How I fell in love with America's 'most dangerous woman'
How two activists conquered the world as told at "Love in the Modern World" Des Moines Storytellers Project event. Des Moines Storytellers Project, Mediacom
Editor's note: Sumitra Red Wing first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: Love in the Modern World event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
Almost 30 years ago, I did something I never imagined. I asked my partner Donna to teach me how to shoot a gun.
Donna Red Wing was a marksman shooter. I had never handled a gun, nor did I want to. But I was frightened. We were receiving death threats. We were living in Oregon and the LGBT community was under attack by the religious right. The Oregon Citizens Alliance was attempting to place an initiative on the ballot that would amend the constitution to say LGBT people were wrong, abnormal and perverse. It would deny us our basic rights and allow discrimination.
Violence against gays was on the rise. Homes were vandalized, pets attacked, people were beaten, or killed when their homes were firebombed. At that time, Donna was the director of the Lesbian Community Project, and was now in the forefront of this “Holy War,” so dubbed by the Oregon Citizens Alliance. She was on local and national news, and her name became a household word. She was spat on and and threatened daily at work. She would find feces outside her office door. The police gave us a buzzer to carry at all times in our home that contacted them immediately.
This was drawing national attention. We were part of an award winning documentary, “Ballot Measure 9” and were filmed by "48 Hours." Watching all this hatred unfold daily, was devastating. I could not have imagined any of this ever happening when Donna and I became involved back in 1988 in Massachusetts.
The meet cute
Two years prior, a good friend kept insisting that I meet Donna, but all attempts failed. We even lived in the same small town, but we took parallel roads to the city. During this time, I was a radio and talk show host and Donna was the director of the Child Assault Prevention Project, which was located a block from the radio station. Finally I asked her to come to the station and tape an interview and we could finally meet. She agreed.
I got there early to set up and make sure I was ready. When Donna walked through the door, I think my jaw dropped, my heart started racing and I knew it was love at first sight. I was trying to be cool but realized, half an hour into the interview, that I had never pushed the record button.
Needless to say it worked out: both the interview and the beginning of our relationship. At that time I was a U-Haul lesbian, which meant after a month I was ready to move in. But not so for Donna. She was making me wait. Finally after six months, I knew on one
particular night she would be driving home listening to my show, so I dedicated a song to her: “Tonight I’ll Dream That You Care.”
After the show, I drove to my home and there she was. She never left. This was one of the happiest days of my life.
From there, our journey of activism and love began. We both shared many of the same passions, including feminism and social justice, but our approaches differed. I am a behind the scenes kind of a gal. I work better in smaller groups. Donna could address crowds of thousands, and she did it well.
After our long battle, we succeeded in defeating the amendment. Donna earned the title “Most dangerous woman in Oregon,” Which made me a "dangerous wife"! Later in Donna’s career, her title grew to include all of America.
Loving and being with Donna meant always seeing the big picture and finding the best way to create change. Sometimes we would be the bulls in the china shop. Other times we chose to take the longer route to transformation through dialogue. While in Oregon we were approached by a member of the OCA named Jan. She realized she hated us without even knowing us. She asked if we would organize a group of lesbians willing to pray, read the Bible and discuss. She also asked that Donna not be a part of it because she was "too intimidating.” Donna told her I should be doing it, seeing as I was the ex nun. (I was, but that’s a story for another time.) Long story short, this was a difficult journey to understanding and embracing unconditional love. There were many heated, emotional discussions. I remember once throwing the Bible on the floor and walking out.
Soon after, Jan stopped working with the OCA. She told them she could no longer hurt the people she grew to know and love. We have remained in touch.
Donna’s activism has taken us from Massachusetts to Oregon to Washington, D.C., and Colorado. One day she asked me what I thought about Iowa. I looked at her and said, “I don’t.”
And here I still am, in Iowa without her.
In August of 2017, Donna was diagnosed with fourth-stage lung cancer. She was determined to beat it, like she did every challenge in her life. She died in April 16, 2018.
Her work for civil dialogue lives on. In Iowa, Donna reached out to Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, a socially conservative organization opposed to same-sex marriage. She believed it was time to put differences aside and find common ground and respect. They did just that and it made the front page of the Washington Post.
That commitment is why Donna became a national figure in the LGBT community; why she was named woman of the year by The Advocate magazine, won the first Walter Cronkite award for faith and freedom and on and on. I was with her every step of the way, through every challenge. I was her sounding board, her biggest fan and her support. I used to remind her that behind every great woman is a great woman.
I have come to realize the symbolic significance to the fact that we lived so close yet took different roads to our destinations. Now as I move forward, carrying on her civility work, she will always continue to inspire me to do what is right and good and I will, my way.
These 30 years with Donna were never boring. They were full of love and excitement and I would not trade one day of our life together. But I would give anything for one more dance, one more kiss and embrace.
Oh, I never did learn to shoot a gun.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Sumitra Red Wing is from Worcester, Massachussetts. Now retired and living in Des Moines, she is a renaissance woman who lives life embracing new adventure and opportunities. Sumitra entered a convent from high school and after leaving, she worked in radio, television, concert production and more. She enjoys approaching everyday with an open mind, open heart and spontaneity.
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