Iowa LGBTQ+ youth find community at Safe Schools conference

Top image: Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr talks to attendees at the Governor's Conference on LGBTQ Youth hosted by Iowa Safe Schools Bottom image: attendees and visitors in the hall at the Governor's Conference on LGBTQ Youth hosted by Iowa Safe Schools credit: Avery Staker

By Nikoel Hytrek

April 9, 2024

Being an LGBTQ+ student in Iowa right now is hard.

Laws police which names and bathrooms students can use, and what words teachers can say in their classrooms.

And yet, many told Starting Line their school experiences got better when they found a community of other LGBTQ+ students and places they could be themselves.

A place for us

On Friday, April 5, in Altoona, community was on display at the 19th Annual Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth, the largest LGBTQ+ youth conference in the country. It was named for former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who supported LGBTQ+ rights. This year, 54 schools and more than 800 students attended.

It was hosted by Iowa Safe Schools, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ youth in Iowa.

“[The conference] teaches kids who feel like this and know who they are, but never really got the support to be who they are,” said Keatyn, a student from Oelwein. “It helps them grow up and know that this is okay and gives them the bravery to actually speak out about who they are, and then help educate other students.”

It was Keatyn’s second time at the conference, and she said her school group gets bigger every year. The school has a group to support LGBTQ+ students, but when SF 496, the anti-LGBTQ+ law that passed last year, went into effect this year, the group had to change from being advisor-led to being student-led.

Still, Keatyn said, the school is supportive—and bullying used to be worse.

“I just think [anti-LGBTQ+ legislation] is really just stupid,” she said. “And it diminishes a lot of children’s hearts and their minds and tries to just get them to think stuff that they know isn’t right.”

But Keatyn said the conference allowed everyone more freedom to express themselves and embrace their identities.

Forty-eight exhibitors set up booths in the hallway to talk about how to include and celebrate LGBTQ+ people. Throughout the day, workshops educated students on niche topics about everything from updates on SF 496, to songwriting, celebrating pride with baking, questions about health care, and more.

Mercury Stardust

Students were also able to meet well-known trans figures and listen to them talk about their lives and experiences. Every year, the keynote speakers are voted on by Iowa students.

The first was Mercury Stardust—aka the Trans Handy Ma’am—a Wisconsin-based, former home maintenance technician-turned-TikTok influencer who talks about renters rights and demonstrates DIY home repair. She’s also the author of a guide to home repair for renters, and does weekly burlesque shows.

Stardust spoke about her childhood, how she was thrown out by her dad when she came out, and how she built a community who supported her when she came out again years later.

She explained the way her TikTok success came to be and how hard it was to keep separate her trans identity and her job as a technician. She also gave advice for students to live their truth and to find communities to love them.

“I’m lowkey kind of fanboying over her,” said Kayde, a student from Linn-Mar, after Stardust’s speech.

Kayde said he relates to Stardust because he’s also balanced the two worlds of being trans and being from a blue-collar background. When Stardust talked about her experience growing up in rural Wisconsin, Kayde said it resonated with him. So did her coming-out story.

“My dad’s definitely one of those type of conservative, buff, Trump-supporting guys,” Kayde said, and he wasn’t accepting of Kayde at first.

But, like Stardust’s dad, Kayde’s has softened.

“I think that it took him [some] time to know that I’m still the same person,” he said. “I’m not really a very different person than what I was. It’s just that I’m more happier now, versus when I was not out.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr

The other speaker was Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the first out transgender person to serve in the Montana statehouse.

She was barred from the House chamber and was not allowed to speak on any bills after calling out Republicans for passing a gender-affirming care ban. The harm being done to the LGBTQ+ community was one of the reasons she ran for office.

Zephyr talked about her experience in the legislature, gave advice about how to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community, and told students that—even if the hatred and bigotry seem overwhelming—those voices are the minority. Standing against harm, she said, was always worth it.

That sentiment resonated with several students, including Chris from Mt. Pleasant.

“No matter how many laws you make that go against the LGBTQ+ [community], you will never bring us down,” he said of the Iowa Legislature. “You’ll never stop us from stopping you.”

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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