April 17, 2018 at 4:30 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Longtime LGBT advocate in Iowa dies after battle with cancer

Donna Red Wing, shown here in 1994, was an LGBT advocate in Iowa who died at age 67 after a battle with cancer. (Washington Blade archive photo by Kristi Gasaway)

A longtime LGBT advocate in Iowa who oversaw victories in her state that included marriage equality and the loosening of restrictions on her state’s HIV criminalization law has died after a battle with lung cancer, One Iowa announced Tuesday morning.

Donna Red Wing, who served as executive director of One Iowa from 2012 to 2016, died Monday evening at age 67 after an eight-month battle with lung cancer, according to the Des Moines Register. Red Wing is credited with dedicating more than 30 years of her life to the fight for LGBT rights in Iowa as well as D.C. and around the country.

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, the current executive director of One Iowa, said in a statement Red Wing was “a force to be reckoned with and will be greatly missed by individuals across the country.”

“Donna inspired so many including myself,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. “I was lucky enough to get to know her when she first came to Iowa and co-founded One Iowa’​s LGBTQ Health & Wellness Conference. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Donna’s support and mentorship.”

Once dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” by the Christian Coalition, Red Wing was known for her charisma and civil approach to activism. In addition to leading One Iowa for four years, she briefly served as director of the Eychaner Foundation, a non-profit that awards scholarships to students who champion LGBT issues, and served on the Des Moines Civil & Human Rights Commission, where she launched an LGBT advisory council. The commission recently named its annual Lifetime Achievement award after Red Wing in recognition of her longtime work.

Active in the marriage equality movement, Red Wing took the helm of One Iowa after the state enacted same-sex marriage and supporters beat back an anti-gay constitutional amendment in the state legislature. During her tenure at One Iowa, she helped guide to passage legislation in 2014 that loosened the restrictions on HIV criminalization in Iowa, which at the time had one of the most draconian laws against people with the disease.

In 2013, Red Wing told the Washington Blade in the wake of securing marriage equality working with local HIV groups to repeal her state’s HIV criminalization law was her No. 1 legislative priority.

“Over the years, I’ve been troubled that as the face of AIDS changes, fewer and fewer LGBT organizations are engaging in this struggle,” Red Wing said. “It seems like the right thing to do, you know? Because in the early days, if it wasn’t for our people, if it wasn’t for the LGBT communities, we would not be where we are today.”

Three years later, when the Blade visited the offices of One Iowa in 2016 during presidential caucuses, Red Wing recalled in 2014 then-Gov. Terry Branstad was compelled to sign the legislation because it passed on a bipartisan basis, but looked uncomfortable at the signing ceremony.

“We had every Republican in the House and Senate signed on,” Red Wing said. “He had to [sign it]. It was bulletproof. So were we surprised? No. We were there. He didn’t look happy. He was surrounded by queers and people with HIV and had to sign it.”

Sharon Malheiro, board emeritus of One Iowa, said in a statement Red Wing’s “passion and dedication to serving the LGBTQ community was unparalleled, and I am honored to have known and worked with her.”

“Our community has lost a fierce advocate, and many of us have lost an incredible friend, mentor, and inspiration,” Malheiro added.

Prior to moving to Iowa, Red Wing worked as an LGBT activist and was executive director of grassroots leadership at the Interfaith Alliance. No stranger to national elections, Red Wing served as a co-chair of the Obama for America 2008 LGBT Leadership Council and Howard Dean’s outreach liaison to the LGBT community in 2004. Red Wing also worked at other LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Gill Foundation and GLAAD.

JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs, said in a statement Red Wing “dedicated her life’s work to civil rights and her legacy will forever be woven into the fabric of the LGBTQ equality movement.”

“Many in the HRC family had the honor of working alongside Donna during her time as HRC’s National Field Director and across many states and campaigns in more recent years. For more than three decades, generations of advocates bore witness to Donna’s tenacity, deep commitment to equality and justice, and her many accomplishments, which inspired all those around her,” Winterhof said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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