Aime Wichtendahl didn’t run for office until 2015, but she’s been intrigued by politics for more than three decades.
“When I was 8 years old, I remember following the ’88 presidential election between Bush and Dukakis,” she said. “And interestingly, I was really mad at my parents for voting for Dukakis. Which is weird now ’cause I’m, like, totally a Democrat.”
A lot about Wichtendahl’s life has changed since she was a kid in Newhall, Iowa, a town with a population hovering around 850 approximately 20 miles west of Cedar Rapids.
“I grew up in the ’90s, so I remember a lot of really major events at that time. I remember my parents watching CNN when the Berlin Wall fell and watching them be awestruck at that. Clinton became president and got impeached. And the burgeoning LGBT civil rights movement in the ’90s was finally gaining some steam,” she recalled. “A lot of those things shaped my political identity.”
Wichtendahl also had a secret: she was transgender. This realization, she said, was “terrifying.”
“I didn’t know anyone like me. The things that I saw growing up [about LGBTQ people] were just fodder for daytime television. It was always presented as just, ‘oh, look at this oddity.’ There were never any real role models for me to aspire to,” she explained. “I didn’t want to be ostracized. And so it was very difficult to come to terms with my own identity at that time, because there were no avenues for help.”
She pretended to be a “normal,” cisgender boy, focusing on small-town issues.
“I was really annoyed when I was a kid that our town didn’t have a swimming pool. I’m just like, ‘I’m going to run for mayor and I’m just going to pool put in,” she said with a laugh. “When I was younger, that was the priority.”
Wichtendahl never did run for mayor of Newhall (although she claims she did almost win the mayorship in a write-in election at the age of 19).
“I was very, very much in the closet for a long period of time,” she said. “I got married in 2000. My mentality at that time was trying to basically distract myself and focus on other things such as my education, my friends, family, things like that.”
She studied journalism and political science at Kirkwood Community College and Mount Mercy College (now University) in Cedar Rapids. She and her wife had a son, but their marriage was dissolving.
“Basically, I hit an emotional brick wall right after college. Because at that point, all the things I had been trying to distract myself with were finally done,” she said. “I spiraled into this torrent of depression over my gender identity. It finally came to the point of either living or dying, and I didn’t want to die. I figured out what I had to do to live, and that was to transition and take this immense plunge. It was still a fairly scary thing to do, even in 2005.”
Wichtendahl began transitioning gradually, finding support from her family and friends along the way. But in 2007, almost as soon as she started living full-time as a woman, Wichtendahl received a message from the property management company through which she rented her apartment: Move out in 30 days.
“It was, ‘Your lease is up, we’re asking you to move, get out,’ basically,” she said. “They never told me why, but I think I could fill in the blanks.” She had no legal recourse, and she and her 2-year-old son found themselves homeless and couch-surfing for a month. But a coworker — “I was working at Transamerica, somewhat ironically” — who was preparing to move offered to sell Wichtendahl her house in Hiawatha.
Wichtendahl accepted. “And I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
“The best thing about buying my own place is that nobody can ever tell me to leave, as long as I pay the mortgage,” she added.
After years of working jobs in insurance and web design, Wichtendahl began considering a run for Hiawatha City Council in 2013. Two years later, she launched her campaign. She wasn’t setting out to be an LGBTQ trailblazer. She simply wanted to make her voice heard on local issues, particularly those affecting small business owners.
“My campaign slogan that year was ‘Stand with local businesses,’” she said. “[I wanted] to basically put a younger voice and a different voice on the council for future development and make some positive change.”
Campaigning was another plunge for Wichtendahl, who had to gather signatures, fundraise and market herself for the first time. She even utilized Facebook ads, a strategy little used before in Hiawatha elections, and which Wichtendahl said “paid off in dividends.” But the hardest part for her was door-knocking.
“It was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I don’t like bothering people,” she said. “But I’m like, ‘No, if I don’t do this, then people aren’t going to hear me.’”
Wichtendahl didn’t advertise the fact she was trans while campaigning, but she didn’t hide it, either. Overall, she found her fellow Hiawathans responded well to her message.
The 2015 election was competitive, with five candidates, including three incumbents, vying for three seats on the Hiawatha City Council. Tom Theis, who had served as Hiawatha mayor three times over four decades and was vying for a third consecutive term, was also being challenged, by William Bennett, himself a business owner. Bennett ran on a platform of lowering property taxes, more government transparency and opposing tax breaks for the influx of car dealerships trying to settle in town.
