For more than 30 years, Donna Red Wing was a national leader in the fight for human rights, civil rights and LGBTQ equality. The Christian Coalition once reportedly called Donna “the most dangerous woman in America”. Donna wore the title proudly.

Born in 1950 in public housing in Worcester, Massachusetts, Donna embarked upon a career of activism during the 1960’s anti-war protests. She quickly came to believe in agitation and grassroots activism as the cornerstones of lasting change. From the anti-war movement, she joined the burgeoning women’s movement in Massachusetts, and cut her teeth professionally by running the Child Assault Prevention Project of New England. In the early 1990s, Donna and her partner Sumitra moved to Portland, Oregon, just in time for one of America’s great gay rights electoral battles: Ballot Measure 9.

Oregon Ballot Measure 9 was written to permanently define LGBTQ people as second-class citizens. Ultimately it went down to defeat, but not before right-wing Christians and avowed neo-Nazis made death threats against Donna and Sumitra. Donna’s fearless leadership was showcased in the award-winning documentary Ballot Measure 9, and recognized when The Advocate magazine named her Woman of the Year.

In subsequent decades, Donna played countless important roles in the campaign for LGBTQ inclusion and equality. She worked in various capacities with GLAAD, HRC, the Gill Foundation, and the Howard Dean 2004 presidential campaign. She served as co-chair of the Barack Obama campaign’s LGBT Leadership Council. She received the Interfaith Alliance’s first Walter Cronkite Award for Faith and Freedom, and later served as the Alliance’s Washington DC chief of staff. Not tired yet, in 2012, Donna moved with Sumitra to Des Moines, Iowa, where she served as executive director of One Iowa for four years.

In 2017, Donna was diagnosed with cancer. Hearing this news, OUTWORDS hurried an interview team to Des Moines, Iowa in March 2018. Donna and Sumitra welcomed us with pastries and tea, and Donna bestowed on OUTWORDS possibly our most compelling, inspiring interviews to date. But anyone who knew Donna in her hale and hearty fighting days could tell she was not long for this world. Six weeks later, she passed away.

OUTWORDS thanks Donna Red Wing for her courage, for her steadfastness, and for her spirit of dialogue and reconciliation. 
Betsy Kalin: [00:00:00] We're ready.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, speed.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, great. Donna, why don't you tell me where you grew up and how that had an impact on you?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I grew up in the projects of Massachusetts, housing projects. It was hardscrabble, lots of poor people. Because everyone was poor, we didn't realize we were poor. I think I learned a lot about class there.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:00:30] When my brother and I went to junior high school, all of a sudden, we were the project kids. We're in school with the kids from the upper west side. It was a whole different world. I really cut my political teeth when I realized during the Vietnam War, it was my friends who were going to Vietnam. It was my friends who were dying. It was my friends were coming back just so damaged.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:01:00] I didn't know that there was anything I could do about it. The projects are a pretty hopeless place. One day, I was waiting for a bus, this was downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. I was waiting for a bus and I saw this draft resisters bureau across the street. I wish I could say I went over because for all the right reasons but it was just really cool long haired people going in. I wanted to see what that was about.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:01:30] As I was peering in, this man came out and introduced himself and started talking to me about the war, and made sense. It wasn't what I was seeing on television. He was talking about why my people, my friends, my neighbors were dying and other people weren't. I started volunteering. I was 14 years old. I started volunteering. I'd come after school every day and I stuff envelopes
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:02:00] and I would do grunt work. After about a month, I went to this man and I said, "Sir, I've been doing grunt work for a month now. I wanted to do something important." I'll never forget what he said. He took my face toward him and said, "Donna, if you learn nothing from me, know this. There's no small work in a big movement." I still stuff envelopes. That was one of the greatest lessons I learned.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:02:30] I think that we did have power, that we could do things. Abbie Hoffman, who was a great anti war activist was from Worcester. He was the genesis of a lot of the work that happened there. It was really just regular folks who made a difference, just made a difference. No small work in a big movement.
Betsy Kalin: Fantastic.
Natalie Tsui: I just want to make an adjustment, so I'm going to speed again. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: [00:03:00] Okay, great. Which family members were you influenced by and who were your role models?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, I think my grandmother. I have a Swedish grandmother who was just amazing. She was the best baker I think in the city of Worcester, Swedish baker. She was just this hardworking lady who cleaned other people's houses. She came to this country from Sweden
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:03:30] where her last meal in Sweden they had boiled the bark of birch trees. That was their only nutrient, because there was a famine. We don't think of that in Scandinavia. She's just amazing, strong, loving, incredible woman. Then my mom, single mom, she just worked hard all of her life and really instilled I think in my brother or my sister and I a real sense of responsibility.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:04:00] Those two strong amazing women, they weren't political. They never got political, but just their lives I think were political.
Betsy Kalin: What values were you taught or what values were you not taught?
Donna Russell Red Wing: We were really taught about personal responsibility, that no one is responsible for what I do except me, that who I become
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:04:30] and who I am is up to me. I think those are really incredible values. We never blamed anybody for anything. If I screwed up, I screwed up. I think also just a sense of family and love, they were just amazing women. My favorite times were Saturday mornings, grandma would make Swedish cardamom buns. If you ever had them, they're crazy good.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:05:00] We'd sit around and watch them rise and smell the cardamom. Then, she'd let us make our own. God help anybody who ate the ones we made, because we drop them on the floor and we'd redo them. I think they were just really good solid people who even though we were poor, even though we were sometimes desperately poor, we never felt it.
Betsy Kalin: [00:05:30] That's great. Thank you. Thanks for sharing that, and now I want a bun. How did you first get involved ... I know you talked a little bit about the antiwar activism. After that, how did you become an activist?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, I was involved in the antiwar movement and then I became involved in the women's movement in Massachusetts, which was pretty intense. In fact, I think we had the second in the country, battered women shelter,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:06:00] and we had to have bake sales to pay the rent. That's how ... There was no federal money. There was no state money. There was just our bake sale that paid the rent. That was amazing. That really helped me understand who I was as a woman and the power that I had. From there, I was involved in the Child Assault Prevention movement and I ran the Child Assault Prevention Project of New England.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:06:30] We worked with children who had been sexually and physically abused. Some as young as six months, and it was there that my understanding of evil became just insurmountable. I thought evil was this big and it was so much bigger. It was working there that I understood that I couldn't keep doing this.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:07:00] Not only were we threatened and attacked, the worst part was seeing that the majority of offenders never sought prison time, that the majority of offenders would go back and offend again, and that there were virtually no services for children. I did that for a number of years and then decided to move on. I still support
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:07:30] Child Assault Prevention. It's in my heart, but I can't do it day to day. I just can't do it.
Betsy Kalin: How did your political activism ... How was that formed by your lesbian identity? When did it come together?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, when I was looking at what I would do after the Child Assault Prevention, my wife and I have now been together for 30 years. One day, I said, "Let's move."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:08:00] We were thinking Santa Fe, Portland, Oregon. We decided on Portland. We subscribed to the Oregonian and the first subscription we got in the jobs section, they wanted someone to run the lesbian community project. It sounded like lesbian Disney world. There were softball tournaments
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:08:30] and there were parties. It just sounded amazing. Laughingly, I put my resume on lavender paper. I think I spelled women with a Y. It was so stereotypical. I sent in my resume and within a week, I had a call. They wanted to fly me in and interview me. I thought, oh, okay. I got there and I just fell in love with Portland. I had been there before.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:09:00] I fell in love with the organization. About 10 minutes into the interview, they offered me the job. We packed up everything we had, put it in the big van and drove across country and went to Portland. What happened then, lesbian Disney world did not last very long. The radical religious right had decided to try to pass an amendment to the constitution that would have splay it open and created a second class citizenship for lesbians and gays.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:09:30] They weren't talking about bisexual or transgender folks then. If it had passed, gay and lesbian people would have had a second class citizenship. They could have had any licensure that they had by the state taken away from them. Your stereotypical hairdresser, to a physician, to your driver's license, you would have second class citizenship. We thought, nobody's going to vote for this.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:10:00] This is insane. This is really insane. It was like being in a war. We still had our softball tournaments. We still had our dragon boat races. We still had all of the fun stuff. We found ourselves front and center with the radical religious right. It was like a war. Our house was attacked by white supremacists.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:10:30] People were murdered. Churches were arsoned. Homes were burned to the ground. It was horrible. What we saw was a coming together of extreme evangelicals and white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Once we started connecting the dots, it got very, very frightening. In fact, in our home, the police gave me a cell phone that was about as big as my shoe back in the day,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:11:00] a cell phone. They put a hot button in our house so that if we were attacked again, we'd get someone. Then, they sent a lovely lesbian cop to our house every night at 10:00 to make sure we were okay. We won the battle but not by much. I think it was 47% of the Oregonians who voted to make us second class citizens.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:11:30] I think that's where my resolve to make a difference was really forged, because we did make a difference in Oregon. We watched the radical religious right to take what they learn from Oregon and then begin to try that out in different parts of the country. It was frightening. My wife has a hard time even talking about that time.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:12:00] We saw people murdered because of their sexual orientation. We saw kindly church ladies say the most horrible things about who we were and who we would be in Oregon. I think people forget, the LGBTQ movement is not very old. 30 years ago, we were illegal in almost every state. That gave people permission to hurt us.
