Remembering Stonewall in western Iowa

C.J. Petersen: There’s a stereotype out there that western Iowans are intolerant, bigoted, or just plain dumb. That couldn’t be further from the truth. -promoted by Laura Belin

My name is C.J. Petersen. I work in sales, I’m a health care and substance abuse treatment advocate—and I’m an alcoholic. I’m also the only openly-LGBTQ Democratic nominee for the Iowa Senate this year, running in District 6 (Audubon, Buena Vista, Carroll, eastern Crawford, and Sac counties).

While I don’t drink anymore, and have been blessed by God with nearly three years of continuous sobriety, I am mindful of queer bars’ role in the history of my community’s struggle for full equality. It wasn’t all that long ago that it was illegal to be openly-LGBTQ in most parts of our country.

Following decades of bloodshed, tears, injury and even death, our community has come closer to full equality than ever. But the scars remain, and for people of color in my community, things could hardly be worse.

This June, we commemorate the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. So much has changed since then, and LGBTQ people are coming out and being themselves at younger ages, becoming engaged in civics and participating in the political process in greater numbers than ever.

But just as Pride Month started, police in Des Moines raided one of Iowa’s oldest queer establishments as its employees provided water, towels, and medical assistance to demonstrators who had been attacked. According to one news report, three of the bar’s employees were arrested for “helping people who were in agonizing pain.” This is a harsh reminder that our past can inform our present, that old injustices still exist, and that our words and actions still have the power to wound.

I’m aware of the challenge we face. We’re running to occupy a state Senate seat once held by ousted white nationalist and homophobe Steve King. King’s own campaign treasurer won the GOP primary to be my general election opponent.

It was an uphill battle from the start, but we were able to garner five times as many votes in the June 2 Democratic primary as the last Democrat who sought this seat. For perspective, I announced my campaign for this seat just two months before the primary election, and have not been able to campaign in person due to COVID-19 safety concerns. I’m so proud of what we have achieved so far.

There’s a stereotype out there that western Iowans are intolerant, bigoted, or just plain dumb. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The people here are hard-working, patriotic, and caring. Above all, we are kind.

It’s not just politicians in blue districts who should be speaking out in support of their LGBTQ constituents. Rural candidates need to be clear, too: we do not condone or accept discrimination in any form. This means, yes, that Black Lives Matter. Of course every life is precious, but a centuries-long cycle of systemic racial oppression demands that we take a long, hard look in the mirror and remind ourselves.

It may not be good politics for me to say those words, but I’d rather lose an election than lose my sense of right and wrong.

We may disagree on some political issues, but I promise, I’ll never hesitate to listen and discuss them with you. I’m happy to discuss legislation to improve the funding mechanism for our public schools. I’ll talk through voter ID and absentee voting rules until we’re blue in the face. And we’ll work together to improve access to treatment and care for Iowans struggling with substance use disorders & to improve our Medicaid managed care organizations.

What I will not do is entertain any discussion on issues that are not political: people of color, women, and LGBTQ members of our society deserve equal and fair treatment from their government. All workers deserve the same protections in the workplace. And the way we treat each other in our politics should never be driven by malice or personal attacks—period.

Our state and nation’s politics have become toxic, and I’m well aware of the role I played in the past in perpetuating the hostility. But if we’re going to heal, and move past the distrust and division of these years, we’ve got to talk to each other. It’s time to act like neighbors again, because we all occupy this space together.

I used to be a Republican. It’s how I was raised. And if I’m being honest, I always felt more comfortable as a gay man around my conservative friends (and they’re still my friends) than I did as a conservative around my gay friends. I know why, but I also know that means there is an opening for LGBTQ leaders to make inroads with our conservative friends and family members.

I’m proud of the people I know on all sides of our political discourse, and have good and meaningful relationships with people of all backgrounds and experiences. My own battle with alcoholism has taught me to persevere, to believe in the power of doing all the good we can with the time we have, and emboldened my sense of solidarity with all who struggle.

Let’s keep having this conversation as we go forward to November—and win together to create the change we seek.

Happy Pride.

Top photo of C.J. Petersen (right) with his fiancé Luke provided by the author and published with permission.

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