IOWA CITY, IOWA — This past Monday, as Iowa prepared to officially issue marriage licenses to gay applicants, both law-enforcement and state gay groups prepared for vocal, even violent opposition in America's heartland. Sheriffs' departments put on extra officers and One Iowa, a gay-marriage advocacy group, put their observers in every county-recorder's office.
But things went so smoothly this week, you had to pay attention to see history being made.
About a dozen couples lined up outside the marriage-license office here in Iowa City, surrounded by nearly as many reporters, all trying to angle a microphone or camera lens into the couples' historic commitments. By noon, the applicants had dwindled to a slow trickle. Two sheriff's deputies posted in Cedar Rapids to keep order staved off boredom by surfing the Internet and making small talk.
Lisa Harbit and Lolita Blaha were the first couple to apply for a license in Iowa City, the seat of Johnson County, which is often described as a "people's republic" in less liberal parts of the state.
Standing before the county recorder and surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, Harbit and Blaha didn't dress up for the event. Rather, the fortysomethings each sported the kind of baggy shirt and jeans they'd wear any day. They signed the application and seized each other in a tight embrace, as camera shutters snapped behind them.
"This is a day that cannot go by uncelebrated," said Harbit. "We were here at 7:15 — we made sure we were first in line. We just wanted to get it before they changed their minds." As Harbit was leaving the building, a friend from California sent her a text message: "Enjoy your civil rights. Pass some this way."
Harbit and her bride-to-be were one of many same-sex Iowa couples who had dreamt of a wedding that wasn't restricted by sexual orientation. As shocked as they were to see California buck its progressive past by passing Proposition 8, many in the nation were more stunned to see Iowa extending marriage to homosexuals.
"Maybe people are going to wake up to what Iowa really is," said Cate Sheller, 48, who was married five years ago in Canada to her partner, Paulette. "We gave Barack Obama his start." Beyond Obama, Iowa has been at the front of many progressive changes. This state abolished separate-but-equal policies a full 85 years before Brown v. Board of Education and eliminated public discrimination 91 years before Congress tackled Jim Crow laws.
But as Iowa became the third state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, the lessons of California's Proposition 8 were fresh in many minds. Some who applied for a marriage license on Monday were suspicious that a rug would be pulled out from under them — perhaps in the form of a legal challenge, or ballot referendum, or some other loophole that could be drawn closed. The day was treated more like a window of opportunity than a landmark.
As happened in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the decision to legalize same-sex unions came not from a referendum or the legislature, but from the state Supreme Court. Vermont, which moved on gay marriage just days after Iowa, was the first to legalize it by a vote of the legislature. New York, New Jersey, Maine, and Rhode Island are among the next states to look at the policy.
"It's important that your neighbors, in your state, accept you," said Mel Andringa, a 65-year-old gay man who lives above a theater in Cedar Rapids with his partner of 30 years. "Tomorrow, all those names are going to be in the paper and people are going to have to get over it."
A new normal
For many of the couples applying for same-sex marriages across Iowa, Andringa said, Monday was just a reiteration of a betrothal that was sometimes decades old.
"There are two ends of the spectrum," he said. "The twentysomethings who can't imagine life without it and the sixtysomethings who thought they'd never see the day. And in the middle are people who are still deciding if they want to change their relationship." For Andringa and his partner, who work for the same company, health-care benefits are not an issue. They have no children. So for them, a decision to marry comes down to the choices surrounding death: having a trusted someone to say if and when to pull the plug, and who'll get the things he leaves behind.
Not everyone was as happy as Andringa was for the new policy. After the ruling came out on April 3, one county recorder in Iowa — Wayne County's Angela Horton — considered resigning her job if forced to issue the licenses.
"I'd prefer not to," Horton said last Friday, "but I have a job to do." Ironically, Horton's county was among the most heavily targeted by anti-gay-marriage protesters outside her door, not so much to prevent same-sex couples from getting married, but to convince her to violate the law in an act of civil disobedience. The conservative Iowa Family Policy Center even offered to cover her legal expenses, center president Chuck Hurley said, "all the way to the Supreme Court."