Betsy Kalin: [00:12:30] How did you recover from something like that? How did you move on?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, first, we won. That was a good thing. We won. Also, I felt like for the first time, I really flexed my political muscle. Not only was I working with the LGBT community, but I started working with the local police department.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:13:00] They were kind and accepting and protecting us. We worked with local government. We worked with people we never thought we could work with before. We'd began to forge relationships that I think really, really helped us as we move forward. In fact, at one point, I realized the police bureau, all the power was in their budget committee. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than be on a budget committee, but I got appointed. I got a whole bunch of other people appointed.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:13:30] We designed the police bureau's budget. How much power there is in that? We had women strength programs, and we had all kinds of things that they'd never even thought of before. I learned how to navigate both on the outside and the inside. In fact, one of the police officers said that they were always glad to see me because they knew that there were Queer Nation or ACT UP.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:14:00] They were going to do something extreme and then they would just pivot to me because as extreme as I was, I wasn't that extreme. Yeah, we made some good relationships. Of course, I worked with ACT UP and Queer Nation and all of these groups, and we would plan it. You do this really outrageous and I'll come in and say, "Hey, come and talk to me." It was life changing, life changing. We didn't forget to have fun.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:14:30] I think so many times we get so serious and we have to be, it's life and death. We did have I think one of the largest lesbian softball tournaments in the country. We did have dragon boat races where we weren't very good but we had a great dragon boat. We would like race down the river. We went to small towns in Oregon that
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:15:00] were pretty conservative. By putting a face in the voice to who we were, we changed people's minds. That is a great learning experience. It was great. Because of my work there, I was eventually offered a job with the gay and lesbian alliance against defamation. That was really exciting. It meant I had to move to New York. That was exciting too.
Betsy Kalin: [00:15:30] That's great. You're taking me through my questions. It's perfect. That was going to be my next ... My next question is, the key events in your life and what were some of them.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sure. Well, certainly Ballot Measure 9. That was one of the most horrific and greatest learning experiences I've ever had and connecting with people I never thought I'd connect with.
Natalie Tsui: [00:16:00] I'm so sorry to interrupt. I think the heater ...
Betsy Kalin: Just went on.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. Is it going to be freezing if you turn it off?
Betsy Kalin: It will be cold.
Natalie Tsui: It's just this constant rumbling noise.
Betsy Kalin: We can get room tone with it.
Natalie Tsui: That's true, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: Let's just get room tone.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, great.
Donna Russell Red Wing: My son used to run the sound studio so I get what you're saying.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, it was just like ...
Betsy Kalin: I think it's not that bad. I noticed it when it came on to.
Natalie Tsui: [00:16:30] Yeah. I was like, what is that noise? I'm thinking like, is it a truck, is it ... but yeah, okay, great. Good to know.
Donna Russell Red Wing: It's the heater.
Betsy Kalin: Let's just try to remember to get room tone. Let's go back. With Ballot Measure 9, some people are not going to know what it is.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sure, sure.
Betsy Kalin: If you can just give us a brief ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Ballot Measure 9 was the attempt by the radical religious right to splay open the constitution of Oregon and create the second class citizenship for LGBT people.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:17:00] When we look at big things happening in our lives, I think they're often not very big. During Ballot Measure 9, whenever we would be at the statehouse or doing any kind of activism, we'd see the other side. They'd have their table and their horrible pamphlets and all of that. What we did, we made a point of being civil and polite. We also made a point of, for example, it was lunch time, I'd go by their table and say,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:17:30] "Hey, we're going to pick up sandwiches, can we get something for you?" The ladies will say, "No, no, no, that's all right." They'd look at us like, why are they being nice? We worked really hard to show them who we were as people. When Ballot Measure 9 was over, the right again tried to do the same thing. One of the ladies, her name was Jen, who was at every event, she was a church lady.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:18:00] She was against homosexuality because of her church. She was asked to work with them again. Can I just back up a little bit?
Betsy Kalin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Donna Russell Red Wing: Before she had been asked to work with them again, I reached out to her. I said, "We should talk." She's ... " I don't want to talk. I don't want to talk."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:18:30] Then a few months later, she came to me and said, "Look, what I've seen and what I've been told about you people doesn't jive. It doesn't make sense. I wonder if you could get together, a group of maybe seven religious lesbians, but not you because you're too strident, to meet with me and a group of Christian ladies." I did.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:19:00] I put this group together, my wife was one of them. They started meeting. I remember my wife went to the first meeting and we're like, "Well, we can't bring wine because we don't know if they drink." She got some pastries together and we got some bottled waters or something. She walked in and they were stunned that she had the social grace to bring something when she went to someone's home. What they had to do was unlearn all the stereotypes,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:19:30] but so did we because we had stereotypes about who these ladies were. Sumitra would sometimes come home and say, "Well, I threw a Bible across the room today." I'd be like, "Oh, no." Well, they met for a year. Then, one day, Jen came to one of the meetings and said that she had been asked to work with the radical right again. This is what she said to them, "I can no longer work against people I've come to love."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:20:00] Now, did she change her mind around the sins of homosexuality? No. Did she change her religious beliefs? No. She understood that what she had been told about us was simply not true. What our group understood was what we thought about them probably wasn't true either. That was one of my first great lessons in civility, a very small thing but was life changing for everybody involved.
Betsy Kalin: [00:20:30] Fantastic story. I think it's a story that's very timely.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yes, yeah.
Natalie Tsui: I think if we can turn it off, it would be best. I think it will take an hour for the house to get cold and we could turn it on during the break.
Betsy Kalin: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Would it be impossible? Is it hard to turn it off?
Donna Russell Red Wing: If you go downstairs.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, speed.
Betsy Kalin: I know, sorry.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. Did you want me to start rolling again?
Betsy Kalin: Yes.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, okay, speed.
Betsy Kalin: [00:21:00] You were talking about this a little bit about civil dialog and being able to talk to people who were not on your side. What do you mean by religious liberty and the LGBTQ movement? How do you see those?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, I think religious liberty is one of the most important parts of America. I believe that everyone has the right to believe or not believe, and they have the right to believe whatever they want. In fact, I was chief of staff at the National Interfaith Alliance
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:21:30] working with 170 different faith traditions. In this country, if someone wants to believe that homosexuality is sinful, that's their right. What they don't have the right to do is create legislation that forces other people into that belief. We hear a lot about religious liberty from the radical right but they're only talking about their religious liberty.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:22:00] I think that if we look at the history of our nation, one of our first documents was in Arabic talking about religious liberty. When we look at our first amendment, it's religious liberty. I think the radical right has given religious liberty a bad name. I embrace it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:22:30] I don't want to change anyone else's belief but I'll be damned if they change mine or force me to live in a way that doesn't make sense.
Betsy Kalin: That's great. Thank you. That's ...
Natalie Tsui: I think the heater is still on.
Donna Russell Red Wing: It's ...
Natalie Tsui: Is it on?
Betsy Kalin: Nope, it's [crosstalk].
Donna Russell Red Wing: It's off.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, I just want to make sure.
Betsy Kalin: That's what I thought it was too but it's the camera.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. I was still hearing it but I think it's the camera.
Betsy Kalin: That was my question here.
Betsy Kalin: [00:23:00] I think religious liberty is something that's such a hot button topic today and especially in the LGBTQ community. What would you say ... What advice would you give?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think people need to understand what religious liberty really means. The LGBT community has been profoundly damaged by religion. People have ended their lives.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:23:30] People have hidden. People have been closeted for a lifetime. I think a lot of damage has been done. What I'm grateful to see is that various faith traditions are moving forward. We look at our friends in the Unitarian church and our friends in the United Church of Christ, and were so grateful for where they are, but they haven't always been there.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:24:00] The Methodist church right now is going through a time of discernment and it's ripping it apart but they're doing it. The Episcopal Church has gone through their discernment and it's been such a struggle. I think for those of us who have a religious belief, I think it's important to work hard to maintain the health of religious liberty. For those of us who don't, we have to understand that it's religious liberty that allows someone to not believe in this country,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:24:30] that allows someone to live their life in a way that's different from the Judeo-Christian mindset. I've worked really hard over the years to bring religious leaders together with LGBT leaders. In the beginning, it was really, really difficult. One of the best programs I did, I asked Andrew Sullivan if he would
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:25:00] lead a program where I would bring in pastors and rabbis and monks and imams to talk about religion. He said, "Only if I can name it ... " What did he say? "Only if I can name it, God, sex, and religion," something like that. I said, "Okay but nobody will come." It was standing room only, standing room only. That began a process of us really beginning to explore
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:25:30] what the possibilities were, to explore what people's real beliefs were, and to see how we could move forward.
Betsy Kalin: Fantastic. It's just so timely and so important.
Donna Russell Red Wing: It's like, here we go again.
Betsy Kalin: Do you want to talk about some of the things you're most proud of in your various positions?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:26:00] Sure. Child Assault Prevention, I'm proud that we put together a robust organization that saved thousands of kids. That was amazing. What we did is we taught children how to protect themselves.
Natalie Tsui: There's some ...
Betsy Kalin: Yeah. Sorry, we're holding for the plane.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Or motorcycle.
Betsy Kalin: I think that was plane.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, small low plane. We're right on the skyway.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, okay.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay?
Natalie Tsui: There's still ... Okay, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: [00:26:30] It is through?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I'm sorry, where were we?
Betsy Kalin: You were talking about your work with the Child Assault.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. Child Assault, just very proud of the work we did there. I think that the lesbian community project, I'm so proud of the work we did on a grassroots level. We had no money. We had no resources. We did amazing things. We had a program called be good busters.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:27:00] We had be good buster Bob, lived on a farm, couldn't get away much, but he always had a phone. If we saw, let's say, the radical right had a table at the grocery store and they were passing out these horrible pamphlets, we'd call be good buster Bob. He would see who was available, within 15 minutes, we'd have people there. These people were trained. We didn't get in their face. We didn't knock over their tables. What we did is we stood in front of them and every time they said or did something,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:27:30] we would counter that. What we found was if we sent two lesbians, they would just pack up their tables and leave. They were really afraid of lesbians, which we liked. I'd say be good busters, we probably interfered in hundreds, if not thousands of activities by the radical right. We had no money. We just had one guy with a cell phone.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:28:00] It was great. We just trained all of these people. Literally, they'd see us get out of our cars and they would just pack up. It's fun.
