Opinion: Today's youths would inspire previous generations of LGBTQ people

Trevor Soderstrum
Guest opinion columnist

I had an uncle named Bert, whose church honored him for his military service during the Korean War. My Uncle Bert was also gay. He lived with a gentleman in Des Moines — I am not making this up — named Ernie. Ernie had studied to be a physician, but because gay people were not allowed to be doctors back then, he ran a bar. Whenever Bert came home to visit his mother, he brought with him a young woman as his beard. Bert died young in a fire and Ernie followed a few years later in that pandemic, that people at the time called the gay cancer, AIDS.

I think of Bert and others like him every once in a while. I think they would marvel at the world today. For most of Bert’s life homosexuality was considered a mental illness. They could not be school teachers. The federal government viewed them as security risks. The military believed they were a threat to “unit cohesion.” Their lives were constantly filled with the threat of violence not only from strangers but from the police as well.

Trevor Soderstrum

One of the most powerful stories in the history of Iowa that really should be made into a movie is the murder of two children in Sioux City in the mid-1950s. The area went into a panic. Even though the homosexual population there had nothing to do with either of these crimes, local police entrapped 20 gay men in a sting operation. The town wanted to get rid of their “sexual deviants.” Several of these men’s families did not even know they were gay. It destroyed their lives.

Without the right to due process, these men were sent to a special unit at a mental hospital. The only way they could garner their freedom was to prove they were no longer gay. Many of the doctors and nurses who at first were fearful of these men over time realized that most of them were wonderful people who should never have been locked up in the first place. These medical personnel fought a heroic battle to free these men.

It was a scary world. Everyone and everything told gay people that there is something wrong with them. It is little wonder that there was so much suicide and self-loathing.

When I was in high school, there were gay kids in my class. We knew they were “different,” but we grew up with them. They were our friends. For the most part, we were good kids who had been taught that you didn’t pick on someone who could not defend themselves.

Still, there were moments of violence that bother me to this day. One of the bullies in my class pulled out a pocketknife, walked up behind a younger kid, and before a person could blink, cut the kid’s rat tail (a small ponytail) off. Another bully stripped a smaller boy naked, stuffed him in a garbage can, and rolled him down the hallway. Neither received substantial punishment.

I don’t know if either of these boys were gay. But the message was clear: If you are different you are going to get harassed. It is sad to me that none of the gay kids in my class have bothered to come back for a high school reunion, even though most of us would love to see them. I guess it is a time in their lives that they don’t want to remember.

Then something wonderful happened over the last three decades. In the privacy of their homes and the hallways of their schools, one by one, by the thousands, kids came out to their friends and families. It is the kind of courage that I don’t think my Uncle Bert could have imagined. These small acts of heroism changed the world and made it easier for other kids to follow.

If you don’t believe that things have changed: The same Iowa that voted to remove several justices from their Supreme Court because they declared that same-sex marriage was legal in the state voted for an openly gay married man named Pete Buttigieg as their candidate for president of the United States in the Iowa Democratic caucus. Who could have imagined such a thing half a century ago?

The countryside did not become filled with pink John Deere hats. The butter cow has not come out of the freezer. Iowans merely discovered that gay people are just as boring as straight people. It is amazing to look at the change that has happened in less than a century. I can understand why some people have struggled to keep up with it.

Still, the war is over. The younger generation has spoken. There will be mini-skirmishes for years, maybe decades, to come. Still, a century from now, our great-grandchildren will struggle to understand why there even needed to be this struggle.

For those that might not like this, it means you raised good kids.

Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He can be reached at tjsode@gmail.com.