What’s Left – What’s Special About Iowa

It seems that the fight for marriage equality has finally reached a turning point. In the last week, the number of states in which gay marriage is legal has doubled–now totaling four–with Iowa and Vermont joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. Progress is important no matter how or where it happens, but as we look to the battle ahead, there is something significant about victories in both these states.

Prior to this past Tuesday, successful campaigns for marriage equality were exclusively a product of judicial review. The State Supreme Courts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, California — prior to Proposition 8–and Iowa determined that denying same-sex couples the right to marriage was in contradiction with each state constitution’s equal protection clause. Vermont was the first state to depart from this judicial-led process, and in doing so has changed the future of marriage equality.

Vermont is the first, and only state, to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislative process. By Monday morning, April 6, 2009, both houses of the Vermont legislature had overwhelmingly passed the same-sex marriage legislation; and by that same afternoon, Governor Jim Douglas had vetoed the legislation. By Tuesday morning–a mere 12 hours later–both houses of the legislature had found enough votes to override the governor’s veto, securing equality for same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage opponents have been hypercritical of any strides for equality made through the judicial system, claiming they are disconnected from the sentiments of the electorate. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich referred to the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision as “the height of judicial arrogance.” However, he was later quoted as saying the process to legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont was “healthier.” While Newt Gingrich’s opinions on same-sex marriage are rather hateful, his inability to deconstruct the Vermont decision is a mark of success. Anyone who subscribes to the basic tenets of American democracy would be rather hypocritical to deny any group of people the right to engage this process – specifically of legislative action–to achieve equality and justice.

The trajectory for marriage equality in Iowa is a bit more typical. In 2007, six same-sex couples filed suit in Polk County [the Des Moines, IA metropolitan region], challenging the constitutionality of denying them marriage rights based on sexual orientation. The Polk County court ruled in their favor; however, the judge placed a stay on the ruling until the Iowa Supreme Court could review the case. Upon review last week, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, making same-sex marriage legal in Iowa.

With such a typical trajectory, what’s so special about Iowa? In 1998, the Iowa legislature passed the state’s own version of the Defense of Marriage Act, legally constraining the definition of marriage to the union of one man and one woman. In a landmark decision, last week’s judicial action rendered this legislation to be unconstitutional. Whereas the Supreme Court’s of California, Massachusetts and Connecticut were called upon to determine whether or not same-sex marriage could be legal within the confines of the sates’ constitutions, the Iowa Supreme Court had to first strike down a piece of legislation and then proceeded to assert the legality of same-sex marriage.

To the fault of the LGBT community, few expected such an important victory for marriage equality to come out of the heartland, and so soon. Throughout the few past election cycles, gay rights organizations have been forced to be on the defensive in a myriad of red states, fighting in defense of marriage proposals and anti-gay adoption legislation. Perhaps we were caught in our own elitism – stuck on the notion that equality-minded folks are congregated in the Northeast and the prospect of equality elsewhere is dismal.

I am convinced that the way in which we frame the argument for equality has begun to change and thus the reality of victories–even in the heartland–will begin to change as well. The push for marriage equality began by asking the question, “Constitutionally, does this group of people [the LGBT community] deserve the right to be married?” From here, we have moved to asking, “Can the government exclude this group of people [the LGBT community] from accessing the same rights as every other American?” At the end of the day, both questions are purposed with the same objective. However I would argue the latter is more difficult to deconstruct, leading to, perhaps, greater success.

I hope–and I believe–that the victories this past week in Iowa and Vermont will change how we approach the way in which we push equality forward.