Betsy Kalin: [inaudible] Can you talk a little bit about the Interfaith Alliance?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sure. I first got involved with the Interfaith Alliance.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:28:30] Their honorary president was Walter Cronkite. He really, really took on religious liberty as his issue. The first year, they awarded the Walter Cronkite Award for Faith and Freedom and I was the first recipient. Not only did I get this great honor, but I got to spend time with Walter Cronkite which was just
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:29:00] what journalism should be. I went to the award ceremony and I met Mr. Cronkite and it was all wonderful. I just started connecting with these people. There were catholic bishops and conservative rabbis, and people that I never thought I would have a connection with who became part of my life and my part of my everyday life. I was offered a job working with them.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:29:30] I thought, why not? This is the next frontier for me. I eventually became chief of staff at the Interfaith Alliance. The head of the alliance was a former Southern Baptist minister from Monroe, Louisiana. He and I became the best of friends. So much of our work became LGBTQ oriented. It was phenomenal.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:30:00] When you have 170 something faith traditions standing up and saying, "We need to protect people, we need to have laws that offer quality, whether it's my belief system or not, you get to live in this country too." It was just amazing. For me to spend so much time with religious leaders was very good for me. It was very good. I also got to spend time with
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:30:30] people like Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyer, people of just iconic, amazing people. I think that helped temper my politics. I began to really embrace the whole idea of civil dialog and civility. They helped me do that. Probably one of the most interesting times,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:31:00] I walked into our boardroom and there were literally pastors, imams, bishops, high level national faith leaders around the table. I remember one of the rabbis had the Des Moines Register, because that's the really newspaper of record for the caucuses, and the presidentials, and everything. I had been doing some work with Howard Dean.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:31:30] I walked into the room and everybody is looking at me, and I knew something was up. He opens the paper and he said, "Have you read the Des Moines Register today?" I said, "I never read the Des Moines Register." I don't live in Des Moines at the time. He said, "Let me read this." He read a piece by Rob Borsellino, who was writing about LGBT people who had worked with presidential campaigns. He did a piece about me.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:32:00] He talked to various democratic operatives and they said nice things. Then, he called the Christian Coalition and they said that they thought I was the most dangerous woman in America. That's going on my tombstone if that really is. There I am, with all of these religious leaders and they're looking at the most dangerous woman in America. As I looked into it more and talked to different conservatives,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:32:30] one of them said the reason was that they liked me. If I were their neighbor, they knew that I'd feed their cat or water their plants or I would be a good friend and neighbor. How do you hate someone like that? If that's your job to hate them, they're pretty dangerous. That was very cool.
Betsy Kalin: That's fantastic. That was some ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, it really is. Of course in the moments, I was like deer in the headlights.
Betsy Kalin: [00:33:00] How did you end up coming to Iowa to work with One Iowa?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I was working with Interfaith Alliance and then I had been doing some work with Grassroots Leadership, and that's an organization that is dedicated to shutting private prisons and for profit detention centers, immigrant detention centers. I was offered the job of executive director.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:33:30] I thought, let me do this. It's something I care about. I don't think people should be bought and sold in the marketplace as prisoners or as detainees. I decided to do that. I love the work and we did amazing things. The staff was just amazing. We had offices in, well, Evergreen and just because I live there.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:34:00] I have an office in North Carolina, and we had an Austin office. We literally, literally close down private prisons. It wasn't my heart. It wasn't the LGBTQ community. It certainly connected to race and civil rights and a lot of other things. Just working on prisons, again my understanding of how evil people could be just was off the charts and I couldn't do it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:34:30] One day, when I was thinking it's time to move on, an old friend from Des Moines called and said, "One Iowa is looking for an ED. Can you suggest anyone?" I said, "Me?" She said, "Don't mess with me." I said, "I'm not." She said, "Then, you have the job." Then, I had to talk Sumitra into coming to Des Moines. We've loved it. We've absolutely loved it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:35:00] One Iowa was a great organization. Again, not a lot of money, kind of Grassroots by the seat of your pants but it was the statewide LGBT organization. We did some amazing things again. It's always the staff you work with, it's never the ED. My job was to make things available to them and
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:35:30] give them what they need. We had a program for young people in 103 schools around the state. We're talking schools that are frightening, just frightening. We did a senior program where we had a senior summit and we called it gay and gray in the Midwest. We lobbied at the statehouse. We were the catchall LGBT organization.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:36:00] It was thrilling and I loved it. I love my staff. I loved just working with Iowans and helping them do what they needed to do. It was great. It was just amazing.
Betsy Kalin: Did you work on the campaign for marriage?
Donna Russell Red Wing: No, I came right after that. We worked really hard to maintain that. Here in the State, it was a Supreme Court decision, which was stunning,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:36:30] third in the nation. Iowa was third in the nation to allow same gender marriage, after Massachusetts and Connecticut. We had t-shirts again made. I think they said, "Now it's time for the rest of the country to catch up with Iowa." I think the marriage win here really ignited the radical right and really gave them the dues
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:37:00] they needed to strengthen and to eventually take over the house, the senate and the governorship.
Betsy Kalin: You had a lot of work.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. It's not work. You wake up and you're like, "Yeah! I get to do this." Can you imagine? You get to do this work. You're not spinning your wheels. In a state like Iowa, every day you can see the difference you make.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:37:30] Whether you're the ED of the statewide group or whether you're a volunteer, you see the difference you make. I think that's important for people. I think if you just keep tilting against windmills and nothing happens, people give up. I think in the state like Iowa, every day, every day you saw the difference you made.
Betsy Kalin: I think my next question is then, what lessons do you want to tell people today who are fighting in states like Iowa?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:38:00] Sure, sure. Can I just take a sip of water?
Betsy Kalin: Sure, please.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Thanks.
Natalie Tsui: I'm just going to keep rolling.
Betsy Kalin: Okay.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: I just wanted to check to see if ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Was it Rubio who was drinking water when he did the after inauguration, Obama inauguration. It was Rubio I think who was speaking and he kept drinking his water.
Betsy Kalin: Poor Rubio.
Donna Russell Red Wing: It's Rubio or Cruz.
Betsy Kalin: Such lovely people.
Natalie Tsui: [00:38:30] There's this internet video of like a little piece of food coming out of Cruz' mouth during a talk and then it slowly drifts like ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh no!
Natalie Tsui: ... up towards his nose. It's just drifting all around his mouth.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh my God!
Natalie Tsui: Then the scenario goes back in and the internet [inaudible] on that.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Geez. Yeah, you can't hide anything. Okay, I'm sorry. The question was?
Betsy Kalin: The question was again, I think this is really relevant to today, the work that you did with One Iowa. What are some advice ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:39:00] I think, one, we have to believe that we can make a difference. If we don't, then we won't. Then, I think we have to be really, really smart. How do we make a difference? Do we work with a legislator? Are we working with faith groups? Do we work with human and civil rights commissions? How do we make a difference? I think that it's really important
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:39:30] to be very clear about what you want, and then to go for it. I think what I'm seeing is a lot of people getting involved in marches and demonstrations, and that's great. After that, what happens? Who's making the phone calls to the legislators? Who's putting a face in the voice to what it means to be LGBT or a woman or a person of color or,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:40:00] or, or, or? What we're seeing now is the dismantling of everything. I just read that the Americans with disabilities act is being gutted. I think we're in a place and space where we have to be really smart. One, I think we have to be intentional. We have to be really smart. We have to understand that this isn't a month long work
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:40:30] or a year or even a decade. This is lifelong work, and we have to be willing to do what we can. I think we also have to understand what we're capable of. There are people who they work really hard. They make a lot of money and they don't have a lot of time. Then, contribute. Invest in the organizations that you care about. People need to learn more.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:41:00] I think what has startled me is in my work with conservatives, I'm always stunned that I have stereotypes that I still have to give up. There are kind and decent people who don't agree with me. Okay, how do we move forward? I don't know what it would be like to work in the state like California because that feels like a nation unto itself. Then, I think the Midwest ... I think we have decent people who are willing to listen,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:41:30] who are willing to have the conversation. We have to be willing to listen to them, and we have to be willing to have that conversation. There's a fellow here, his name is Bob Vander Plaats. He's head of the radical right group here. I would go to his annual meetings. One day, I just walked up to him and said, "Hi, my name is Donna. I'd like to have coffee with you." He said, "Okay, call my office."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:42:00] Afterward, he told me he had no idea what I really wanted and what I was up to or anything. He was stunned. We met for coffee. What surprised me was, I really liked him. He was funny. He was smart. He has a son who's profoundly disabled and he's an amazing father. What he's done to the LGBT community and what he said has been really hard and harsh.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:42:30] Since we've been meeting, he's changed his tone. He hasn't changed his beliefs. For me to think that he would, would be crazy. He said to me that he ... now when his organization put something out about LGBT people, he needs to read it and he thinks about how that would affect me. That's huge. That's huge.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:43:00] Once we won marriage on a federal level, we bumped into each other at a TV station and he just gave me a great big hug and said, "Okay, you're buying coffee next time." We've become friends which is really bizarre. Again, he had to give up what he thought lesbians were about and I had to give up a little bit about what I thought rightwing evangelicals were about. That's hard. There's a struggle.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:43:30] Some people are very angry that I meet with him. I think that for me is the next step. We built a relationship and it really harkens back to Oregon with the ladies who met, and now here. In fact, the Washington Post has sent some people out here to do some stuff around the caucuses. They asked if I could bring some republicans and evangelicals together,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:44:00] and I did, for them to meet. Then, they went to an event that Bob and I spoke at. We speak together. People are horrified. There are people on his side who are really angry that he meets with me. There are people in the LGBT community who are really angry that I meet with him. I'm not diluting my beliefs or my work and neither is he. We live in a place and space
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:44:30] that we have to share and we're finding out that we have things in common. One thing we've talked about is trafficking. Trafficking in the state is horrific. It's one of the worst in the country because of the highway system and the trucking. We've talked about if he and I held hands and worked against trafficking. We could do a lot of good because, one, who could say they're for trafficking. Two, it wouldn't be republican or democratic,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:45:00] it wouldn't be conservative or progressive. It would be human beings saying, "We can't traffic children and we can't traffic women. This needs to stop." We've learned those things about each other.
