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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told participants at a rural pride summit Thursday he is proud of the 'amazing cultural transformation' that has taken place during his seven-plus years at the helm of the nation's agriculture agency.
'We are a much more functioning, better department because we represent the entirety of America,' Vilsack told about 125 activists within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who attended a #RuralPride Summit to increase visibility and advocate for access to available services for LGBT people living in rural Iowa. According to a 2013 Williams Institute analysis, about 65,835 of Iowa's more than 3 million residents identify as being LGBT, summit organizers said.
Vilsack, a former state senator and two-term Iowa governor, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has come a long way in becoming 'an inclusive department' since his 2009 arrival when the agency faced more than 20,000 pending discrimination claims from African Americans, Hispanics, women and others.
'Our reputation around the country, we were not particularly proud of in civil rights,' he said of his early years at USDA. 'African Americans referred to USDA as the last plantation and with some justification.'
But, Vilsack said, he is now proud to say 'we've turned the page' by settling many of the claims and making the agency more diverse and inclusive.
'It's in our best interest as a department to be able to reflect the America that we represent and work for,' he said. 'We are a much more functioning, better department because we represent the entirety of America.'
The USDA and National Center for Lesbian Rights started a campaign to discuss the unique needs and vulnerabilities of the LGBT rural community and Thursday's Iowa summit is part of that effort by focusing on the economic needs of people not concentrated in urban areas.
'We have this perception that LGBT people leave rural areas and I think that's not actually true,' said Naomi Goldberg, research and policy director for the Movement Advancement Project. 'Breaking the stereotype that LGBT people don't live outside of cities is really important. There are LGBT people everywhere.'
According to Goldberg's research, all but three of Iowa's 99 counties have LGBT people who are raising children. She also noted that a sizable percentage of LGBT Iowans in rural areas are living in poverty and face higher rates of economic insecurity and health care challenges due to a number of factors.
Vilsack said the summits being held in Iowa and other states are designed to expand the outreach to attract, retain and encourage people to look at rural communities as options to live, work and raise their families.
'There is a community in rural America that needs help,' he told the LGBT assemblage. 'Oftentimes when we think of this community, we think of an urban-centric community but the reality is that there are many who live in rural areas and many of those who live in rural areas are challenged economically.'
The former Iowa governor, during his keynote address, told the summit he is 'extraordinarily proud that my state led the effort nationally on marriage equality' and noted that he had appointed four of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who handed down the landmark Varnum decision in April 2009 that legalized same-sex marriages in Iowa.