Nobody should have to hide who they are: Ashley Lindley and the lessons of One Iowa’s LGBTQ Leadership Institute

Ashley Lindley. — photo by Jason Smith/Little Village

When Ashley Lindley applied to be part of One Iowa’s LGBTQ Leadership Institute, she felt uncertain. It wasn’t the prospect of six months of regularly commuting from Iowa City to Des Moines for training sessions that concerned her.

“This was a big commitment in terms of publicly embracing my identity as a bisexual woman and as a member of the LGBTQ community,” Lindley told Little Village. “I was nervous.”

A volunteer coordinator at Sanctuary Community Church in Coralville, Lindley has worked for nonprofit community organizations since graduating from the University of Iowa, so applying to be part of the first class of the leadership institute seemed like a natural step for her. Still, combining her personal identity with the sort of public activism One Iowa was seeking to foster seemed daunting.

One Iowa announced it was launching a leadership training program during its 9th annual Gala Celebration in April. Lindley attended the gala as a representative of the board of directors of Veridian Credit Union, which was receiving an award for having a supportive and receptive workplace for LGBTQ employees. The award was named for Sharon Malheiro, one of the leaders of the fight for marriage equality in Iowa and an attorney who has spent her entire career advocating for the LGBTQ community.

“I hadn’t heard her name before,” Lindley said. “I realized how little I knew about the LGBTQ history that was all around me.”

LGBTQ history, both in Iowa and nationally, was one of the focuses of the training at One Iowa’s institute. The West Des Moines-based nonprofit was founded in 2005 to push for marriage equality, but has evolved into an organization promoting all aspects of LGBTQ rights and interests throughout the state. Its leadership institute program was launched this year to train a new generation of LGBTQ activists and community leaders, and included instruction in how to become involved in politics.

The first class had fifteen students. Lindley was the only one from Iowa City.

Lindley first came out to a small group of friends three years ago, when she was 27. It was the culmination of a long process of Lindley understanding and accepting who she is.

Lindley grew up in La Porte City, Iowa, a town of approximately 2,000 people.

“It’s very white, very blue-collar, very conservative,” she said. “In school, there was no inclusive curriculum when it came to things like sex ed or human development classes.”

Growing up Lindley absorbed clear-cut messages about sexuality and gender roles: boys like girls, girls like boys. It’s just that simple.

“It wasn’t until my teen years that I began to understand, ‘Oh, well, I don’t always just like boys. I like girls, too,’” Lindley said. “But at the time, I thought, maybe that makes me wrong.”

“I know there are so many other young people out there in rural Iowa who are experiencing the same thing right now, and it just breaks my heart.”

It wasn’t until she left La Porte City for college — first at the University of Northern Iowa, before completing her undergraduate degree at UI — that Lindley’s horizons began to expand.

“Going to college was a bit of a culture shock,” she recalled. “But it allowed me to open up and see that there are different folks out there — gay and lesbian, Muslim — all these different identities, all these different cultures I’d never encountered before.”

“It wasn’t until near the end of my college days that a part of me sort of clicked open. I realized that maybe I was part of this [LGBTQ] community,” Lindley said. “But for a long time I sort of hid in the LGBTQ space as just an ally. It seemed easier and safer to me. There is still so much violence and backlash that the LGBTQ community receives.”

“But I’ve come to the point where I understand I shouldn’t have to hide who I am. Nobody should.”

The importance of being open about your identity and the impact sharing your personal story can have creating a safe space for others was stressed in her One Iowa training, Lindley said. It’s one of the reasons the institute is concluding its first year of training with a celebration on Thursday, Oct. 11, which is National Coming Out Day. One Iowa’s LGBTQ Leadership Academy will hold its graduation ceremony the next day.

“Going forward, I’m going to be a little less meek about sharing my story,” Lindley said. “I want to be that person I didn’t have when I was younger, for kids who are wondering if somehow they are wrong.”

“I want them to know this is who I am, and I should have equal rights. And they should feel the same way.”