Reflecting on Donna Red Wing's legacy

On April 16, members of the LGBTQ community lost one of our most passionate and impactful trailblazers. Donna Red Wing passed away after a courageous battle with lung cancer on that day.

Donna’s legacy of service for the LGBTQ community is unparalleled. She was a national leader in the fight for LGBTQ equality, dedicating over three decades of her life to advocating for our community. Over the years, she held leadership roles at organizations like Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the Gill Foundation, Interfaith Alliance, and others. While directing the Lesbian Community Project in Oregon, she was featured in a Sundance Award-winning film about the 1992 struggle (and victory) against Ballot Measure 9, a proposed amendment to Oregon’s constitution that, among other things, compelled public schools to teach youth that being LGBTQ is “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse”. She also advised both President Barack Obama and Howard Dean on LGBTQ issues.

Donna moved to Iowa in 2012 to begin her tenure as One Iowa’s executive director. Despite living here for a relatively short time, she made an enormously positive impact in the fight for LGBTQ equality in our state. 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. The Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission recently renamed their Lifetime Achievement award after her to honor her extraordinary work championing equality for all in our state.

Over the past few weeks, One Iowa staff who worked with Donna during her time with our organization have been reflecting on our work with her, the enormous impact she had on our community, and our personal connection with her. We’d like to share some of those reflections with you:

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, Executive Director:

Donna was once called the most dangerous woman in America by the Christian Coalition.

She wore this as a badge of honor and would cleverly use that line when introducing herself to groups we would train together. The way she used this in her introduction was exactly why the Christian Coalition was so scared of her. She was able to get her audience to connect with her and see her as someone they could not only trust but also like.

I remember the first time I met Donna the summer of 2012. It was at an LGBTQ health coalition meeting shortly after she moved to Iowa and began her tenure with One Iowa. This was the first time the coalition had convened in quite some time, and it was my first time leading the coalition since I decided to revitalize the group and called the meeting. Immediately, I knew she was a force to be reckoned with and that I had better be on my toes. She asked good questions, provided input, and was ready to help me and the coalition move forward.

It was fairly soon after this meeting that Donna, Dr. Rich Salas at Des Moines University, and I founded the annual LGBTQ Health and Wellness Conference. One Iowa and Des Moines University have maintained this partnership and just completed the 6th annual event. This event has trained hundreds of healthcare providers, public health professionals, students, community members, and so much more. The number of individuals this event has and will touch contributes to Donna’s legacy.

Some of my fondest memories were taking what we called our “dog and pony show” on the road. We co-trained across the state of Iowa in a variety of settings, usually healthcare facilities. She is a big part of me doing work within the LGBTQ community and advancing in my career. I was not necessarily looking to do trainings or speak to groups, but because Donna invited me I would always say yes. She allowed me to develop new skills speaking about the LGBTQ community with healthcare providers.

It was also Donna who saw potential for leadership in me. I don’t think I’d be One Iowa’s current executive director if Donna had not provided me so many opportunities to be engaged, develop new skills, or believe in myself.

When I was nervous before going to speak in front of a group, I would ask Donna what she thought I should do or say. She would many times say, “Give them hell.” I am forever grateful to Donna for her mentorship. She will be missed by so many, but I am positive her legacy has and will live on in all of us.

Keenan Crow, Director of Policy and Advocacy:

Donna was, as she always liked to say, an activist, advocate, and agitator.

I think those close to her will remember a different list, however. At times she was a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen. To me, she was a mentor, a guide, and a friend.

Personally, Donna and I shared many experiences. Some were terrifying: I remember the first time we trained law enforcement and walked into a room of about 100 men with guns. I remember what a struggle that first training was, and how exhausted we were after. I also remember her owning the room the second she stepped in, and meeting people where they were to have some tough conversations.

Some other experiences were much less terrifying but just as intense…witnessing the signing of the HIV decriminalization bill, speaking at the rally celebrating the Obergefell decision, or even just chatting about Jerry Garcia in her Volkswagen Beetle on our sometimes 4-hour-long road trips.

All this (and much more) just from her short tenure at One Iowa. I’m sure she has had a similar impact across all the causes and organizations she’s been affiliated with over the years. We like to say that we stand on the shoulders of giants in this movement, and Donna was truly such a giant. Her immense presence, kindness, and candor will be deeply missed.

Erica Barz, Communications and Grants Coordinator:

I remember the first day I met Donna Red Wing. She was speaking on a panel at Simpson College, and I was a student there who had just applied to intern at One Iowa. I approached her nervously after the panel, and she greeted me with incredible warmth, like she’d known me for ages. I came to learn that this warm persona exemplified who Donna was and how she approached LGBTQ activism and life in general.

I had the opportunity to work with Donna both at One Iowa and as a member of the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission’s LGBT Advisory Council (LGBTAC). Her integrity and passion for our community and cause was inspirational and formative for me as an activist. While working with her, I learned so much not just about LGBTQ activism, but how to be a better person.

One of Donna’s closest held passions was ensuring LGBTQ seniors continued to benefit from our activism. She founded One Iowa’s annual LGBTQ Senior Summit (formerly called “Gay & Gray”) to help accomplish this goal, bringing LGBTQ seniors and service providers together to have crucial conversations about how to meet the needs of our community’s elders. This event also brought LGBTQ seniors’ needs to the forefront of not just our community’s collective mind, but the broader community nationwide as well. The Associated Press picked up a Des Moines Register article about the summit, and the article ran in over 40 publications across the United States. One Iowa continues to host this important event thanks to Donna’s leadership, and the 4th annual LGBTQ Senior Summit will be held in August.

As a younger LGBTQ person, I would not have many of the rights and freedoms I enjoy today without the hard work of Donna and many other trailblazers over the course of decades. Donna instilled a deep appreciation in me for amplifying and preserving LGBTQ history, especially here in Iowa where our community leaders’ historical impact is often overshadowed by their counterparts on the coasts. We cannot allow the hard work of Donna and our state’s other trailblazers to be forgotten.

As I continue my work with One Iowa and the LGBTAC, I hold Donna’s memory close and thank her for creating a solid foundation for my colleagues and me to continue building on. She was an incredible mentor and friend, and I will miss her dearly.

At One Iowa, we will honor Donna’s legacy the best way we know how: continuing her work advocating for LGBTQ Iowans.

A celebration of Donna’s life will be held Saturday, May 12 at 3 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines. We hope to see many of you there to honor this incredible woman.

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