One Iowa's new executive director: 'We are fighting for equality' for LGBTQ Iowans. 'We are not fighting for anything extra.'
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Courtney Reyes joined One Iowa in 2017, looking to give more of her energy to her activism.
It was an administrative position, one that Reyes quickly began to build on at the LGBTQ advocacy organization. In just two and a half years, her responsibilities grew, and in November she was named executive director.
Now she oversees the entire nonprofit, from fundraising to advocacy. Her passion for LGBTQ advocacy is clear, even in her messaging.
"Sometimes people try to politicize our organization," she said. "And we are fighting for equality. We are not fighting for anything extra."
Reyes, 35, is one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2020. As One Iowa's executive director, she oversees everything from building up the organization's donor base to advocating for better health care for LGBTQ people to supervising the group's leadership institute and putting on events.
Through One Iowa Action, the organization's separate political arm, she also advocates for LGBTQ-friendly legislation and opposes laws that harm the LGBTQ community.
"She just brings great energy, an interesting point of view and is always thinking 10 steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to details and just a variety of things. She has an amazing ability to connect with people," said Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, Reyes' predecessor as executive director.
'I am a mom and I am a leader'
Reyes says she always knew she wanted to help people. She graduated with a degree in child, adult and family services from Iowa State University before working for several years at Des Moines' House of Mercy, a substance abuse treatment facility.
Reyes, who identifies as queer, is married to Kate Lyon, a Des Moines attorney, and has two sons, Finn, 11, and Hutch, 8, from a previous marriage. The family also has a 2½-year-old black lab named Frank.
When her sons were born, Reyes says she knew she wanted to stay home and raise them. She called it "one of the most challenging jobs I have ever had."
Now she's excited to have a new challenge.
"It’s something I’m very excited about, being in this leadership position, that I am a mom and I am a leader," Reyes said. "You can be both of those things, and you don’t have to choose."
Lyon says Reyes "wears her emotions on her sleeve."
"She’s the same person at work as she is at home. She cares about the boys pretty much more than anything, and I think that shows in her job and it definitely shows at home," Lyon said.
Advocacy focused on education, health care
Those close to her say Reyes cares deeply about the advocacy that One Iowa does.
"I think that it might sound soft to say that she leads with her heart, but that’s in fact a very strong-willed place to lead from," said Jami Milne, a photographer and friend of Reyes'. "So I think this isn’t just a job to her, this isn’t just, 'I’ll take this position until I’m ready for the next one.'"
One Iowa's educational work includes hosting training for businesses on how to create safe and inclusive work environments. Reyes said they're especially focused on raising awareness about the needs of trans and non-binary people at work.
That includes asking what pronouns people use (Reyes uses she/her/hers) and avoiding gender-specific language on paperwork, including a check-the-box section with options "male" or "female."
"We need to raise the awareness that these folks are amazing members of society and we need them in our work spaces," she said.
Reyes and One Iowa also work with health care providers on how to be inclusive of LGBTQ people. While UnityPoint runs an LGBTQ clinic in Des Moines for a few hours each month, there are fewer options in rural Iowa.
Reyes, who was born and raised in Bloomfield, said trans people at times experience discrimination in health care settings. She said it's important that they feel comfortable sharing details about their health with a doctor.
"Being from rural Iowa, it’s really important to me to get access for LGBTQ folks that live in rural Iowa," she said. "I think people often think that LGBTQ folks just live in the city or metropolitan areas, but that’s not true."
Hoffman-Zinnel said Reyes' rural background will be an asset in the job.
"She brings, I think, the right perspective coming from a rural town in southeast Iowa that I think can connect with our legislators in a meaningful way while also connecting with the broader LGBTQ community," he said.
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'I didn't want to grow old not giving it my all'
Reyes has been on a path toward activism for years. An early life-shaping moment was her mother's death a decade ago when Reyes was 25.
"That was a moment in my life where I knew, I don't want to grow old not giving it my all and speaking out," she said.
In 2016, after President Donald Trump was elected, Reyes was working at a West Des Moines spa when she decided she needed to do more to fight for LGBTQ people. She joined One Iowa the following summer.
"I went to work the day after the election and I was putting away lipsticks, and I was just, it was awful, the feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing that someone was coming for my people," she said.
She thinks about how Trump's restrictive immigration policies would have affected people like her grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico 103 years ago.
"It makes me teary to think about it — if he would have tried to come here now, I would never have this life," she said.
At the state level, One Iowa Action has also fought policies that Reyes says harm the LGBTQ community. The organization is one of the plaintiffs challenging a law that allows government entities to opt out of using public insurance money, including Medicaid, to pay for transition-related surgeries. The lawsuit was dismissed by a district court judge, but the plaintiffs have requested that the Iowa Supreme Court hear the case.
As Reyes navigates the first months of her new job, she's mindful of how important it is to set boundaries and not let the responsibilities of her job take over her personal life. She's very protective of her time with Lyon and her sons, and makes time to take her boys outside hiking and exploring, as well as going to their events, whether that means soccer games or concerts.
"It’s figuring out how do you take care of yourself and make sure that you are taking care of yourself so that you can take care of the organization, and that is a balance in a small nonprofit," she said.
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Courtney Reyes
- BORN: Bloomfield, Iowa
- RESIDENCE: Des Moines
- EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in child, adult and family services from Iowa State University. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
- OCCUPATION: Executive Director of One Iowa
- FAMILY: Wife, Kate Lyon; sons Finn Wagler, 11, Hutch Wagler, 8; black lab, Frank, 2½
- WEBSITE: https://oneiowa.org/contact/
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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