Betsy Kalin: [inaudible]
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. I'll tell you, the first time we met, afterward I got in my car and I called my wife. I said, "I feel like I just fell down the rabbit hole." I was like, "I don't want to like this man. Why did I laugh at his jokes?" Well, they were funny. It was mind blowing, so yeah.
Betsy Kalin: [00:45:30] Well, they do say that compassion is the strongest weapon.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. I believe it. That isn't to say if he did something really horrible or stupid, I'd come after him like you wouldn't believe. He will do the same. We're dealing with each other's human beings and not as stereotypes. That makes it a lot nicer.
Betsy Kalin: [00:46:00] Everything good?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, there is a little truck crumble but I think it was not ...
Betsy Kalin: That's great, okay.
Natalie Tsui: ... in moments ago.
Betsy Kalin: Great. I just wanted to make sure we were okay.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: [inaudible] It's almost an hour, do you want to take ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: I'm good.
Betsy Kalin: You're good?
Donna Russell Red Wing: If you're good, I'm good. If you need to take a break, if you need a cup of coffee ...
Natalie Tsui: I think I'm good. We've been rolling for 45 minutes.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. Yeah, I'll ask another question. You left the turtle neck at the BMV.
Natalie Tsui: [00:46:30] Dang it, okay.
Betsy Kalin: I'll tell her that we'll stop by.
Natalie Tsui: Oh gosh!
Donna Russell Red Wing: That means you want to come back.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. I thought it was a little bit about packing up too.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. Something that impresses me to knowing is that Barack Obama appointed you to his LGBT Kitchen ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Cabinet, yeah, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: Do you want to talk about that?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:47:00] Sure. I, honest to God, don't know how it happened. I know that I did really good work for Howard Dean and I think people knew that. It was myself, Stampp Corbin, a friend of Michelle Obama from the Chicago area, and then Phil Burgess, he was a Walgreens executive, a gay man. He asked if we would be his Kitchen Cabinet, if we would ... I think officially,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:47:30] we were his LGBTQ co-chairs. Because he wanted to bounce things around and see how they would go and he just wanted people he could trust and I ...
Betsy Kalin: I'm going to just stop you for a second. Can you say that you were appointed to Barack ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Right, okay, I'm sorry.
Betsy Kalin: ... President.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I was appointed as one of three co-chairs of Barack Obama's LGBT ... I'm sorry. I was appointed as one of three co ...
Betsy Kalin: [00:48:00] That's fine.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I was appointed as one of three co-chairs of Barack Obama's LGBT kitchen cabinet. It was amazing and we got to speak to him and he would bounce ideas or bias. There was one time ... Because I thought, well, I don't want to work in the administration. I was not looking for a job afterward. I just had my feel of Washington.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:48:30] I just needed to be honest. One time, we were on the phone, the three of us, Barack Obama and some of his other people. He was saying that there was going to be a rally in South Carolina of primarily African-American supporters. He thought it would be nice to have a pastor talk about LGBT issues. He chose a White pastor
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:49:00] to talk about LGBT issues to a crowd of thousands of African-Americans. I was on vacation so I wasn't thinking about what I said. I remember saying, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" Then, there was complete silence. I'm like ... I wait and really it was like tick, tick, tick. He said, " Was that you, Donna?" I'm like, "Yes, sir, I was."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:49:30] I said, "That's stupid." You're going to have a White man talk to thousands of your African-American supporters to tell them what to do or how to think or what to believe, that's crazy. I believe he ended up having that person speak and it was a complete flop, because it just doesn't make sense. It was a great honor working on his campaign
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:50:00] and just being a part, as tiny little part of it, was so extraordinary. It's hard to think of those days when we're in the middle of the Trump era. It really is.
Betsy Kalin: It seems like so long ago.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh my God! Yes.
Natalie Tsui: Okay. There was a truck rumble right at the beginning when you said the White pastor, choosing a White pastor. If you could repeat that line, that'd might be nice.
Betsy Kalin: [00:50:30] Okay. Actually, I was going to ask ... Because I think we lost the other three people that were ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sure, okay, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: ... part of that, maybe start with that and then go into the White pastor.
Donna Russell Red Wing: My friend Stampp Corbin who was a friend of Michelle Obama, Phil Burgess, who was an executive at Walgreens, and myself, we were brought together to be the three co-chairs of Obama's LGBT Kitchen Cabinet.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:51:00] That was a great honor. I couldn't call it a highlight, one of the most interesting times was a phone call we had together. Barack Obama wanted to bring together a group of African-American supporters in South Carolina. He thought it would be nice to have a pastor talk to them about LGBT equality, which is a great idea. The pastor he wanted was White.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:51:30] I just thought that was a little crazy. I ... not thinking, I was on vacation. You're a little looser on vacation. When he said that, I said to him, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" Then there was just complete silence and for a very long time. The reasoning was, you don't have a White leader tell African-American supporters what to do or how to do it,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:52:00] it's just not right. It didn't work out very well. Thank goodness, I didn't want a job in the administration. Because on campaigns, and we this caucuses here, everybody is vying for a seat at the table. If you don't want a seat at the table, you're free to do whatever you need to do. I like that.
Betsy Kalin: Well, it does fit the most dangerous woman.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:52:30] Yes, it does.
Betsy Kalin: That's a great story. Okay. Let's go back in time. What were some of the challenges for you and other LGBTQ people when you were younger? How do you think this has changed?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think if we look at the '50s, '60s and '70s, and even '80s, it was horrible. Everybody was closeted.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:53:00] People didn't even have the language to talk about who they were or who they love. In most states, who we were was illegal. I have a friend who came home from her first year of college. Her parents put her in a mental institution and she had electroshock therapy for a very long time. That was not rare, that happens.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:53:30] I think people didn't even talk about it. It was a perversion. It was a sin. Things have changed. I think the AIDS/HIV epidemic had a lot to do with that. I remember when people thought, well, if only, Haitians, gays and IV drug users get AIDS, then we don't even have to think about it. That's why nobody did think about it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:54:00] It was the LGBT community that really, really challenged that and really made a difference. It was groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation that made a huge difference. In the early days, I had a rolodex. Every time someone died, I took it off and put it in an elastic band. At one point, I realized I have more off the rolodex than on, because most of my friends had died.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:54:30] I think the LGBT community really found its voice, because it was life or death. It wasn't about even politics anymore, it was life or death. Are you going to live or are you going to die? That began some changes, and people started to talk. I think now ... Somebody said to me once, " The LGBT community, it used to be
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:55:00] the love that never spoke its name. Now, it's the love that simply won't shut up." I like that. I think kids today coming up understand that they have the language, I think the media has done a fair job of beginning to portray LGBT people. I think people are talking about it. I think that a lot of people think that we're done.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:55:30] If you drive to a small rural town in southeast Iowa, it's not done. Children are still being bullied to death. Children are still taking their lives. Families are still throwing their kids out. It's almost an accident of where you live and who you live with. It's not over. It's much better, but it's simply not over.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:56:00] The work I do now, part of it is the Matthew Shepard Scholarship Fund, and we have awarded over $2.5 million to LGBT scholars in Iowa. These are high school seniors who identify as LGBT and who have some record of LGBT involvement. We have these stunning, fierce, amazing,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:56:30] young people living in places I'd be afraid to drive through, living their lives as out helping people. That's amazing, organizing young people, whether it's in their church or their school or their neighborhood. By investing in these kids, I think we're doing a great service to LGBT youth. One of the really cool things about the program, we, every year have a big gala
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:57:00] to honor our scholars. For many of them, it's the first time in their life that anyone has applauded them for who they were. One dad came up to me last year and said, and he was in tears, and he said that this was the first time his son could be proud of who he was. What we do is we bring in politicians and corporate moguls and all kinds of people,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:57:30] leaders in the community to applaud these kids, to support these kids, to say good job. We not only pay for their education, but we also really begin to create a relationship with them and other people in the community that helps them to move forward. It's pretty astounding.
Betsy Kalin: It's such important work.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, it is, it is, and to see these young people. When we first meet them, they're always shy.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:58:00] By the middle of summer, they're like ... They're great. They're just amazing. These are kids with 3.9 GPAs. These are kids who whatever struggles they're having, they're doing really well in school. They're making decisions about their life that are really worthwhile.
Betsy Kalin: That's fantastic.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, yeah. I'm just going to get a sip of water.
Betsy Kalin: [00:58:30] That's so hopeful. I worked with the ACT UP in New York in the '80s.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Did you? Did you?
Betsy Kalin: Yes, so sorry. I got a little emotional there. I remember I was an AIDS peer educator at Columbia and actually ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh my goodness!
Betsy Kalin: ... the AIDS peer educators, a farmer got expelled.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I'm sure, I'm sure.
Betsy Kalin: They didn't want them doing that work.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. We probably know some people from back in the day.
Betsy Kalin: I'm sure.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [00:59:00] Yup. Oop, they're back.
Betsy Kalin: Should I wait? What should we do?
Natalie Tsui: [inaudible]
Donna Russell Red Wing: We just take a little break?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, we could.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: What do you think?
Betsy Kalin: Well, it's quiet.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, but it's not going to be ... People are going to be [crosstalk].
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, why don't we stop? We stop and see ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Let me just see if it's Sumitra.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: It sounds like it's her. Should I put?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, speed.
