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Celebrating the Legacy of Iowa's LGBTQ Leaders


November 7, 2019

On Friday, October 11, the LGBTQ+ community celebrated the 31st annual National Coming Out Day. It’s a day focused on the power of being authentic and the bravery it took (and still takes) people to come out as LGBTQ.

I was a 17-year-old high school kid in small-town Eastern Iowa when the first-ever National Coming Out Day occurred on the anniversary of the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights.

It would be five more years — after I’d graduated from Drake University and started my career in Greater Des Moines (DSM) — before I came out to anyone.

It happened while walking with a college friend along Polk Blvd. on the city’s west side. She listened and offered reassurance of her support and acceptance. Later, she admitted she wasn’t sure whether I was about to come out or profess my love for her.

Coming out to my friend gave me the courage to start making friends in the gay community, but I still needed to come out to my mom. I tried to tell her several times during a shopping trip to Kansas City. With each attempt I had a strong urge to be sick. Finally, somewhere along I-35, I tested the waters by outing a friend. Sensing she was accepting of my friend’s sexual orientation, I blurted out “Well I’m gay too!” Thankfully, she was immediately supportive. She just wanted me to be happy.

Then, rather unexpectedly, I came out to some coworkers at the small ad agency where I’d landed my first job. This was during the hotly contested and politicized Des Moines School Board election, where voters ultimately chose to remove recently outed board member, Jonathan Wilson. As a young gay man just starting out, I was crushed to witness his defeat. It was even more crushing to hear some colleagues applauding his removal from the school board. I let them know what they were saying was hurtful and harmful to gay people. Then I told them I was gay.

My revelation was met with apologies and questions. Ultimately, it helped forge some long-lasting friendships.

An Evolving City

In the 25 years since I first came out here in DSM, I’ve watched the LGBTQ+ community grow and evolve. I’ve seen it confront challenges, including the AIDS crisis, vehement opposition to marriage equality and continued attacks on the transgender community.

I’ve also watched it triumph. Most notably in 2009, when gay marriage became legal in Iowa. I’ve seen brave, passionate LGBTQ employees at several DSM companies establish LGBTQ resource groups and build bridges with leaders and allies. I watched as Des Moines City Hall flew a gay flag for the first time in 2016 and I’ve witnessed Capital City Pride grow to an event more than 20,000 people strong.

Today, I’m proud to work for a company that strongly values diversity and has earned the coveted Greater Des Moines Partnership Inclusion Award multiple times. I’m also honored to serve on the board of One Iowa, the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy organization. One Iowa, which was instrumental in the passage of marriage equality in the state, continues to focus on transgender rights, workplace culture, access to quality medical care and leadership development.

Last week, Jonathan Wilson, the outed (and ousted) school board member who inspired me to come out at work, received an inaugural LGBTQ Legacy Leader Awards. He was honored along with six other Iowans who continue to make a hugely positive impact on Iowa’s LGBTQ community.

I’m fortunate that my experience as an out gay man in DSM has been overwhelmingly positive. I know that’s not the case for everyone, including those who are still struggling to come out today. There’s work left to do, which is why I remain active with One Iowa and celebrate trailblazers like Jonathan.

I’m confident Greater Des Moines — including employers, nonprofits, government entities, allies and brave LGBTQ individuals — will keep striving to ensure our community continues to become an even more progressive and inclusive place where all people can be authentic, happy and successful. It’s a future, and a legacy, in which we can all take pride.

Named as the #13 Best Place to Live in the U.S. and #7 Best City for Living the American Dream, Greater Des Moines (DSM) is the fastest growing metro in the Midwest. Learn more about what it’s like to live here.

Scott Valbert

Scott Valbert is assistant vice president of corporate communications at Bankers Trust, where he leads brand advertising, employee communications, media relations and social media efforts. He serves as a Board Member for One Iowa, a statewide LGBTQ education and advocacy organization, and is a member of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund Marketing Committee. He and his partner, John, live in Des Moines.