Iowans remember Donna Red Wing

Iowa progressives have been mourning the loss of a longtime advocate for justice and LGBTQ equality this week. Since Donna Red Wing passed away on April 16, Iowans who knew her well have shared their reflections and stories. With permission, I’ve posted some of those comments below.

The non-profit One Iowa released this statement.

Donna Red Wing passed away on Monday, April 16 after a courageous battle with lung cancer. Red Wing served as executive director of One Iowa from 2012-2016, expanding the organization’s work into new arenas after the battle for marriage equality ended.

“Donna was a force to be reckoned with and will be greatly missed by individuals across the country. She called herself an activist and an agitator and prided herself in being called the most dangerous woman by the Christian Coalition at one point.” One Iowa Executive Director Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel said. “Donna inspired so many including myself. I was lucky enough to get to know her when she first came to Iowa and co-founded One Iowa’​s LGBTQ Health and Wellness Conference. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Donna’s support and mentorship.”

Red Wing was a national leader in the fight for LGBTQ equality, dedicating over three decades of her life to advocating for the LGBTQ community. She was once called “the most dangerous woman in America” by anti-LGBTQ activists due to her charismatic and civil approach to activism, a title she wore with great pride. In addition to leading One Iowa for four years, she launched an LGBT Advisory Council while serving as a Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commissioner and briefly served as director of the Eychaner Foundation during her time in Iowa.

Prior to moving to Iowa, Red Wing served as Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership and Chief of Staff at Interfaith Alliance in Washington D.C. She was co-chair of the Obama for America 2008 LGBT Leadership Council and Howard Dean’s outreach liaison to the LGBT community. Red Wing also held leadership positions at the Gill Foundation, Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. While directing the Lesbian Community Project in Oregon, she was featured in a Sundance Award-winning film about the 1992 struggle against the anti-LGBT Ballot Measure 9.

Red Wing was the first recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Faith & Freedom. The Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission recently named their annual Lifetime Achievement award after Red Wing in recognition of her decades of activism.

“Donna’s passion and dedication to serving the LGBTQ community was unparalleled, and I am honored to have known and worked with her,” One Iowa Board Emeritus Sharon Malheiro said. “Our community has lost a fierce advocate, and many of us have lost an incredible friend, mentor, and inspiration. My heart is with Sumitra and the rest of Donna’s family.”

A celebration of Red Wing’s life will be held at a later date.

Sumitra Red Wing, Rich Eychaner, Sharon Malheiro, and Lila Gracey composed the following obituary, which has been widely shared on Facebook.

Donna Red Wing spent a lifetime advocating for the poor, abused children, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, against war, bigotry, hatred and violence. She never made much money, but filled the hearts and souls of countless friends and thousands who benefitted from her life’s work, charisma and positive attitude. Donna died on Monday, April 16, 2018, after an eight month battle with cancer.

Donna was a revered and well known national leader in the fight for LGBTQ equality, dedicating over three decades of her life to advocating for the LGBTQ community. She was once called “the most dangerous woman in America” by the anti-LGBTQ group “Christian Coalition” due to her charismatic and civil approach to activism, a title she wore with great pride.

In Iowa, she served as executive director of One Iowa for over four years, launched an LGBT Advisory Council during her time as a Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commissioner, and served as director of the Eychaner Foundation for the last two years. The Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission recently named their annual Lifetime Achievement award after Donna in recognition of her decades of activism.

Donna began her career as an activist working in the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam war, after being born in a Salvation Army women’s shelter on August 26, 1950 and growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts public housing projects.

Prior to moving to Iowa, Donna worked to stem the abuse of 4,000 children a year in Massachusetts. As Executive Director of the Lesbian Community Project in Oregon in 1992, she helped defeat the anti-gay ballot initiative Measure 9 campaign and was featured in a Sundance Award-winning film about the 1992 struggle. The Advocate Magazine named her “Woman of the Year” along with Hollywood Mogul David Geffen, “Man of the Year”. She was Chief of Staff at the national Interfaith Alliance in Washington D.C. and was the first recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Faith & Freedom.