Betsy Kalin: [00:59:30] Okay, great. Do you have any words of wisdom for the LGBTQ youth today? What do you think they can learn from your experiences?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I don't know if I have any wisdom for anybody. I think we make a mistake if we think the battle is over. I think we make a mistake if we think that we can ...
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, we're going to cut that.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:00:00] Yup. I don't know who that is.
Natalie Tsui: Should I cut?
Betsy Kalin: No, let's just start.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. I think we make a mistake if we think the battle is over. I think we make a mistake ...
Natalie Tsui: Should I ... I can run down and check.
Betsy Kalin: It sounds like they're out now.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I don't know.
Natalie Tsui: Okay.
Donna Russell Red Wing: They're probably bringing boxes out.
Betsy Kalin: Oh, I think somebody's back.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, maybe cut and go check. All right, speed.
Betsy Kalin: [01:00:30] Okay, great. Why don't you talk again about the movement today and the differences in what we need to learn?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think the movement today has, one, an obligation to look back at the past and understand what was done before, learn from that, learn from the mistakes. I also think we need to have a movement that involves everyone. It's not just corporate America. It's not just the people
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:01:00] who can raise the most amount of money or who can talk the business talk. We need grassroots activists. We need agitators. We need people who get up every morning to make a difference. You don't make a difference unless you agitate. We need people with a sense of humor. I can remember the movement as hard as it was in the '80s and '90s. We had fun. We enjoyed ourselves. We laughed a lot.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:01:30] I remember the lesbian avengers one time rode up to Exodus, which was the big anti-gay conversion group. They rode up on their motorcycles. They brought in jars of locust, so think of Exodus and locust. They let them go in the office. The woman, I understand, who was at the front desk called the police and yelled, "There's a group of lesbians and they've got locusts."
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:02:00] He said, "Where are you calling from?" She said, "Exodus." They just hang up. They thought it was a joke. By the time anyone got there to get rid of the locusts, the lesbian avengers were long gone. That was really smart, funny. Nobody got hurt except maybe some locusts. It made a point. I think in a movement, I think every day, everything you do, you have to say,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:02:30] "Do I want to make a point or do I want to win?" Sometimes all you can do is make a point and that's your decision for that moment that day. Other times, you can win. Maybe you don't make the point you thought you were going to make. I think we have to be so strategic, so intentional, but we also have to embrace our humanity. Part of that, it's our relationships, it's our friendships. If we don't have fun, why would we be doing it anyway?
Betsy Kalin: [01:03:00] Yeah, that's a great point. I think you told another story about when you were in Portland and they took the stuff to make them throw up there.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Right. There was a group in Portland that could almost on cue, and when we'd see them, I'm like, "Get out of their way." This was really about making a point, it wasn't about winning.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:03:30] They would ingest something and they could vomit red, white and blue which was really gross but really clever, really clever. Then, when the lesbian community project would come in and they knew we weren't doing any vomiting, they did invite us into the room. There were some outlandish and wonderful things. Much of it stemmed from the AIDS/HIV crisis. Because you know what, everybody thought they were going to die.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:04:00] Everyone thought they were going to die. They didn't really care if they offended somebody.
Betsy Kalin: I think something else that you said as you wake up in the morning to ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. I do wake up every morning to ... I didn't say agitate. What did I say?
Betsy Kalin: Offend.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. As much as I talk about civility and I really believe in civility, I do wake up every morning and try to figure out how to offend those who work against equality, yeah, of all kinds.
Betsy Kalin: [01:04:30] That's amazing. I love that.
Donna Russell Red Wing: How extraordinary a life that you get to do that? I don't wake up every morning and think, oh, do I have the courage to do this? Or should I do that? I'm at a time and place in my life that I do what I need to do. My life has been civil in human rights and that's what I do. It's cool.
Betsy Kalin: [01:05:00] It's amazing, it's not just cool. It's really inspirational. This is something a little off but I know you've talked a lot about activism. Is there something in your past history that you regret, like something that you would have changed?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:05:30] Probably the only thing I would not have ever done is marrying my husband, I married him. No, no, I don't think it serves us well to look back and regret. It serves us well to look back and say, I learned this, I could do this better, I could be kinder, I could be this or that. I never look back and regret. That's the past. I don't worry about the future either because I have no idea what that will bring. I live in the moment. I live in the moment.
Betsy Kalin: [01:06:00] That's great, speaking like a true activist. Then, what are you most passionate about? What is it that really gets you going?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think the most important thing for me as an activist or an advocate or an agitator, the most important thing is
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:06:30] that I get to work toward human and civil rights. I grew up in the projects. I know what it's like to be the other. I know what it's like to be different from. I know what it's like to be spit on, hurt. I understand. I live that place, and nobody else should have to. Again, when we're talking about gender, gender identity,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:07:00] sexual orientation, race, culture, religion, in this country, I truly believe that we all need to have a place and space to be who we are. If I can do a little bit toward making that space bigger, that's what I do.
Betsy Kalin: [01:07:30] That's great. Then, in the same line, what is your favorite accomplishment? When you think back, what are you most proud of?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I'm most proud of the fact that at my core, I'm an organizer, that I understand how to engage people, motivate people. I understand that great organizing and great activism are really about helping other people do
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:08:00] what they do best. I don't have many answers. I don't have many solutions. What I know is how to organize. If there are people who want to make a difference, I can help them do that. My days of marching and protesting are not over. They're not over. I think the real work is often in the background, making a difference. I remember someone last year wanted a job with me
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:08:30] and I said, "What would you like to do?" They said, "I'd like to be the spokesperson for your group." They'd never had anything to do with the group. They just thought that would be a cool job, to be the spokesperson for a queer group. I thought, no, that's not how it works. That's not how it works. It all goes back to that time in Worcester, Massachusetts. No small work in a big movement. I see a lot of people want to start. "I want to start my own organization." Great! There are five others like it, why don't you help them do what they do?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:09:00] We don't start at the top. In a great movement, there is no top.
Betsy Kalin: That's fantastic. You had mentioned in your questionnaire that there were three people that you would like to talk about. One was Evan Wolfson. Then, I think you also mentioned Kathleen Saadat and Rich ... Is it Eychaner?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:09:30] Eychaner.
Betsy Kalin: Eychaner, yeah.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Let's start with Rich Eychaner. Rich Eychaner is the founder of the Eychaner Foundation which funds the Iowa Matthew Shepard Scholarship Program. He also funds 1000 kids for Iowa, which is a program that works with children from Central and South America who have been trafficked. I direct those two pieces. Rich Eychaner is a very successful businessman.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:10:00] He's a gay man. He was the first openly gay man to run for Congress. He ran as a republican. He's just one of the most fearless together human beings I've ever met. Now, I get to work with him. Evan Wolfson is another one of my heroes. I remember back in the day, Evan would talk about marriage, marriage, marriage.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:10:30] People just wanted to slap him silly. We're never going to have marriage. Then, the human rights campaign and other groups, they were all working for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA. We got so tired of hearing about ENDA. We started calling it EDNA, just to see if people were listening. Evan believed that we would have marriage. Whether someone wanted to get married or not, it was such an important step.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:11:00] If it were not for Evan Wolfson, same gender couples could not marry in this country. It was him. Sometimes he was the only person waving that flag and irritating a lot of people. Man, he stuck to it and he did an extraordinary job. When I think of my marriage, I am so grateful to Evan Wolfson.
Betsy Kalin: [01:11:30] Did you get married right after it fell or when ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: No. We got married when we moved here, yeah, yeah. Because we couldn't any place else. If you were in New York in the '80s and '90s, he was just this guy that just bugged everybody about marriage. We got it. He's smart. He's so smart, so Evan. Then, Kathleen Saadat,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:12:00] Kathleen is one of these extraordinary women. When I first met her, she came into my office in Portland, Oregon and she has this very low voice and just said, "Sit down, I want to talk to you." I was like, "Yes, ma'am." It was like, yes, ma'am. Kathleen Saadat is a brilliant organizer. She has held many positions in government.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:12:30] As an African-American woman living in Portland, Oregon, which is a very White state, she made her mark not only around issues of race and culture but around the LGBT movement. She and I were comrades in arms during Ballot Measure 9, really smart, just really, really amazing.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:13:00] I remember she and I went to ... I think we went to Washington one time for this big gathering of LGBT leaders. Coming from Portland, we weren't all that important but we were invited. Someone in the meeting stood up and wanted NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, recognized. Kathleen and I, we just sat there for probably a nanosecond.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:13:30] We stood up and we said, "No, no, no." Being LGBT doesn't make you a pedophile. A 40-year-old man having sex with a 9-year-old boy is not okay. We stopped it, the two of us. We stopped it. Because everybody was being so politically correct. "Well, that's their sexual orientation." They're fucking children, no, no.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:14:00] I think it was I who stood up and said, "Are you talking about fucking children?" Then, Saadat stood up. Between us, we put a stop to it. She's that fierce kind of warrior. She's amazing. She also is a singer. I think she's nearing 80. She and the Pink Martinis just released an album. I have it downstairs.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:14:30] She's this person whose life is tempered by her anger, by her ferocity, her courage but also by her love of the arts, and her love of music and her sense of humor. Saadat and I, we became great friends during Ballot Measure 9. She's just one of my soul mates. She makes a difference. She makes a difference not only in Oregon but around the country.
Betsy Kalin: [01:15:00] That's great.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. The album is terrific. Are you familiar with the Pink Martini?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I know Thomas Lauderdale when he was still in college, and had rainbow colored hair.
