Sometimes it seemed as if Sharon Malheiro was everyone’s mom.

“When she died, it felt like, ‘Well, Mom is gone, and we’re not ready to be Mom yet,’” said Des Moines attorney Breanna Young.

This is Iowa’s first Pride month without Malheiro, a longtime attorney and activist who was instrumental in advancing the court case, Varnum v. Brien, that made Iowa the third state to permit same-sex marriage.

She founded the LGBTQ-rights group One Iowa in 2006 and was a go-to name in that community for legal issues large and small, in addition to successes defending and advancing abortion rights. Her unexpected death on April 10 has prompted questions about who might take the baton from her for future court fights over those issues.

But perhaps more importantly, how could the law community, the business community and the LGBTQ community nurture the next generation of people who possess the same leadership and advocacy skills as Malheiro? How can that next generation be mentored?

Mentoring is what Malheiro did. It was seemingly part of her personality. Malheiro and her wife, Sue, opened their home on Fridays for “Framily” night, welcoming anyone for food, conversation and brainstorming.

At the time immediately preceding Malheiro’s death, she was a board member emeritus for One Iowa, serving in a consulting role. Courtney Reyes, executive director of One Iowa, and Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy of One Iowa, had regular calls with her.

One mentorship solution proposed by Reyes and Crow: Having people attend the 14-week LGBTQ Leadership Institute hosted by One Iowa, which is in its sixth year. Applications for the institute are typically due in the spring. Classes are held in June through October.

The only requirements for participation in the institute are that a person has to be out, age 18 or older, and working toward a specific goal.

“This is really focused on queer folks, really trying to highlight people of color, Black, Indigenous folks and trans individuals, and to give them the opportunity to find their authentic voice. We’ve kind of taken away the words ‘to empower them’ because they already have the power. It’s just to give them that confidence,” Reyes said.

Some topics: How to run for office, what is lobbying, what does professional dress look like?

“We’re trying to make a space for folks to really be able to show up as their full, queer selves when often that is not always applauded,” Reyes said.

Crow said the organization is trying to build a group of leaders “that are more in Sharon’s vein.”

“It’s not just that we’re giving them business skills, or it’s not just that we’re giving them political skills. We’re trying to give them leadership skills, so that whatever situation they find themselves in, whether that’s a boardroom or a city hall or whatever it might be, they have something to draw on to not just improve their communities, but also to have confidence that what they’re doing is going to improve their communities,” Crow said.

Typically, 15 to 20 people go through One Iowa’s Leadership Institute annually, Reyes said.

Crow said it’s also essential for members of the Iowa business community to show up for the LGBTQ community when it counts, and that there were “a lot of missed opportunities” during the most recent legislative session.

“I think there were a lot of folks that talked a big game. They’ll have booths up during the Pride festival, and their names were suspiciously missing in those lobbyist declarations. Their voices were suspiciously missing in the private conversations. Their statements in public were suspiciously missing when that legislation was going through.

“The Iowa business community as a whole really fell on their face this legislative session and really showed where they were and were not willing to use their resources. And unfortunately, it seemed like for the majority of them, queer folks were not in that group of ‘We’re willing to go to bat for you,’” Crow said.

They noted that the Krause Group and numerous Des Moines-area small businesses were the exception, publicly opposing the legislation.

Recent anti-LGBTQ laws could potentially affect the business community’s ability to recruit and retain a workforce, decrease the state’s population in the long term, and discourage young, creative people from attending college in Iowa, Crow said.

“There’s going to be all these knock-on impacts. If business leaders really want to avoid those, they are going to have to take some short-term political hits in order to facilitate long-term workforce success,” they said.

Young, the Des Moines attorney at Dentons Davis Brown PC, grew up in Oskaloosa and has been practicing law for almost 20 years. She and her husband have four children, including a transgender daughter.

Young said she met Malheiro when she joined the law firm about five and a half years ago.

“I had heard of Sharon and I knew of Sharon, and I have kids who were part of the LGBTQ community, and so she was an important person in our life even if she didn’t know us yet,” Young said.

The two women collaborated on run-of-the-mill legal work but gradually got to know each other better.

“On Sundays or weekend afternoons, sometimes I would take my notebook over to Sharon’s house and I would sit down at her kitchen table. And she would tell me everything. She would tell me everything – she would tell me, ‘Here’s what we did for the Varnum case. Here’s why we filed in the court that we did. Here’s who we got on board and here’s how we worked in the community to garner community support for civil rights for LGBTQ people,’” Young said.

Young said that Malheiro also nudged her to serve on the board of One Iowa.

“That was something that I had to think a lot about because … I’m a person who is married to a man. And it’s like, does the board need a person like me on there?”

After talking with Malheiro and with One Iowa for “months and months,” Young joined the board.

Malheiro was also intentional about connecting Young with other leaders in the wider community – Camilla Taylor at Lambda Legal, Rita Bettis Austen at the ACLU of Iowa, Rekha Basu at the Des Moines Register and others.

“She was very intentional about laying a road map, laying the infrastructure, that would last beyond the scope of any one person’s lifetime,” Young said.

Leaders to potentially follow in Sharon Malheiro’s footsteps
1. Breanna Young, trusts and estates attorney at Dentons Davis Brown PC (mentioned by Courtney Reyes and Keenan Crow)
2. Connie Ryan, executive director at the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa (mentioned by Reyes and Crow)
3. Kendra Weston, founder, executive director and attorney at Lavender Legal Center, which is based in Cedar Rapids (mentioned by Breanna Young)

Landmark cases in which Sharon Malheiro played a pivotal role
1. Alons v. Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, which upheld a district court decision dissolving the Vermont civil union of a same-sex couple.
2. Varnum v. Brien, a landmark case declaring the Iowa Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
3. Planned Parenthood v. Iowa Board of Medicine, which established a fundamental right to abortion through telemedicine.
4. Gartner v. Iowa Department of Public Health, which ruled Iowa parents in same-sex marriages must be allowed to have both of their names listed on their child’s birth certificate.
Source: Dentons Davis Brown PC