DES MOINES – Sharon Needles said she never questioned her sexuality growing up.
The Newton, Iowa native described her high school self in “full vinyl pants, hot pink hair and shaved-off eyebrows.” Although she was comfortable with herself she was subjected to bullying by those who didn't accept her.
“It seemed like it was other people that struggled or had issues with my sexuality or the way I visually presented myself,” said drag performer Needles, who was born Aaron Cody.
Needles joined more than 900 high school and college students, educators, faith leaders, social workers and parents at the Governor's Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual or Questioning Youth Conference to talk about the importance of rejecting bullying and other issue that face the LGBTQ community.
The conference is sponsored by Iowa Safe Schools, an LGBTQ advocacy group, and was first launched under Governor Tom Vilsack in 2006.
Nate Monson, Iowa Safe Schools executive director, said the LGBT community has seen significant progress on issues like same-sex marriage, bullying legislation and civil rights, since the conference began. He said this year's conference focuses on issues that still face the LGBT youth including homelessness, bullying and suicide prevention. He said it's also a chance to meet with well-known people, like Needles.
Needles, 32, said she sees her story resonate with a lot of students she meets as a fellow Iowan growing up in an environment that's not largely diverse.
“For a lot of these kids they're the only 'out' student in their school in a lot of cases and so they can come to Des Moines for one day and not feel different,” Monson said.
According the Human Rights Campaign, 26 percent of LGBT youth say their biggest problems are not feeling accepted, fear of being 'out' and trouble with bullying.
High school students Lauren Thies and Tyra Ruth of Waterloo said they attend for the open environment and enjoy hearing famous people like Needles or Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who also spoke at the conference. Ruth, 15, said it's good to her they went through similar struggles and “they're just like us.”
Needles said it's also important for educators, parents and adults to foster supportive environments for students, something she didn't have in school.
State leaders have taken action to prevent bullying in schools including legislation being tackled by lawmakers this session.
On Tuesday, conference attendees took a group picture and tweeted at Gov. Terry Branstad's Twitter account to support the anti-bullying legislation.
Although Branstad had received an invitation he was not at the conference because of scheduling conflicts, his spokesman Jimmy Centers said, adding bullying prevention remains an important issue for the governor who has held two anti-bullying summits while in office.
“The governor doesn't believe that there's grounds for bullying ever and we need to treat everyone with respect,” Centers said.
Other keynote and featured speakers included, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network Executive Director Eliza Byard, comedian and social justice advocate Sam Killermann and actress Leisha Hailey.
Skjellerup said he felt confused growing up and didn't have anyone to confide in about his experiences. He said for him it took 12 years from the day he was called the “f word” to realizing he was gay.
“Twelve years was far too long and at times I didn't think it was possible to be who I was and who I am today,” said the 28-year-old New Zealand native. “But here I am.”