Finding community: Safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people in southeast Iowa

Union photo by Ashley Duong

As national discussion around LGBTQ+ communities continues to evolve, in southeast Iowa, support groups and PFLAG chapters are starting up to provide support for the next generation of queer individuals.
Union photo by Ashley Duong As national discussion around LGBTQ+ communities continues to evolve, in southeast Iowa, support groups and PFLAG chapters are starting up to provide support for the next generation of queer individuals.

While resources and communities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other non-straight identifying individuals are more common and accessible, they serve an especially important purpose in more rural areas. For older members of the LGBTQ+ community, who remember a tumultuous fight to be recognized as equals, these communities are necessary spaces. In southeast Iowa, several groups have recently started up, not only to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, but also to increase awareness and visibility.

In a matter of just several decades, Bob Mueller has seen the country make leaps and bounds toward improved gay rights. Mueller, a 73-year-old Mt. Pleasant resident who identifies as gay and grew up in the Midwest, explained that as a young man, his sexual orientation was kept mostly a secret.

“In my generation, most of us didn’t come out until we were 40 or so,” Mueller explained.

“We’re in a time of backlash,” he also acknowledged when discussing the current political and social climate of the country. But still, the U.S. as a whole has made much progress in Mueller’s eyes. For the 73-year-old, being gay was a very dangerous thing in a time not too long ago. It was a silently held secret and LGBTQ+ support groups and communities that exist today were nowhere to be seen. As a young man, Mueller remembers that the only way to socialize or get to know other gay men was through covert means.

“No one spoke about it openly … you had these spots you could go but people kept it quiet in general,” Mueller added.

It’s part of the reason why Mueller was excited to start a PFLAG group in Mt. Pleasant last August.

“It’s to show kids and their families that it’s OK,” Mueller said.

PFLAG is meant to be a community for family members and allies of LGBTQ+ individuals, as was as LGBTQ+ individuals themselves.

“The thing we want to do with PFLAG is, kids are starting to come out more now, it’s generally more accepted and safer but a lot of times the parents are the ones who have a bigger problem. They don’t know how to deal with it,” Mueller said.

For Mueller, PFLAG exists to support younger individuals in the community through allyship but the bigger picture is about supporting the next generation’s right to lead the life they want, openly and without judgment.

“People should be allowed to establish the family that they want to have,” Mueller said.

“It’s just so much better to be able to say, ‘oh, I don’t have to lie,’” the PFLAG founder said. Mueller explained that in being forced to keep their sexual orientation secret, he often saw people of his generation turn to self-hatred.

“The lying makes you look paranoid. You wonder how social you can be and you’re constantly policing yourself,” he said of the toll it can have.

Creating a safe and open space to discuss issues and provide support to LGBTQ+ individuals is what Lu Evergreen and Tricia Nelson are hoping to accomplish with their support group, which was started in the summer of 2019. Evergreen and Nelson, both therapists at Optimae Wellness in Fairfield, co-host the group every week.

“It’s just about bringing the community together, having a safe space to network and talk about things that are going on … some of the people who tend to be a bit more isolated or feel like they want to meet other people in the LGBTQ+ community but where do they meet them? There’s not a gay bar here, there’s really no place to go to get that sort of exposure and visibility. That’s what our group is hoping to do. Give more visibility and give people that safe space and those connections,” Nelson explained.

Activities the group partakes in include hosting “Queer Eye” viewings as well as holding discussions on relevant LGBTQ+ topic that may be in the news or being discussed on the national political stage. Members of the support group have also organized several social events and dances for people of all ages in the community.

Evergreen, who identifies as nonbinary or genderqueer, explained that having a visible community is especially important for youth and for individuals who may be from outside of southeast Iowa.

“For youth, kids in middle school and in high school, having that visibility and community is really important. Knowing there’s older people in the community who are like them, who can live freely and have safe spaces, is important,” they explained.

“Another group visibility is important for is people not from the area, like from big cities, where they’re more used to that queer culture. It helps retain people in town, just knowing that there is a community available is very important for people,” Evergreen added.

Evergreen added that visibility is important not only for LGBTQ+ people but for others who may not be aware of or familiar with non-straight identifying individuals.

“It does promote more acceptance in general,” they remarked.

Evergreen explained that LGBTQ+ visibility gives members of the community the opportunity to think critically about and challenge the concept of heteronormativity, or the idea that heterosexuality is the preferred sexual orientation.

“I feel like a lot of people with heterosexual privilege don’t have to think about the kind of challenges queer people face. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist until they see it or meet someone, so in that way, [visibility] promotes more ally-ship, especially if a straight person meets a queer person in small-town Iowa and learn queer people aren’t too much different from them,” they continued.

Liam Halawith, a junior at Mt. Pleasant High School and the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance group, explained that knowing there are groups that exist to support students outside of school is important, especially for students who may not have supportive home lives.

“In the grand sense of the world, every place is a safe space for straight people. They are the default, LGBTQ+ people don’t have a space that is just their own ... these support groups allow more than just a place to hang out, but can be spaces to discuss specific issues facing the LGBTQ+ community and a place to unite,” Halawith said.