especially, for the untold LGBTQ+ stories and heroes who have lived, fought and died throughout history. We fight for the same dream.”
Hope, love remain despite today’s moral panic over LGBTQ issues
Lee’s words resonated with me. Despite what we’re facing now and the hard road ahead, the future belongs to them. Lately, I’ve also been finding solace in history.
When I was a child, another battle over parents’ rights blew up. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) sought to ban and restrict music, specifically heavy metal music. Satanic panic gripped many in the 1980s, as a lot of parent groups worried that heavy metal and the Dungeons and Dragons gaming community were leading kids into the occult.
Like today’s anti-LGBTQ furor, parental fears were ginned up, leading to boycotts, book-burnings and protests.
For inspiration on my way to the Pence protest, I queued up a song from that era by Megadeth: “Hook In Mouth” (an absolute banger, by the way). The song includes singer/ guitarist Dave Mustaine spelling out the word “F-R-E-E-D-O-M.”
“This spells freedom; it means nothing to me as long as there’s a PMRC.”
Pence and the Iowa Republicans pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation should heed the lessons of the PMRC. In that fight, the angry parents convinced the government to put explicit stickers on music albums – and that’s it.
The gesture only helped the kids of my generation know which albums were the good ones, and the PMRC eventually disbanded. Today, it’s either forgotten, or held in deep contempt. The fear-mongering did nothing but fuel the music industry and the growth of gaming culture.
Moral panics come and go, even if they prevail briefly. The thirst and desire for freedom always overcomes, nourished by protests like the ones I’ve been part of, and that are coming this weekend.
I believe 10 years from now, we’ll see Pence and Iowa’s anti-queer legislators as irrelevant. And contemptible. And even in Iowa, even if you’re queer, “Our rights we shall maintain.”
(photos courtesy Aime Wichtendahl and Mimi Dowd)