“I was really, really confident heading into Election Day that I would be able to at least snag one of those seats,” Wichtendahl said. “When you start seeing the returns coming over the TV for the first time you’re like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’”
Bennett narrowly upset Mayor Theis, and Dick Olson and Dennis Norton held onto their council seats. The third seat went to Wichtendahl — overwhelmingly.
“I ended up actually getting the most votes,” she said. “That was kind of a humbling experience.”
Driving home from her Election Night party, Wichtendahl was struck by the realization that she had just made Iowa LGBTQ history. Initially, she wasn’t sure what to do with that designation.
“How do you balance coming into government new and fresh with also being the first trans person in Iowa to get elected to government?”
Little attention was paid to her identity until late February, 2016, when a friend and Muscatine High School teacher asked Wichtendahl if she’d be open to visiting the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Addressing the group, she discussed her lifelong struggle with her identity; the open dialogue she has with her son; and the power of the internet to organize and affect legislation.
The visit was covered by the Muscatine Journal, the first media coverage of Wichtendahl focused on trans issues. While her priority on city council remained the protection of small businesses, Wichtendahl was included in state and national articles and on panels as an outspoken critic of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Iowa.
“Since the GOP took over the legislature in 2017, there’s been a lot of really bad ideas and bills coming to the floor, with some of them within striking distance of passage,” she said. This has included attempts to prohibit the use of Medicaid funds for gender confirmation surgeries; restrict educators from discussing gender orientation and gender identity with students and allow discrimination against trans athletes; and add exemptions to the Iowa Civil Rights Act that would undermine protections for LGBTQ Iowans.
“I think it would be much harder for me to campaign against these ideas if I wasn’t an elected official,” Wichtendahl explained. “When you get elected you get the ability to interact with your counterparts both in the statehouse and other elected officials throughout the area. That access can make a big difference.” She also noted that her status as a transwoman affords her added insight and authority on LGBTQ issues in the fight against “the worst ideas of some of these extremists in the legislature.”
“Fortunately, it’s not just me [fighting]. We’ve got a really good network of activists in Iowa. One Iowa, they’re fantastic at what they do.” Wichtendahl served as an honorary co-chair at the Sept. 20, 2019 LGBTQ presidential forum in Cedar Rapids, co-hosted by One Iowa. “Without them, Iowa would be a tremendously different place, and not for the better.”
Wichtendahl’s reproach of decisions coming out of Des Moines now extends to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ COVID-19 pandemic response, specifically her reopening of businesses and venues. Wichtendahl said most of the small business owners she works with have narrow profit margins and can’t afford to operate at 50 percent capacity. On the customer side, if people don’t feel safe going out, “business as usual” is impossible.
“Our government somehow is stumbling on the worst of all possible choices, in that they’re trying to get back to normal and just hope everything works out for itself,” she said. “They’re trying to put blinders on, and they think that this is just something that’s going to pass over. It’s not.”
Linn County has had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Iowa (as of May 30, Linn was fourth in number of cases and second in the state for deaths, with 76). Wichtendahl said she is proud of how seriously Hiawathans have taken social distancing, but fears for the trickle-down effects of COVID-19 on the local economy without continued state and federal relief.
“We completed a hotel study in February,” she cited as an example. “It was a really good recommendation because we’re right by the interstate; it could help make Hiawatha a destination and be another source of revenue for the city. But now that travel and tourism is decimated, that plan gets put on hold, which then you don’t have that source of income for the city, which means less that we’re able to do … We’re not redeveloping, say, a street, which means those contractors aren’t being hired, which means they don’t have money to feed their families. And it just spiderwebs like that.”
Wichtendahl encourages businesses not to be too eager to reopen their doors and locals to continue buying online — and tipping generously. “I think those are basic things that we can do to try to continue to get through this, making sure that when this scourge does pass that we have a stable economy that we can get back to.”
June Pride Month events are typically a time for the LGBTQ community to celebrate progress, and organize to support LGBTQ issues, organizations and businesses. With in-person Pride events canceled across the country, including Iowa, where can the community go for this much-needed morale boost?
“I’m actually really amazed at people’s ability to be adaptive and find new ways to combat adversity,” Wichtendahl said. She praised the efforts of Pride organizers in scheduling socially distant events, including her partner, a CRPride board member. Wichtendahl has agreed to participate in a Trans Issues Virtual Panel hosted by CRPride on Tuesday, June 26 via Facebook Live.
Wichtendahl has expressed ambitions of running for state government someday. But for now, she’s committed to her second term on the Hiawatha City Council — at a time when trans representation in the U.S. government is at an all-time high — and getting her community through a crisis.
“When push comes to shove,” she said, “people will come together.”
Emma McClatchey plans to dress her dog and herself in matching rainbow tutus and join online Pride celebrations. A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 282.