Central Iowa Trans Art Festival Focuses On Joy Amid Discrimination

Festival attendees browsing in one of the art halls. Photo by Starting Line staff

Being openly, obviously transgender can be risky, especially when the Iowa Legislature—and legislatures around the country—pursue laws to restrict trans people’s rights. But the bright side to coming out is finding a community, and that’s what the Trans Lives Festival on Saturday aimed to foster and celebrate.

For the third time since 2019, First Unitarian Church in Des Moines hosted trans and nonbinary Iowa artists, musicians, poets and community organizations to celebrate the LGBTQ community and foster joy.

“It’s been a really rough year for us and so events like this, and other queer events as well, they’ve been our lifeline,” said Johnna Joy, one of the many artists at the event. “This kind of stuff is where my sanity has been kept. And that community lifeline is what’s keeping us and a lot of other folks afloat right now.”

They cited personal problems but also the legislation pursued in Iowa and across the country to restrict the rights of trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law prohibiting trans youth from using bathrooms and locker rooms at school that match who they are, and a law prohibiting trans youth from getting necessary, gender-affirming health care from their doctors.

Other pending legislation would broadly prohibit schools from teaching about sexuality or gender identity and make it easier for books about race and LGBTQ people to be banned from schools.

But Trans Lives Festival, which drew upwards of 500 people according to event organizers, offered a respite from that with comedic performances and everything from candles to art prints to jewelry, all made by queer artists.

There were also booths for organizations such as One Iowa, Iowa Safe Schools, ACLU of Iowa, and the Des Moines Human and Civil Rights Commission to share resources with LGBTQ people.

“The Trans Day of Visibility was created as a complement to November’s Trans Day of Remembrance, which is very somber occasion, remembering those who have been murdered, lives that have been lost,” said Sarah Chang, organizer of the transgender action group at First Unitarian Church. “With this, we come into it where we celebrate the resilience, the innovation, the creativity, and just the love that is this community.”

Doug Aupperle, another organizer for the transgender action group at the church, said the festival feels more important this year than it has in the past because it can be encouraging for people to realize they aren’t alone.

“I think for kids coming here especially, [it’s important] to be able to see a lot of successful trans folks and adults, that they have positive role models to aspire to,” he said.

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

Chang added that the festival is there to remind people the world contains a lot of acceptance and support.

“There has been so much legislation, a lot of people are very discouraged right now,” she said. “There is sort of a shadow over things for that reason. But at the same time that makes it even more important to have something like this. So that everyone can be reminded that those are actually the minority and trans Iowans belong and will be celebrated in many places.”

She pointed to the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people in churches and said she thinks the tide is turning.

“I think part of what we’re seeing with all of the negativity and legislation being proposed is a backlash to the progress which will eventually gain a strong foothold,” Chang said.

Rachel Way, a trans woman and advocate from Fort Dodge, came to the festival seeking those connections with supportive people in Des Moines and growing the network of resources trans Iowans share across the state.

Way has only been out for a year and has been medically transitioning for less, but she said coming out made her life better and opened up her world, even if it’s also summoned a lot of hate.

“I found community, which I’ve never had before,” she said. “That sense of belonging, that sense of just being included and not feeling like an outcast, even though, you know, technically a lot of people look at us as like an outcast. But I don’t feel like it.”

Way said people have called her a pedophile and a groomer just for being openly trans, but being out has been worth it because of that support system that’s activated around her.

Before coming out, described herself as living “suicide by apathy.” Her blood sugar was dangerously high and she barely had the motivation or strength to walk across her house or the motivation to do things for herself. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s meant she’d never really met anyone like her.

Now, out and happy, Way’s diabetes is under control. She goes for long walks and she knows if she needs it, she can turn to a whole community for support. Way can also be there for them.

“Visibility is dangerous,” she said. “But it’s also advocacy because once you normalize it, it becomes less dangerous because you have more allies, more people willing to accept who you are. So that visibility matters. That’s why I live as loud as I do.”


Nikoel Hytrek



If you enjoy stories like these, make sure to sign up for Iowa Starting Line’s main newsletter and/or our working class-focused Worker’s Almanac newsletter.

Have a story idea or something I should know? Email me at nikoel@iowastartingline.com. You can also DM me on Twitter at @n_hytrek

​​Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us hereFind ISL on TikTokInstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *