By Deacon Jeanie Smith
As a West Des Moines faith leader, I believe our U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, have an opportunity to bring Iowans closer together by helping find common ground to ensure fairness and equality for all Americans.
Over many decades, Congress has shirked its responsibility to protect the LGBTQ community — but now with both parties offering proposals to add nondiscrimination protections to the law, 2021 could be different.
For the past eight years, I have served as an ordained deacon and the coordinator of Adult Christian Formation at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. In harmony with our national church’s belief that “God loves you — no exceptions,” our congregation has long provided a welcoming home for our LGBTQ friends and neighbors, and their active participation in our faith community has grown dramatically in recent years.
As an Iowan for the past 35 years, I’m proud that throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, there is no barrier to worship or ordination. We have ordained gay, lesbian, and transgender priests and deacons. I am proud that our rural congregations, as well as our urban ones, readily accept the ministry gifts of gay and lesbian clergy.
My connection to the LGBTQ community in my personal life goes back decades. My brother came out as gay during the height of the AIDS crisis when visibility carried great risks. Over the years, I’ve forged numerous close friendships with members of the community that have enriched my life and my faith.
Yet, despite the affirming message Episcopal congregations carry to all parts of our state, I know that LGBTQ people outside Iowa’s urban centers face tougher challenges in being accepted. Sadly, our state has become increasingly divided in recent years. Visiting Iowa’s rural areas is to gain insight into the loss felt in many of those communities. Small town families often find that their children have no choice but to move elsewhere in search of opportunity when they become adults.
I also know that such families can feel as though folks in Des Moines and other urban centers don’t understand or sympathize with what they’re facing. The ill will that results makes it easier to view those who are different — including LGBTQ people — as outsiders.
We all have to choose healing and compassion as the path forward for Iowa and for our nation, and one of the many steps that would make a meaningful contribution is to acknowledge the full equality of our LGBTQ neighbors. Legal protections offer victims of discrimination formal recourse, but they are also a statement of who we are as a people. Many years ago, our state enacted an LGBTQ nondiscrimination law, and now is the time to strengthen the protections that law afforded here in Iowa by codifying them on the federal level.
I’ve come to learn that lack of acceptance and discrimination are a national problem. According to a 2020 survey, 1 in 3 LGBTQ Americans nationwide experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in just the previous year.
That number rises to 60% among transgender people, who experience exceptionally high levels of unemployment and homelessness. They are also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.
Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders must often re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.
But there is now hope that Congress will finally act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our nation’s civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedoms America guarantees.
Finding a path to getting that job done is what legislators do when committed to solving problems. Senators Grassley and Ernst can look to the 21 states with laws like Iowa’s prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.
Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern that pits religious liberties against the rights of LGBTQ Americans. Every major civil rights advance, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act, has found the appropriate balance.
Senators Grassley and Ernst: More than 100,000 LGBTQ Iowans and their families and friends are counting on you.
About the author: Deacon Jeanie Smith had a career in health care administration prior to her ordination almost nine years ago in the Episcopal Church. A graduate of Cornell University, Smith, in recent years, has brought faith programs to incarcerated individuals and helped create educational initiatives about poverty and social justice issues.
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