County supervisor has personal stake in equality rights

Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz in an LGBTQ march in October 2016.

When people think of LGBTQ activism in the Cedar Valley, one name will often come to mind: Chris Schwartz. Schwartz is a founder and organizer of Cedar Valley Pridefest, the chairperson of the Iowa chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, and he’s currently serving his first term as one of five Black Hawk County Supervisors. Schwartz is the first openly gay elected official in Northeast Iowa, and the fifth to serve anywhere in Iowa.

The LGBTQ community and the issues thereof have been a topic of interest for Schwartz for many years. “I first got started in LGBT activism my freshman year of high school when I gave my first speech on LGBT rights. That was 23 years ago,” he said. “When I really got involved was after we had the marriage equality ruling in Iowa. I was working for Americans for Democratic Action at the time, and even though we are not specifically an LGBT rights group, we got involved in the lobbying effort to make sure there wasn’t a constitutional amendment was not introduced in the state legislature that would overturn that ruling. We lobbied very heavily and were credited with helping to deliver two of the final democratic votes that we needed to prevent that constitutional amendment from being introduced.”

He is also very concerned about proper education for LGBTQ people and for the broader community about LGBTQ issues. “We’ve [Americans for Democratic Action] organized countless educational events, whether on transgender issues or school bullying issues,” he said. “As one of the founders of Cedar Valley Pridefest, which we are now in our sixth year, we’ve really stayed true to our mission of not just having a celebration but also being a really educational event, so the areas I head up for Pridefest are … the education series … the teachings that happen at the festival, making sure that we’ve got the education/advocacy component so that it’s not just a bunch of people getting together and having a good time. It’s advocating and furthering the state of our community.”

As a founder and organizer of Pridefest, Schwartz has a very unique perspective on what the festival brings to the Cedar Valley. “I’ll never forget that very first Pridefest. We didn’t know how it was going to go, how people would react. We thought we’d be lucky if we had 500 people there, and we had close to 3,000 people there,” he said. “The thing that really struck me was one of the shifts I was working at the gate as people were coming in and seeing all these young high school students. They were coming from not just schools here in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, but schools from all around. We were tracking their zip code, so we knew where people are coming from. I realized that this is probably the first time that they were in an environment surrounded by people like them or who supported them, where they could really express who they were and be comfortable and know that this was a safe place for them. It almost brought me to tears, thinking about what it was like when I was in high school, it was radically different; it’s changed really rapidly. For me it shows triumph of our community but also resilience for our community and determination to keep fighting and moving forward.”

Schwartz described his feelings in 2009 and 2015 when marriage equality was recognized in Iowa and across the United States, respectively. “It was a beautiful moment. I remember I joined an impromptu rally that took place at the University of Northern Iowa to celebrate it when it happened. It was a great moment of personal relief for me because it’s not something I thought I’d see, but the dynamics started changing very rapidly,” he said. “And then in 2015 when we finally had the ruling that made marriage equality go nationwide, it was almost an overwhelming sense of pride, and it really made me reflect all the people that came before me and fought so hard, literally fought and gave up their lives, people that died in the HIV epidemic and those that still continue to die, but also made me want to honor everyone that worked so hard for generations before we came along. I think it’s important that the people my age and people younger don’t take any of this for granted because nothing’s guaranteed.”

Even though marriage equality has been achieved throughout the United States, Schwartz recognized issues for the LGBTQ community that are still worth fighting for. “I think there’s still some 30 or so states around the country that don’t have those protections [for LGBTQ people written into the civil rights code]. Folks can be evicted from their home or apartment. They can be denied housing applications, denied jobs, fired from jobs, denied services, all because they’re a member of the LGBT community,” he said. “Transgender rights are still very much lagging behind, and it’s not just the legal rights, but also how transgender individuals are perceived by society. We need to be constantly educating people about that and opening people’s hearts and opening people’s minds. We still have issues like adoption rights in many states; same-sex couples are not guaranteed adoption rights in every single state, which is sad for all the children that are wasting away in the foster care system around the country. We need to eliminate those hurdles. Additionally, just because we have marriage equality now doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to keep it. It’s going to be hard for them to get rid of it. It’d be a big fight, but we’re seeing how destructive Supreme Court picks can be. The idea that [Trump]’s going to have an opportunity, if he’s not impeached first, that he could appoint one or two or three more, that would have a devastating effect on LGBTQ rights and really the rights of all disenfranchised and marginalized people around the country.”

It’s obvious that there’s still a long way to go in this country for the perception of LGBTQ individuals, and it was no more obvious than last October when Schwartz’s home was vandalized with gay slurs and anti-gay sentiments. “It was three weeks before the election. I came out of our house that morning where my fiance and I live, and I saw that some of the campaign signs had been spray painted with black paint. Then I got further outside, and I saw one of my campaign signs had the word ‘fag’ spray painted on it, which was really upsetting and shocking,” he said. “Then I turned around and saw this Leviticus quote referenced on our front door, which basically reads ‘a man who lies with a man shall be stoned.’ We took it as a death threat. The police agreed with us that it was a death threat, and they classified it as a hate crime. It stayed unsolved. Even today it’s still kind of unnerving knowing that there is someone or some group of individuals who would threaten our lives just for being gay. The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive, except from the hatemongers that incited that in the first place.”

Unfortunately for Schwartz, this was not the beginning of hateful acts against him at his home. “That wasn’t the first incident. That was the first incident that we reported. The May before that, I had two chihuahuas, and I had been on campus campaigning with one of them, the smaller one, Nico. I put a photo of her up on my campaign page. I get back home and her brother who’s a little bit bigger than her started acting weird. It was clear something was wrong, so I called our vet, and the vet hours were closing, so they said try to get him to drink water, try to get him to throw up. We searched our yard, and someone had thrown a bag of antifreeze into our front yard,” he said. “He chewed it up and ultimately he died that night. He made it to the morning. we were waiting for the vet to open so he could get back in there. He was having seizures all throughout the night and he died that morning. We didn’t know exactly what happened. We didn’t want to sound like we were exploiting the death of my dog. It was already sad enough when it happened, but bags of antifreeze don’t just blow into your yard randomly. It was the same day I posted a picture of the other one, and it really seemed like we were targeted. I don’t know if we were targeted for being outspoken progressives or targeted for being gay or what happened.”

Regardless of the hate crimes committed against Schwartz, he pushes on in his fight for LGBTQ rights. As chair of Iowa Americans for Democratic Action, he has access to many resources which allow him to help the Iowa LGBTQ community even more. “With Americans for Democratic Action, I really feel blessed to work for such a historic organization. This is the 70th year of the organization, and ADA was actually the first organization that wasn’t specifically LGBTQ to speak out on behalf of gay rights,” he said. “It started during the McCarthy trials, when people who were either LGBT or perceived to be were fired from their jobs and barred from working in the government. Americans for Democratic Action was the first to speak out against the persecution. We have a 70-year history of fighting for LGBTQ rights, so they give me the ability to work on all the rallies that I mentioned before, and to be that advocate that spends time lobbying on these kinds of issues since it’s something that’s been there since the start of ADA.”

Schwartz also uses resources available to him as Black Hawk County Supervisor. “I’m working with our county health department because Black Hawk County has alarmingly high STD rates, and those disproportionately impact the LGBTQ community, and so I’m really trying to help them connect with all the ways that they can communicate with the LGBTQ population and make sure the services that we provide at the county are reaching all the disenfranchised people out there, including the LGBTQ community.”

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