Longtime LGBT Activist Donna Red Wing Dies at 67

Donna Red Wing

Donna Red Wing, once named Woman of the Year by The Advocate and “the most dangerous woman in America” by the far-right Christian Coalition, has died of cancer at age 67.

Red Wing died Monday at her home in Des Moines, The Des Moines Register reports.

“Donna was a force to be reckoned with and will be greatly missed by individuals across the country," Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of LGBT group One Iowa, said in a press release. “Donna inspired so many, including myself."

Red Wing was executive director of One Iowa from 2012 to 2016, after having worked for numerous national organizations. She had served as national field director at both GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, and policy director at the Gill Foundation. She was cochair of the Obama for America 2008 LGBT Leadership Council and Howard Dean’s outreach liaison to the LGBT community when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. It was during the Dean campaign that the Christian Coalition called her “the most dangerous woman in America,” a description she reportedly wore with pride.

In the early 1990s she headed up Oregon’s Lesbian Community Project, where she led efforts to defeat the states’ Measure 9, a ballot initiative that would have amended the Oregon constitution to ban gay-inclusive civil rights laws. Among other things, the measure stated that schools “shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.” It was soundly defeated, and The Advocate named Red Wing its Woman of the Year for 1992.

One of her other positions was chief of staff at the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to counteract the right-wing view of religious freedom and seeks “to defend the personal rights of conscience for people of every faith, while pursuing a definition of religious freedom that expands the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom and equality for all,” according to its website. Red Wing received the group’s Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Award, whose other honorees have included Judy Shepard, Rachel Maddow, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings.

After leaving One Iowa, Red Wing was executive director of the Eychaner Foundation, a Des Moines-based organization that works against discrimination. In honor of her work in Iowa, the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission recently named its annual Lifetime Achievement Award for her.

Red Wing was "fearless, passionate and no-nonsense," and "a true activist by heart," Hoffman-Zinnel told the Register. Another Iowa activist, Sharon Malheiro, told the paper Red Wing was “a force for civil rights and human rights in all areas."

The HRC eulogized Red Wing in a statement from JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs: “The HRC family is deeply saddened by the loss of our friend, Donna Red Wing. She dedicated her life’s work to civil rights and her legacy will forever be woven into the fabric of the LGBTQ equality movement. Many in the HRC family had the honor of working alongside Donna during her time as HRC’s National Field Director and across many states and campaigns in more recent years. For more than three decades, generations of advocates bore witness to Donna’s tenacity, deep commitment to equality and justice, and her many accomplishments, which inspired all those around her. Our hearts go out to Donna’s family and many friends who are grieving her loss.”

Red Wing, a native of Massachusetts, is survived by her wife and partner for more than 30 years, Sumitra; a son, Julian; a grandson, Jasper; and her twin brother, David.

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