Betsy Kalin: You talked a little bit about Evan and Ballot Measure 9 and marriage equality, what it did mean for you personally to be able to get married here in Iowa?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:15:30] I think Sumitra and I, we've been together so long. We always joked that it would be nice if we could get married while we still remembered each other's names. I thought getting married would just be a political act. Of course, we have to get married. We love each other. We're going to be together. We'll get married. It changed everything. It was so profound. We had people at our wedding.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:16:00] This is what I loved about our wedding. We had people that range from a white supremacist, a white supremacist who works with a group that threatens my life, who became a friend to the Southern Baptist minister who married us even though we're Buddhists, to my son and his wife,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:16:30] to just all of these incredible people. Some of them you'd know their names and some of them you wouldn't. As I looked around the room, I thought, this is what this is about. It's not just about Sumitra and me, it's about Sumitra and me and the people we love. In that room, there were about 150 of them, the people we love coming together. Marriage was important to us. It was important to us. Now, I know that it's not for some people.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:17:00] Again, that's fine. I like to call her my wife. I know that's silly. I love to be in a store and we were buying a television a few years ago and I said to the guy, "I've come looking at this, this looks really good." Right away, he summed us up and he said, "Yeah, but your wife wants that one." One, he knew she was my wife.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:17:30] Two, he knew who was the boss. Just that a store clerk would just ... She was my wife. He didn't blink an eye. I love that and I love to be in any kind of public situation and say, "This is my wife." Because some people are really unsettled by that, and others are just, "Yeah, so she's your wife." I think it ... I won't say it normalizes our relationship because I think any relationship can be normal.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:18:00] What it does for us is it lets us know we're winning. It lets us know we're winning. We have all of the legal protections that one would need, which was not true for a very long time. You had to have everything just buttoned up because anybody could take everything away from you. I think legally,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:18:30] whether it's health decisions or financial decisions, all of those mundane things are really important if you want them to be. We got marriage and we still don't have the Employment Non-Discrimination Bill, go figure.
Betsy Kalin: Or the ERA?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When people first started talking about it, I thought, well, that should be easy peasy, just ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:19:00] No, no, no. Maybe in my lifetime, maybe ... Yeah, yeah. Marriage has been very good for us and we're stunned at how much we enjoy it. I think day to day, it doesn't make that much of a difference. I think in the larger picture, it does.
Betsy Kalin: [01:19:30] Great. Thank you. Okay. If a person comes to you tomorrow and says he or she is thinking of coming out, what advice or guidance would you give them?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I would first say that coming out is the most important political act of your life and you need to keep that in mind.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:20:00] I would also ask them to think about their safety. Are they in a place and space where if they come out, they're going to be in danger? In danger from their family because we see that, in danger from friends, neighbors, fellow students, whatever. I think people have to be ready for what happens. Now, a lot of times, everybody says, "Yeah, we knew. We were just waiting for you to tell us." That happens.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:20:30] Sometimes it's not that friendly. Are you ready to accept everything that's going to happen? That may mean losing people you love, that may mean family members never speaking to you again, that may mean losing your job. You have to look at all of it. Then, think about every person who comes out makes it easier for the next one or makes it easier for the next one and the next one. I cannot imagine not being out
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:21:00] but I live a life that it's very easy for me to be out. It hasn't always been, but it's very easy. I think people have to really consider why they're doing it and there's every reason to. Then, what are they willing to lose? Because they'll lose a lot. What they gain is so much better, it's so much better. Can you imagine having to change your pronouns all the time
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:21:30] and lying about who you are and lying about who you love? That destroys people. That would be my advice. Be kind to yourself, but don't be afraid.
Betsy Kalin: You mentioned that it wasn't always easy for you, do you want to talk about ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sure. Well, for us, me and Sumitra, I think it's when we were attacked. We were literally attacked by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. When we would get death threats,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:22:00] when at my office, I'd have to have the police open my mail because of the things that were sent in the mail. For us, it was very violent and it was very aggressive. It was really in your face. I remember one time driving across a bridge in Portland, Oregon. The bridges go up and down for the boats. The bridges had gone up and we had to stop, and there was a fellow in a pickup truck next to me,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:22:30] and he leaned over and he recognized me. He leaned down and I thought he was going to ask for directions or something. I had my window down. He just spit in my face. I just remember I was horrified. I was shaking. I was horrified. I was trapped there. I couldn't go anywhere. This man, all he did is spit in my face but it was the most disgusting thing.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:23:00] Then, having your life threatened is disgusting too. Sumitra and I were once on the top of the white supremacists hit list. We knew that because someone 48 hours had done some show when we were in it, around the Queer work. Somebody called us and said that they troll the
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:23:30] white supremacy's hit list to see who's on it and our name was at the top of it. That was frightening, because anything could have happened. We lived in fear. We lived in absolute fear. Do you live in fear and do something about it? Or do you live in fear and just live in fear? I think we decided to just do something about it.
Betsy Kalin: How long a time period are you talking about here?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:24:00] This happened in 1992. You still get name calling and people say horrible things. I hate to say it but you get used to it. That's sad too that you get used to being treated badly. Lots of people are used to it, and that's not right.
Betsy Kalin: [01:24:30] Why is it important to tell your story?
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think stories are how people connect. I think stories make things real. I think we learn a lot from other people's stories. Here's the thing, we all have a story. We could walk out on the street and grab somebody and
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:25:00] sit them down in front of this camera, whoever they are, wherever they're from, and it would be fascinating. We'd learn a lot. I think stories are how human beings connect. Whether it's written or a documentary, however the story gets told, it's how we connect. When we connect, we move forward. I love storytellers. I love stories.
Natalie Tsui: [01:25:30] Sorry to interrupt.
Betsy Kalin: Yup.
Natalie Tsui: It was kind of there's a large car at the beginning of that statement. If you could just repeat the beginning again, that could probably be good.
Betsy Kalin: Okay.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Just the beginning?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, the why is it important to tell your story.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Through the whole thing or ...
Betsy Kalin: Just the very beginning.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think stories are important. It's how people connect. It's how people come together. Our stories are really our lives and
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:26:00] we learn from each other. If we're not telling our stories and if we're not being honest about our stories, I think we lose a lot. Did I get it?
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, it's great.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: That was perfect. Thank you. You've said something different too.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I did.
Betsy Kalin: What is your hope for the future?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Well, my hope is that the next generation can look back
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:26:30] at the last few generations and understand that it was people in the '50s, and '60s, and '70s, and '80s, and '90s, and early 2000s who really laid the groundwork. I hope we can look back at the kind of discrimination that LGBTQ people have experienced from society, religion, politics, families, that that was wrong,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:27:00] and that we need to move forward. I also believe in reconciliation. I think we can stop hating each other. I once met a fellow, a white supremacist who happened to come to my wedding. When he first met me, he came into my office and said his name and said that he had been part of
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:27:30] Tom Metzger's group, the White Aryan Resistance. He's telling me that and walking toward me and he's got swastikas and tattoos. I was right up against the wall. Then, when he told me he worked with Tom Metzger, I just snapped. I said that Metzger's group had worked against us,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:28:00] that they have threatened us. Then, I had him up against the wall. Then, I realized that he was there and he was friendly. It turns out this is a man who did horrible things. I don't even want to know what he's done, and then he was sent to prison. He found himself. He has spent his life really making restitution and working toward equality,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:28:30] and trying to be the best person he could be. He was a white supremacist who did horrible things. He's now one of the most honorable and decent human beings I've ever met. I've learned a lot about forgiveness and that people can change, that people really can change. We have to let them.
Betsy Kalin: [01:29:00] Give them space to allow them.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Right, right. If you look at this person, you'd run. He looks like a white supremacist. He wrote a book, Autobiography of a Skinhead. What creates a skinhead? What pain do they go through to become that hateful person? What makes some evangelical Christians, kind and loving and decent,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:29:30] and even if they don't accept you, they still love you? What's the difference between that person and the person who works against you every day? I think we have to not only look at ourselves but we have to look at the stories of people who are not like us at all and try to have understanding. I'm not a Pollyanna, far from it,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:30:00] but some of the most honorable people I know are people I wouldn't have spoken to 10 years ago.
Betsy Kalin: I think a lot of what you've been saying throughout this interview for me because I'm a practicing Buddhist ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Are you?
Betsy Kalin: Yes, so for the last 25 years.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh my goodness! Which ...
Betsy Kalin: Vipassana.
Donna Russell Red Wing: We were Nichiren and then that just felt so patriarchal. Now, we just practice ourselves.
Betsy Kalin: [01:30:30] We have some great groups in LA, but I do a lot of practice myself.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I love to go in chant thoughts. I was once in a room with 500 people chanting. I swear to God, we levitated. It was amazing. I'm sorry, go ahead.
Betsy Kalin: My question is, it seems to me that you have taken those principles about loving- kindness and compassion and looking inward. That seems to be your guiding force throughout what you've been talking about. Do you want to ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:31:00] Sure. A long time ago, I decided I was tired of being angry. A lot of activism is driven by anger. I decided I didn't want to be driven by pain or anger or retribution, that my life had to be better than that. My wife and I, we started learning about
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:31:30] and practicing Buddhism. We also embrace many of the tenons of Christianity. In fact, my wife is an ex-nun. I don't know if you knew that, in the missionary order. That's a whole other story. It's so much kinder to yourself to operate out of a place of compassion and love. It's so much kinder to your soul
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:32:00] to let people in. Maybe it's selfish, because it feels much better to operate out of that place than a place of hatred and anger and pain. I think our movement can be extraordinary and successful but we don't have to be mean-spirited. We don't have to hurt people. We may want to but we don't have to.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:32:30] I think the world we hope to create is created by how we operate in the world. I want to operate out of compassion and caring and decency.
Betsy Kalin: Do you want to share a little bit about the nun story?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Sumitra was a nun. I think she finally left because blind obedience was not something that was easy for her.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:33:00] She was a nun in Massachusetts. The nuns there said that they thought she was a lesbian. She didn't even have a name for it. She knew she loved women but she didn't even have the language to talk about it. They decided to send her of all places to a convent in San Francisco. At the same time,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:33:30] she was in the convent in San Francisco, I was part of a commune in San Francisco. We never met but we could have. She was there, and it was during Vatican II. She hated the uniforms with the wimple and the long thing. This was like flying nun stuff. That's how she dress. She made their outfits. She made them into culottes
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:34:00] so they could play basketball. Many of the nuns that she was with were lesbians. In fact, she left the convent with her first lover. Sumitra is a very interesting person, very interesting. She has always operated out of a place of kindness. If there was one word to describe Sumitra, it would be kindness. She made a great nun,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:34:30] but blind obedience was a problem. Yeah, somewhere I have a picture of her license with the wimple and the whole headdress and the ... Yeah, it's crazy.