Donna was National Field Director of the Human Rights Campaign, and National Field Director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She was Policy Director of the Gill Foundation in Denver, Colorado, and was Howard Dean’s outreach liaison to the LGBT community. She was co-chair of the Obama for America 2008 LGBT Leadership Council. She also served as Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership.

She is survived by her wife and partner for over 30 years, Sumitra, son Julian, grandson Jasper, twin brother David.

A celebration of her life will be held at a later date.

State Senator Matt McCoy, who was the first openly gay Iowa lawmaker, spoke about his friend on the Iowa Senate floor on April 17. You can watch the speech beginning around the 6:12:00 mark of this video. My partial transcript:

Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, we are all profoundly saddened by the loss of Donna Red Wing. Everyone who knew Donna Red Wing loved her. She was kind, wicked smart, and a champion for the underdog.

Donna was described by the Christian Coalition as the most dangerous woman in America, which makes her golden in my book. […]

Donna led One Iowa as our executive director, and she helped Iowans talk about being LGBTQ. She discovered Iowans who were forced back into the closet as they entered the twilight of their life and headed into nursing homes and assisted living communities. She helped educate health care professionals and providers about elderly gay Iowans and the importance of allowing them to live honestly by acknowledging their long-term partners.

Donna fought the fight for countless vulnerable Iowans and Americans, but she encountered her own vulnerability as she faced her own battle with cancer.

Shows strong, she was courageous, and she was passionate. She was my friend, and I will miss her very much. […]

Former State Senator Jack Hatch commented via Twitter, “Donna was a compassionate leader who brought people together and talked through the cultural differences we have. Her spirit and belief that all people should be treated equally is a memorial that will last forever.”

Jeremy Rosen, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, told this story on Facebook.

Donna Red Wing and I used to say we were a couple of Massholes living in Iowa.

I’ll always remember the day the US Supreme Court issued the marriage equality decision in 2015. It was a Friday and I was the only one in the ACLU office. I was in jeans; I hadn’t bothered to shave for an office day by myself. We hadn’t planned on doing anything to mark the occasion. In hindsight, that was tone deaf, but while I think we were all excited, since Iowa already had marriage equality, it didn’t seem like a BFD for us here.

Well, Donna didn’t care. She made it a BFD. She organized a big rally that same day, at the sunburst statue by the Iowa Supreme Court. And she called and invited me, some guy who had just gotten to Iowa four months ago, to be one of the speakers. I had to write a speech, go home, shave, shower, and hustle over to the rally. But I was happy to do it. That was Donna. She asked you to do things and you were happy to do them.

Zach Wahls became famous after speaking out for marriage equality at an Iowa House public hearing in 2010. He released this written statement on April 17.

I am deeply saddened by Donna’s passing. Donna’s leadership and tireless work as a defender of rights for Iowa families like mine made her an inspiration for all and a beacon of light and love. Our family slept better knowing we had Donna and One Iowa fighting to protect the liberties we prized.

Donna and I met shortly after she moved to Des Moines to serve as executive director of One Iowa in 2012, a pivotal moment in protecting marriage equality in our state. Together, we toured Iowa, visiting big cities and small towns, speaking and listening alongside each other in public libraries and church basements and family restaurants. We spent countless hours driving together, sharing stories, discussing strategy, and getting to know each other. We stood side by side in the fight for our freedoms, and I will always be grateful for her friendship, mentorship, and her commitment to what was right.

Iowans were lucky to have a national leader of the LGBTQ community choose to make Iowa her home and to join us in the fight for our rights at that crucial time. From her work opposing the anti-gay ballot initiative Measure 9 in Oregon during the early 1990s through her leadership as a national activist through her time in Iowa, she set a powerful example for any person who loves freedom, seeks justice, and believes in the fierce urgency of now.

My family will be keeping her and her family in our thoughts, and we know her work and her example will live on for decades to come. Rest in power, Donna.

Transgender female Lindsey Dickerson contributed these comments to Bleeding Heartland.

