The Fragile State of Gayer Iowa

The Fragile State of Gayer Iowa

“A doctor’s appointment?” the woman in the high school attendance office asked when I reported that my daughter would be leaving early on Wednesday.

“Nope. A same-sex wedding,” I replied.

Actually, I didn’t. But I could have — because that’s why Lily missed some school this week in Des Moines. She needed to get to the Polk County Court House on time. Her friend’s mother, Patti Woodward-Young, and Patti’s longtime companion, Kate Joeckel, were getting married.

It’s a brand new day here in Iowa since April 3 when we became the nation’s third state — and the Midwest’s first — to permit same-sex marriage. But during the state’s first three weeks of legalized gay marriage some things haven’t changed. One gay college student I know has gone back into the closet while searching for a teaching job. And public reaction has been mixed to the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to overturn a state law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, a decision hinged on basic fairness and constitutional equal protection.

While some Iowans have accepted the decision with pride or a live-and-let-live shrug, others have reacted with dismay or anger. Opponents are pushing for a vote to amend the Iowa Constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. The petition process generally takes three years. While the passionate rallies and television commercials — pro and con — have slowed, some Iowans fear attitudes are hardening and the discussion is coarsening, judging from the continuing battle being waged on local newspaper opinion pages.

Despite the sometimes patronizing praise we have suddenly received , it’s not yet clear that Iowa has become the Midwest’s gay marriage mecca. During the first week of legal gay marriage here, over 450 gay couples sought licenses, with the most requests in Polk County, followed by Johnson County , according to a Des Moines Register survey. In Polk County, an initial rush of requests tapered off by the week’s end. There have been scattered reports of gay marriages by out-of-staters — including 17 gay and lesbian couples from Missouri who arrived by bus to wed in Iowa City.

Supporters of the new status quo include a gay Democratic state senator, a reform rabbi, a Unitarian Church leader, a state gay rights advocacy group called One IOWA and Des Moines’ mayor. Opponents include a Republican state senator, a Baptist minister, Iowa’s Catholic bishops, the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center and a few county recorders Magistrates in at least seven of Iowa’s 99 counties have decided this year not to perform any weddings — although most have declined to cite the same-sex marriage ruling as the reason, according to a Register survey.

Gay marriage could become a hot potato during the 2010 Iowa gubernatorial race when Chet Culver, a Democrat, seeks a second term. One of his likely Republican challengers, who opposes gay marriage, has vowed to make it a key issue. Culver, who has said he believes marriage should be between a man and woman, has reacted in muted fashion to the new law, saying the court’s decision must be respected and that he is reluctant to support a constitutional amendment.

If there is a public vote on the issue, Iowans could lose their new-found cool by following Californians, who rejected gay marriage last November. Some recent polls show that most Iowans believe marriage involves one man and one woman, but were willing to allow gays and lesbians to have civil unions.

My 16-year-old was clearly honored to be invited to the wedding of a couple she has been close to since grade school. A veteran of several opposite-sex weddings, she took this one in stride: “It wasn’t really different. Everyone was happy.” Four other guests attended — Woodward-Young’s two teen-age daughters from her first marriage, her former husband and his wife, who took photos. “We are kind of a funky weird extended family,” Woodward-Young explains with a laugh.

The brief ceremony was conducted by Judge Robert Hanson, whose 2007 ruling that the state’s same-sex marriage ban treated gay and lesbian couples unequally under the law, landed the case in front of the Iowa Supreme Court. The teenagers each carried a calla lily. The couple shed a few tears and shared a laugh when the judge asked if they wanted to be referred to as “spouses” or “partners.” An impromptu celebratory lunch followed at a brew pub.

“Our vows were the basic vows. But they were so incredibly powerful because it was something I never thought I’d do with my same-sex partner,” recalls Woodward-Young. “It was much more emotional and intense than I expected. It was lovely.”