Betsy Kalin: That's great. That's such a good story. Do you want to blow your nose briefly?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yes, thank you.
Betsy Kalin: I have one more question.
Betsy Kalin: [01:35:00] OUTWORDS is the first national project to capture and share a history through in-depth interviews. Why is this important? Please mention OUTWORDS.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. I think OUTWORDS is so important to the movements and to our larger community because it gives people a voice. Do we want our history written by corporate titans?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:35:30] Do we want our history remembered through the eyes of the extraordinarily successful CEO? How do we want our movement remembered? I think that by offering in-depth interviews by getting at some of the small pieces as well as the larger ones, I think that tells a better story. Who writes our history?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:36:00] Whoever writes it writes it. That's it. It's my hope that people are interviewed who've never had a leadership position who've been farmers or pharmacists or nurses or teachers. The LGBT community is so diverse, it's so extraordinary. There are so many stories. We all need to be a part of it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:36:30] I think this project, in particular, allows us to get past what everybody already thinks they know and really get into some deeper understandings of who we are. None of us fit the stereotype. I think what I love about the movement, none of us is the leader of the movement. If I were to ask you,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:37:00] "Who leads the LGBT movement?" It's like, "All of us." I also think from the '50s through the '90s, extraordinary things happened ... I mean some horrible things but some amazing things. The stories are so rich and so beautiful. They will inform the next generation. If we don't tell these stories, then we just become
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:37:30] another movement with a handful of leaders, with a handful of ideas, and no sense of humor.
Betsy Kalin: Perfect. I'm just going to pause for a minute and go through my questions just to make sure there's nothing that I missed.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, that's fine.
Betsy Kalin: [01:38:00] I think I have asked this but not really fully. How did your initial activism later influence your LGBTQ activism?
Donna Russell Red Wing: My early activism which was around the Vietnam War where I learned that there's no small work in a big movement, that has really informed every day of my life.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:38:30] There's nothing too small for me to do. I've headed organizations. I've been executives in many LGBT organizations. If I'm not willing to stuff envelopes, if I'm not willing to make phone calls, if I'm not willing to do what I ask other people to do, then I shouldn't be doing this work. I think it has been real guidance for me.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:39:00] I think I was also fortunate that during the antiwar movement and the women's movement, that there were just extraordinary people who helped me understand that integrity was important, and that I was responsible for everything I did, which is really hard sometimes because you don't always do things right. I think the early movement work when we didn't have money
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:39:30] and we didn't have PR firms and we just had ourselves, we had great successes and we had a lot of fun.
Betsy Kalin: That's perfect. Thank you. You didn't really talk much about GLAD, do you want to say more about GLAD?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:40:00] In the mid '90s, I was offered a position of national field director at the gay and lesbian alliance against defamation. This was in the early days. This was early days when we would stand in front of the New York Times with signs. It was the early days when IKEA had the first gay friendly commercial. It was two men buying a table.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:40:30] They didn't even say they were gay but we knew they were gay. We went crazy. We were delirious with joy when those tiny victories were just so extraordinary. My work there was really intertwined with so much of the work around AIDS/HIV. We were on the cutting edge of everything. I loved when GLAD had chapters all over the country.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:41:00] I would go to Kansas City and we would meet with journalists in Kansas City. We'd go to LA and San Francisco, and Chicago. We'd go to Little Rock, Arkansas ... I mean, places where ... Man, we would do something that would be minor in LA. We would do it in Little Rock and it would make the news. It would be extraordinary. People would see LGBT people in a way they've never seen them before. The early days of GLAD I thought
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:41:30] were so meaningful and so important. It was about holding journalists' feet to the fire and about equal treatment of LGBTQ people. I absolutely loved it. There were some great amazing things. There was a gala we had in Los Angeles. I couldn't find my wife and then afterward, there are all these pictures of her dancing with Boy George and with Tony Curtis.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:42:00] There was that kind of fun stuff too. It's heady. You can't mistake glamour and headiness with real activism. The fact that we had so many people supporting us was great. We shouldn't lose sight of people who don't have a name we know, who may not be at the forefront but who were doing extraordinary work.
Betsy Kalin: That's in early GLAD, it was amazing.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:42:30] It was, it was crazy. I remember ... Okay, so I had lived in Portland and that was my first week at the GLAD office. I'm from New England, so I get up early in the morning and I would be there at 8:00. Nobody is in the offices at 8:00. I'm sitting there and this man came in and he said, "I have some tickets for you for my new play." I said, "Great, thank you. Just leave them on the table." He put them on the table.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:43:00] It was for Angels in America and it was Kushner, Tony Kushner. I had no idea who he was. I was like, "Thank you, Tony. Thanks a lot. I'll make sure everybody gets them." It was incredible. GLAD was that kind of organization that people like Tony Kushner, people who were making a difference culturally and politically.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:43:30] They came to GLAD. They understood the importance of GLAD. I was so nave. I had no idea who he was, which probably niffed him a little bit. "Thanks, Tony." Then, we all went. We were seventh row. I remember we had seventh row tickets for Angels in America, and we're all soaring. The early days were amazing. They were amazing. We were in this crappy ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:44:00] Oh God, I think it was on 26th street, 25th or 26th. We had cockroaches, but we loved it.
Betsy Kalin: Just one second.
Donna Russell Red Wing: It must be noontime.
Natalie Tsui: What happens at noon?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Noon on the first Saturday of the month, they do the sirens.
Betsy Kalin: It's the drill?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, they do the sirens.
Betsy Kalin: You got to get in your own bomb shelters.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. There are no incoming missiles.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, they do that back home too.
Natalie Tsui: [01:44:30] [inaudible] Should I cut for a second or ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: It'll go for a few minutes.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah, you can cut. I'm going to go through my ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah. The offices of GLAD were shabby, and that was great. I shared an office with somebody. There's nothing fancy and we'd steal each other's pens. It was just the beginning. One day, I was invited after work to a meeting
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:45:00] with some politicians. I thought, great, that's wonderful. I got into the room and it was Jesse Jackson Jr. Crap, I'm sorry. I ...
Natalie Tsui: [inaudible] I think it's still going.
Donna Russell Red Wing: No.
Natalie Tsui: There's like a really ...
Betsy Kalin: There's a high pitched ... Yup, here it goes.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, it's stopping now.
Donna Russell Red Wing: That's probably from the joining town.
Betsy Kalin: [01:45:30] Oh my God! It just went ... Yeah, it's gone.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, it's gone now.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I was invited to this meeting with politicians and again ...
Natalie Tsui: Can we actually go back to the beginning?
Betsy Kalin: Just the beginning ... We'll start with the offices.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. The GLAD offices in the beginning were shabby and we had used desks. There were cockroaches, but it was fine. We were by the seat of your pants. We just did I think amazing, amazing work.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:46:00] One afternoon, I was invited to a meeting and they said there'd be politicians. I thought that's great. I showed up and the politician was Jesse Jackson Jr. We sat together for about three hours. There were other people there but it was mostly he and I. He was extraordinary. He really understood the intersections of discrimination that they're different
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:46:30] but there are some things that are quite the same. We had this amazing conversation. As I left, I'm thinking, oh my God! I just met with Jesse Jackson Jr. Look at me ... I mean, I was just beyond myself. I got outside and it started to rain. I realized I didn't have cab fare. I had to walk 25 blocks home. By the time I got home to my apartment,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:47:00] I was soaking wet. There was just a little flicker of hubris left. It just reminded me that, yeah, I got to sit and talk and advised Jesse Jackson Jr. I still walked home in the rain. I think every time I start thinking I'm bigger than myself, something like that happens. I try not to let it happen too much.
Betsy Kalin: [01:47:30] Truly, you do know you are an extraordinary person.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I think most people are, I really do. I do. I feel so blessed that I've been able to do the things I've been able to do and have the people in my life that I have. I think we all have the potential to do anything we need to do. I think that most people are really extraordinary.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:48:00] Again, I think if you stopped anyone and got to know them, you'd be amazed, which is why I try not to dismiss people. Some people I do because it's pretty obvious. Most of the time, I can't.
Betsy Kalin: Well, I know how humble you are from interviewing you but that you would dedicate your life to equality and justice and to create change, I find really incredible.
Betsy Kalin: [01:48:30] I know there's extraordinary people everywhere but that someone would have the fortitude and perseverance to continue the struggle, I just am very impressed.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Thank you. I look at it as I've been so fortunate, so fortunate. I was a kid from the projects. I wasn't supposed to go to college. I was supposed to get married, have babies and be dead by 40.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:49:00] I've been so fortunate. I'd like to say it's because I planned it all ... I mean, no. Most of the things I've fallen into, I just fall into. Almost every job offer I've had, I haven't looked for. Somebody has just reached out to me. I bumped into people who changed my life. It's just this amazing ride, this incredible adventure.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:49:30] Would I'd be happier being wealthy and living a life I hated? No. I'm so fortunate.
Betsy Kalin: That's amazing. The struggle continues.
Donna Russell Red Wing: The struggle continues. Now, because of my health issues, I'm really looking at the healthcare industry from the pharmaceuticals to the insurance companies,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:50:00] to the medical industry, and finding a lot there. Then, when I think about as LGBTQ people, how we're treated ... I mean, when medical professionals ... I won't go there. I won't go there, no.
Betsy Kalin: You want to throw that.
Donna Russell Red Wing: No, no, no.
