This month’s history-by-letter pulls our attention to Dubuque, Iowa, and challenges us to think about our local history in a national context. Pride parades and gay rights marches have been consistent methods of gathering in community in celebration and/or protest for the past 50+ years. Thus far, we’ve seen four marches on Washington for lesbian and gay and eventually, bisexual and trans rights. In 1979, 1987, 1993, and 2000 our community took center stage on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to be visible, to find community, to fight repressive laws, to advocate for a government response to the AIDS Epidemic, and to push for equality.
In the retelling of our history, the national marches hold a central place in our collective memory – from images of the Names Projects’ AIDS Memorial Quilt draped across the National Mall in 1987 to the knowledge that nearly 1 million people from our community gathered together in 1993. “Marches on Washington are a firmly established tradition in the American political repertoire. They comprise the heartbeat of American politics,” according to sociologist Amin Ghaziani.1 If national-level marches have allowed us to both know and remember that we exist in this country as a broad community, what do local-level marches do? What was the impact in their contemporary moment and how do they serve our collective memory now? To explore these questions close to home, we turn to the history of marching in Dubuque, Iowa.
On September 19th, 1987 approximately 30 people marched for gay rights in downtown Dubuque. Greet by 150-200 onlookers and hecklers, the marchers were pelted with eggs, garbage, and sticks. Although lesbian organizers Stacie Neldaughter and Giany Lynns expected onlookers, they were ill-prepared for egging.2 The march had garnered local attention because then Mayor James Brady refused to sign a proclamation declaring a Gay and Lesbian Rights week in Dubuque prior to the march.3 The egging forced marchers out of the street as Dubuque police failed to act in protection of the marchers. The story of gay and lesbian activist being egged in Dubuque spread throughout Iowa, the Midwest, and the country as a whole. Neldaughter and Lynns vowed they would march again in Dubuque.4
The second march was scheduled just seven months later, for April 30th, 1988. This time, regional and national-level attention was garnered as lesbian and gay newspapers from around the country published a call for help:
We urge Lesbians and Gay men from the surrounding states of Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, as well as Lesbian and Gay citizens of Iowa to rebuke bigotry and prejudice and march for justice and freedom in Dubuque.5
This call came from Sue Hyde, director of the Privacy Project at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and one of the scheduled speakers at the upcoming march. So prior to the 2nd march there was a national-level call for a regional response to a local event in Iowa. This evidences the strength of the lesbian and gay communication network forged through the Gay Liberation Movement of the previous decade.
On April 30th, 1988 nearly six hundred marchers appeared in Dubuque’s Washington Park for a day of speeches and marching. Lesbians and gays from across the Midwest and the nation arrived to support Neldaughter, Lynns, and the other marchers who were egged the previous year. Hailing from “Madison, Des Moines, Janesville, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York City, Miami, and San Francisco,” community members stood behind Neldaughter and Lynns as they marched through the downtown streets of Dubuque.6
Community members from across Iowa also participated in the march. Tim Tutt of Cedar Falls, IA marched holding a sign that read, “The Cor Fed Iowan Fag is back!” and featured the state outline of Iowa, an ear of corn, and a dot marking Cedar Falls on the map.7 Michael Blake of Iowa City, a prominent activist and leader of Gay Liberation Front at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, attended with a contingent of Iowa Citians. Although the rally was hailed as peaceful in comparison to the march in 1987, the heavy police presence did not deter onlookers and verbal harassment/intimidation of marchers. As JoAnn Weldon, a lesbian who traveled in from Davenport, IA, wrote to a fried just five days following the march, “Hatred was on either side of us on that march. Hatred stared and glared at us and shouted obscenities at us.”8 Yet the march was celebrated as a success in lesbian and gay newspapers across the country during the first week of May 1988.
The national attention led to Neldaughter and Lynns, the primary organizers and partners, to be invited to San Francisco to speak at the annual gay and lesbian freedom march, June 26th, 1988. A march that historically drew a quarter of a million people now had gained awareness of queer life in Iowa.9 Yet future marches in Dubuque gained less traction and publicity. The third march on September 16th, 1989 was advertised in regional newspapers and reportedly only over 100 people marched.10 The fourth march received opposition from the leaders of the Des Moines Gay and Lesbian Center Claire Heuholt and John Schmacker. The criticism surrounded the fact that Neldaughter and Lynns no longer lived in Dubuque. They had relocated to Madison, WI in 1989. Heuholt and Schmacker believed this made both women out of touch with Iowan politics.11
What is clear from newspaper records, is that although Neldaughter and Lynns moved out of Dubuque due to the discrimination they faced, the city still held significance for them. On February 26th, 1992 Neldaughter and Lynns printed a commitment ceremony announcement in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Not only was this commitment announcement the first of its kind to be published in an Iowan newspaper, the ceremony was to take place on June 6th, 1992 in Dubuque, at Washington Park, at the sixth annual march for gay rights.12
Ultimately, Stacie Neldaughter and Ginny Lynns’ commitment to Dubuque and the fight for gay rights reminds us of our commitment to Iowa and the fight to preserve and celebrate our history. As Sue Hyde from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in her speech at the second Dubuque march in 1988:
Ginny Lynns and Stacie Neldaughter, with their spark of courage, lit a fire of resistance, and fueled a movement of gay men and lesbians to travel across the state, across the Midwest, and even across the country to stand with them today.13
Indeed, Neldaughter and Lynns have made Dubuque’s history integral to LGBTQ history of Iowa, the Midwest, and the country.
If you or anyone you know participated in a march or rally for LGBTQ rights in Dubuque or throughout Iowa – we’d love to conduct an oral history and collect any ephemera you still have (posters, buttons, banners, t-shirts, etc.). Please get in touch with us via email or mail materials and contact info to our P.O. Box.
In love and solidarity
- Amin Ghaziani, The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and gay Marches on Washington (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 10.
- Tom Alex, “Gay rights activists pelted with eggs and obscenities,” The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), Sep. 21, 1987.
- Amy Duncan, “Gay rights week not declared,’ The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), Sep. 18. 1987.
- Amy Duncan, “Gay rights hecklers charged,” The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), Sep. 24, 1987.
- “Dubuque Calls for Pride Help,” Update (San Diego, CA), Feb.-Mar., 1988.
- Rex Wockner, “600 March on Dubuque, Iowa,” Outlines: The Voice of the Gay and Lesbian Community (Chicago, IL), June, 1988.
- Debora WIley, “Peaceful march for gay rights, ” The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), May 1, 1988.
- Correspondence from Joann Weldon to Meg Whitiker-Green, 5 May, 1988, Joann Weldon Papers, Box 1, Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, IA.
- “Dubuque Gay Leaders -,” The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), Jun. 26, 1985.
- “Third Pride March set for Dubuque,” San Diego Gay Times (San Diego, CA), Aug. 25, 1989; Rex Woekner, “Out and proud in the heartland,” Outlines (Chicago, IL), Oct. 1989.
- “Gay Rights leaders oppose march held in Dubuque,” The Gazette (Cedar Rapdis, IA), Sep. 23, 1990.
- Jack Hovelson, “Notice of gay union published,” The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA), Feb. 27, 1992.
- Sue Hyde, “We Gather in Dubuque,” April 30, 1988, in Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights (1892-2000) (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2004), 580.