OTTUMWA — It would be easy to make assumptions about Courtney Reyes’ story. She knows it, too. There are several that would seemingly fit. Small town to big city. Misfit to success. Tropes that have been made into scores of plots for film, television and books.
Reyes, executive director of One Iowa since December, said they’d be wrong.
Born in Ottumwa and raised in Bloomfield, Reyes said the assumptions people make don’t fit her story. She identifies as queer, the “q” in LGBTQ. The full acronym refers to people across a broad spectrum. The terms lesbian, gay and bisexual, the first three letters, are fairly well known. Transgender and queer are newer terms.
That leads to the first assumption. There are most certainly people who grow up in small communities and know they’re gay from a young age. There are plenty of stories about how people felt isolated in those years, how they were made to feel different. It’s just that Reyes said that wasn’t her.
Reyes had, she said, a pretty good childhood. She played basketball in high school, felt part of the community. “I think it’s key to note I didn’t come out until I was 30,” she said.
It’s not that Reyes hid in the closet for three decades as much as she just came to realize who she was a little later than many. And she suspects the fact she didn’t know any gay, lesbian or queer people in her hometown may have played a role in that.
“There was no representation in my community,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone out in my community. I still don’t know whether there are many people out in Bloomfield, in Floris.”
Being visible, once an act that was almost revolutionary, remains important, Reyes said. There is broader acceptance for lesbian, bisexual and gay people today than there was just a couple decades ago. Some of that came from pop culture. Television shows like “Will & Grace” and Ellen DeGeneres’ decision to out herself while on her popular sitcom helped increase basic awareness of LGBTQ people.
Something similar seems to be happening now, with shows like “Pose” and “Orange is the New Black” featuring transgender actors and characters. Reyes said that can be both an asset and hindrance to groups like One Iowa, which works to protect and advance civil rights. If portrayals are realistic, it can help break down barriers. A character that relies on caricature can help reinforce the same stereotypes One Iowa is trying to remove.
Reyes saw Billy Porter’s Emmy for best actor as a significant step. Porter plays Pray Tell, a flamboyant ballroom emcee, on “Pose” and became the first openly gay black man to win the award.
“That is part of our history, and those are stories that need to be told,” Reyes said.
As far as Iowa goes, Reyes said there has been remarkable progress. But other work remains. Access to health care, already difficult for rural Iowa, is a particular challenge for LGBTQ people.
“People are really fearful of coming out to their doctors,” Reyes said. But getting good treatment also depends on not hiding things from your doctor.
One Iowa works with employers around the state. Discrimination in the workplace need not involve the threat of being fired, and it can have a dramatic effect on the quality of an employee’s work and their health.
One Iowa also hopes to create new leaders for the LGBTQ community. But underlying everything is the need for education, regardless of any other factors. “People can learn more. That is what I want. Learn about trans folks. Learn about queer folks,” Reyes said.
“Our work is not done,” she continued. “We still have work to do.”
Starting with the need to avoid making assumptions.