Betsy Kalin: [01:50:30] No. It is true that the LGBTQ community with access to healthcare is a huge issue?
Donna Russell Red Wing: Right, right. Well, and right now, I'm especially thinking of the trans community. When we look at the healthcare industry, they are not prepared. They are not prepared. I can remember when I lived in Colorado, one of the few people in the country who did transition surgery was in Trinidad, Colorado.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:51:00] Did you know that? It's become this amazing place. A lot of people go there, transition physically, and then stay there. It's this amazing community of people. I have a friend whose 14-year-old child who's transitioning female to male and just started their T-injections yesterday.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:51:30] What they had to go through to get there, but I think 10 years ago, that child would never have even been seen by a physician. Here in Iowa, there are a handful of physicians who work with the trans community in a really good way. There's one clinic and that's it. For many LGBTQ people, to find a physician that you feel safe with,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:52:00] you could drive four or five hours. I was talking to a doctor in Mason City not long ago and he said, "HIPAA is a joke." It's a joke. Somebody comes out, everybody in the office knows and everybody knows after that. For trans people, can you imagine? If you're living in ... I don't know, Eldora, Iowa, where do you go? Who do you talk to?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:52:30] It's getting better but especially for young trans people, it's not fast enough. It's just not. It breaks my heart. Then, I meet trans people, people in their '50s and '60s who were transitioning at that age and who have lived their life really struggling with who they were and now there are opportunities for them to be exactly who they are. That makes me just joyous even in places like Iowa.
Betsy Kalin: [01:53:00] Yes. Just to [inaudible] run through at the end there, so that makes me joyous.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. That makes me joyous even in a state like Iowa, there are opportunities for people to be who they are.
Betsy Kalin: I know we touched on this. I think a lot of people would be interested in what is the experience for the LGBTQ community in Iowa, in the Midwest, in rural areas?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:53:30] I think the Midwest is an interesting place for LGBTQ people. If you're living in the Twin Cities in Minnesota or you're living in Des Moines, you have access to a lot. If you're living any place else, you really don't. We see more and more school programs for junior high school and high school kids,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:54:00] which is great. I think because the media has changed somewhat, people have representations of who they are somewhat. Think about growing up in an evangelical family in Southeast Iowa and nobody you know is LGBTQ, and all you know is what your pastor tells you, and that's that these are people who are evil.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:54:30] That's the reality for so many young people coming up in the Midwest. With the political wins shifting to the right, it gets worse and worse. I'm really afraid. I'm really afraid. I think during the Obama administration, people felt more comfortable being out and felt more comfortable being who they are.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:55:00] I've seen people actually starting to go back into the closet. I have seen people who have begun to transition stop and going back to the gender they were born. That terrifies me, which is why we have to do the work we do.
Betsy Kalin: That's so important right now.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, yeah. I'm hoping by the time this project is done that Trump is just a memory, a nightmare.
Betsy Kalin: [01:55:30] The whole administration ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: Oh God! Oh my God! Right now, Iowa has a republican house senate and administration. That means they just past an abortion bill, six weeks, which means there will not be abortions. Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: [01:56:00] 2018?
Donna Russell Red Wing: 2018, yeah. Then 2020, yeah. If we don't change the political course in '18, I don't know if we ever will. What more has to happen? I can't think of anything more. Every day, something happens. Isn't it crazy?
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:56:30] I think, oh, he can't do worse than that. Then, he does. It's just crazy. I don't know. Oh, well.
Betsy Kalin: No. I think everybody is in this shock constantly ... I think the shock is part of the tactic.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yeah, I think it is too. I think sometimes you get batter down so long, you stop responding. We'll see. Let's see if all of these marches and all of these comings together will result in a vote across the country.
Betsy Kalin: [01:57:00] Well, I have to say the youth, I find very inspiring.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah. They have to engage. They have to vote. I know many young people who are involved don't vote because they think that that's not how you do it, but you have to, you have to.
Betsy Kalin: [01:57:30] Is there anything else that we haven't touched on that you would like to cover?
Donna Russell Red Wing: We covered a lot. We did.
Betsy Kalin: I like to do my research.
Donna Russell Red Wing: I know, I can tell. I guess only this, and I think I've said it more than once.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:58:00] As LGBT people, we have a right but I think we also have responsibility to work for our community. That means doing the best we can with who we are. For some people, that's going to be organizing. For others, it's going to be another kind of activism. For some, it's going to be to support people who do that. There are so many ways we can make a difference.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:58:30] If each of us got up every morning and said this is what I'm going to do, and did it. Every morning I look at two things. What's my challenge? What's my joy? I don't go to bed until I've achieved that challenge, met that challenge and found that joy. If I want to go to bed early, I really have to work at it. We're responsible,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:59:00] not for who we are but for how we invest in the things we care about. If we wait for somebody else, it's just not going to happen. I think once you understand that, you have this enormous freedom to do amazing things. You give yourself permission to be powerful. You give yourself permission to be fierce.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [01:59:30] You give yourself permission to be the best person you can be. As an activist, I can't think of anything better than that. That's my story I'm sticking to.
Betsy Kalin: Bravo! I think we're good. We need to take pictures.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, pictures. Actually, I have a question.
Betsy Kalin: Yes, sure.
Natalie Tsui: You didn't ask ... Usually, there is this moment where I can ask questions.
Betsy Kalin: Of course, please.
Natalie Tsui: I've been thinking about a question. This is ...
Betsy Kalin: You're going to have to look at me.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Yes. I'm just going to have a little sip of my water first.
Natalie Tsui: [02:00:00] This is more for ... I mean, it was a silly question. Why I shouldn't [inaudible] by that. I was wondering if you could tell your coming out story and how you met your wife, if that is not [inaudible].
Donna Russell Red Wing: I'll tell you how I met my wife. For years, a mutual friend who I think had a crush on both of us wanted us to meet. She just thought we would be the best. At the time, I was working at the Child Assault Prevention Project.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:00:30] I was also running a sober bar called High Sobriety in my spare time. Sumitra who was no longer a nun now, Sumitra was the host of the only New England lesbian radio program in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was broadcast all over New England.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:01:00] It was called Face the Music. She just brought in all kinds of lesbian folk singers and everything from Sweet Honey in the Rock to Diane Davidson. She brings all these people in. Then, High Sobriety, and while I'm not an alcoholic, I love the idea of a sober bar. At High Sobriety, we would have on the weekends, music.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:01:30] She would send me things and say, "I'm bringing so and so in Friday night, you want them Saturday." We never met. We just did everything by phone. This friend kept trying to get us to meet. In fact, she brought her to my house once and I wasn't there. For years, we were missing each other. We lived in the same town, we would take parallel roads into the city. In fact, at one point,
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:02:00] the house I just moved out of, she moved into. It was just this crazy thing that we were supposed to meet but it wasn't going to happen. Then, Sumitra finally invited me ... Well, we were going to meet three different times and she canceled all three times. I was like, that's it. Well, finally, she said, "Why don't you come on my show and talk about the Child Assault Prevention Project?" I said, "That would be great." well, I get there and I looked at her and she was ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:02:30] Okay, lesbian balloon pants, short, short hair with a long braids on the back. You know where I'm going, I mean, totally typical stereotypical Massachusetts lesbian. I come in and I had just come from a big meeting. I was wearing boots with high heels and a long black dress, and all this flowy stuff. I was kind of granola crunchy. I went into the studio and I looked at her, and I almost choked.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:03:00] Something just happened. Well, she interviewed me, I have no idea what I said. Another reason I have no idea what I said was, it was being taped. When she finished and was going to play it back, she realized she'd never pressed the tape, the record button. We were both like ... We were crazy. She invited me for lunch. For six months, I kept her dangling because ...
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:03:30] Hey, who was she? Then one day, I was coming home from the battered women shelter board meeting, I was driving home and Face the Music was on. She played a song Diane Davidson, If You Think You Could Love Me. I remember just turning my car around and I was at her house when she got home, and I never left.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:04:00] We were crazy in love, like crazy, where I couldn't talk and she forgot to record. You may have heard Face the Music because ... Yeah, yeah. She was amazing. One of the big boxes is all of her lesbian folk. I wish I could say all lesbian folk singers were good. Some of them, I would sit there thinking, okay, don't let my face show what I'm thinking.
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:04:30] I would just be ... Some were awful, but some were spectacular. She would bring them all to Worcester. You probably heard her show. Then when she left, I think she did it for 12 years. When she left, someone took it over and I think it's still going. I think it's still going. You should be interviewing her.
Betsy Kalin: That's the most story [inaudible].
Donna Russell Red Wing: [02:05:00] Yeah, yeah. A lesbian radio program? That's crazy. In the '80s, that's crazy.
Betsy Kalin: How many years now have you two been together?
Donna Russell Red Wing: 30, yeah, and never looked back. Well, maybe there is one person in the world and she was it for me. I mean, really. I, honest to God, couldn't speak when I met her.
Betsy Kalin: [02:05:30] That's amazing, an amazing story. Thank you so much for asking that.
Natalie Tsui: One thing, would you mind saying we've been together for 30 years? Because you said 30 years.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay. My wife and I have been together for 30 years and looking forward to many more.
Natalie Tsui: Great. Yeah, I think that's it.
Betsy Kalin: All right, that's it.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Cool. Cool, cool, cool, cool.
Betsy Kalin: You can't get up yet, you're going to have to ...
Natalie Tsui: I'm going to cut and then do room tone.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah. Then, we just have to be quiet for 30 seconds.
Donna Russell Red Wing: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: [02:06:00] Yeah. Try not to move. Okay, room tone.
Natalie Tsui: [02:06:30] I got it, okay. Room tone with heater.

Interviewed by: Betsy Kalin
Camera: Natalie Tsui
Date: March 03, 2018
Location: Home of Donna Red Wing, Des Moines, IA