Anti-LGBTQ discrimination persists in Iowa and the nation, but it can be tackled

As an ordained minister who spent most of my career working in the mental health field in Iowa, I am hopeful that Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst will help find common ground ensuring fairness and equality for all Americans. For decades, Congress has sidestepped its responsibility to protect the LGBTQ community — but with both parties now offering proposals to add nondiscrimination protections to the law, that can change.

During my active ministry in the United Church of Christ (UCC), I served congregations in north central Iowa and in other states. Even before earning my Master’s Degree in Social Work, I began working in mental health. During my last post in Marshalltown, my wife and I became active in the UCC congregation in Urbandale. I now live in a retirement community in Grinnell.

I feel fortunate to have been raised in a family where I learned to see other people not by category but as individuals. Voicing biased attitudes toward others was never acceptable in our home. I spent my youth in Hawaii, a diverse multicultural environment where I met people of all backgrounds.

Still, as a teenager, I heard offensive language and slurs coming from some peers and found it difficult to find the words to counter such attitudes.

First encounters can be instructive

In my work in mental health, I first encountered an LGBTQ patient in the late 1970s. I learned that by listening carefully I could use my skills to address their needs as an individual. I also came to understand that while the specifics of their circumstances were different from mine, the challenges they faced reflected needs we all share.

My father was a wonderful role model late into his life. When my nephew became the first member of our family to come out as gay, my dad warmly embraced his grandson and his son immediately as they navigated what for them was uncharted territory. I’ve always tried to honor my father’s example.

Lack of resources

During our years attending Urbandale UCC, my wife and I met many LGBTQ people active in our congregation. We were happy to see how fully they were accepted into our faith community. But I’m well aware that hurdles continue to face LGBTQ folks across Iowa, even with our state nondiscrimination law. I witnessed the lack of qualified health resources available in Marshalltown to a young patient struggling with his gender identity. I’m also aware of a transgender woman’s recent story of mistreatment at a hotel and of the discrimination a trans state prison employee faced.

I’ve learned that 60 percent of transgender people across the nation report having experienced discrimination — which causes exceptionally high levels of unemployment and homelessness. That community is also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.

To me, it’s also personal

One of my adult children is queer-identified and has lived in rural Iowa for the past seven years. She tells me of the difficulties she encounters in finding acceptance in her small community. Unfortunately, Iowa is not unique in this regard. One in three LGBTQ Americans nationwide, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in just the previous year.

Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders must often re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.

Progress is possible, and our legislators can help

But there is now hope Congress will finally act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with Americans’ treasured religious freedoms.

Finding that balance is what legislators do when committed to solving problems, and Senators Grassley and Ernst can look to the 21 states with laws like Iowa’s prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.

Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern pitting religious liberties against the rights of LGBTQ Americans, many of whom are active in churches of accepting denominations such as the UCC. Every major civil rights advance, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act, has found the appropriate balance.

Senators Grassley and Ernst: More than 100,000 LGBTQ Iowans and their families and friends are counting on you.


Gayle Strickler, M.Div., MSW is Minister (retired) of United Church Of Christ in Urbandale


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