Donna Red Wing to me was so much more than just a civil rights icon both here in Iowa and nationwide.

She was an inspirational leader, mother, aunt, daughter, wife, community advocate. I am proud to call her my friend.

There was a time in 2014 I remember that she gave me an opportunity to come to the One-Iowa office and be asked questions in preparation for the Trans In Iowa Des Moines Register articles with Courtney Crowder. I initially got more than I had bargained for. However, I appreciate Donna and her staff for not holding back on me. I felt stronger as an advocate and stronger as an LGBTQ person after that session.

As someone who takes care of the elderly in central Iowa I also found the leadership portrayed by Donna on starting a yearly summit focused specifically on LGBTQ elderly a very important step towards giving seniors in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and group homes a large resource for information and services from across the area. Donna was also instrumental in helping navigate the process of getting a PFLAG LGBTQ support group started in Des Moines for the first time since it had closed years ago.

I will forever miss her grace, wisdom, charm, fellowship, and friendship she has given me for years. She and Sumitra will forever be in my heart. This loss is heartbreaking. My thoughts go out to her family, her wife Sumitra, and all others who grieve from her loss.

Robert Becker, who managed Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Iowa before the 2016 caucuses, posted on Twitter, “On behalf of the @BernieSanders Iowa 2016 team, we extend our deepest condolences to our friends at @OneIowa… seeing Donna in the hallways of the Merle Hay office daily helped remind us what our collective fight was all about. We were so very honored to have known her.”

Bob Vander Plaats, one of the most vocal opponents of marriage equality and leader of political campaigns to oust pro-equality Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 and 2012, posted on Twitter, “Donna inspired me and many as she reached out with compassion to discuss deep issues with civility. I’ll miss her!”

Rekha Basu wrote a Des Moines Register column in December 2014 about the “unlikely friendship” between a lesbian leader and a prominent social conservative.

Red Wing and Vander Plaats have been meeting every few months for over a year now, for an hour at a time, with no agenda or talking points. They talk about their families, religion, politics. They share an outrage over human trafficking and payday lending. He appreciates her love of children and says she appreciates his service to special-needs people.

She always brings him a gift, Vander Plaats said. One time it was a pomegranate-flavored lip balm branded “One Iowa,” which he uses all the time.

They’re building an unlikely friendship. They don’t shy away from the issue that divides them, but they don’t try to change each other’s minds.

“That is not my role,” Red Wing said when she, Vander Plaats and I sat down at Smokey Row before Christmas. Her goal is “to put a face and voice to what Bob thinks of when he hears of this community.”

For his part, Vander Plaats said he understands that gay people “have been hurt significantly,” and that they associate that hurt with him, though it pains him when people say he hates gays. He said his faith compels him to disagree with “the lesbian lifestyle, and gay marriage.”

UPDATE: I neglected to include this April 17 speech by State Representative Liz Bennett on the Iowa House floor. You can listen here:

My transcript of the last minute and a half:

Donna, you made my life better. I was 14 years old the first time somebody called me a dyke. My parents skipped awards ceremonies for awards I won and did not come to my swearing in at the Iowa state capitol just four years ago.

When I was in high school, LGBTQ kids had only one safe place: a weekly drop-in for LGTBQ kids that met twice a week. We couldn’t even think of marrying the person we love, we could be fired basically everywhere for our sexual orientation, couldn’t serve openly in the military, often could not adopt children, and could even lose custody of children we bore, because of our sexual orientation.

Things have come a long way, but there is so much more work to do, and Donna, I promise you, I will keep doing it and I will empower others to do the same. In your memory, we will work for employment non-discrimination in all 50 states, health care equity for LGBTQ folks, we will work to end the homelessness faced by so many LGTBQ kids—particularly trans kids, equitable treatment in the justice system, and so much more.

And I will remember how you engaged even those who sought to hurt you, with love. We’ll miss you, Donna. Thank you for standing so strong, and for letting people like me stand on your shoulders.

Top image: Photos of Donna Red Wing compiled by One Iowa on the occasion of her retirement party.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.