The leopard dyed hair, the tattoos - It's clear, drag performer Sharon Needles is all about shock and awe.
"Because the second you're shocked, your ears open," said Needles, who was born Aaron Cody and grew up in Newton, IA.
Needles hopes students, educators and the community open their ears and eyes when he talks about bullying, because Needles know bullying like he knows his makeup.
"School was really hard. I’ve always been kind of picked on for being weird and it wasn’t until about fourth or fifth grade, where I went from being strange or weird then it turned into being a gay issue.”
According to a survey by Lambda Legal, nearly 40-percent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender are physically harassed. Nearly 78-percent are verbally harassed and nearly 19-percent hear similar remarks from faculty or school staff.
"I didn’t have a lot of teacher advocates or student advocates," said Needles. "I was kind of my own army."
Needles eventually dropped out of school and moved to Des Moines in search of a more open and accepting environment. Sixteen at the time, Needles called the then "gay loop" near the Botanical center a "safe haven."
At 32, Needles is a successful performer and recording artist. It's proof, being yourself pays off. And while Needles doubts bullying will ever stop, Needles believes growing up gay is getting easier.
"You gotta take responsibility for your own, personal happiness and channel that negative energy and turn it into something good."
Needles will speak at the annual Governor's Conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth on April 1, 2014 at the Iowa Events Center.