Joe Mirabella

One year later, marriage equality strong in Iowa

Filed By Joe Mirabella | April 05, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: anniversary, civil rights, gay marriage, Iowa, LGBT civil rights, marriage equality, one year

My fiance and I were lucky enough to be in Iowa last year when the Iowa Supreme Court made their historic unanimous ruling that we should be treated equally as a couple. Marriage equality is now a reality in our home state and has been for a year -- and contrary to our opponent's threats, the sky has not fallen, the state is still strong.

Also stronger -- Iowan families who have the ability to care for each other. Like my family, they are making life long commitments to each other and honoring those commitments through the legal and social protections only marriage can provide.

We have a marriage license waiting for us when we return to visit our families in Iowa. However, as the year has passed, and we enjoyed watching the historic approval of rights for Washington's families through the domestic partnership law, we may decide to wait until the state we call home now fully recognizes our relationship in law and language.

Like most people who marry, we want to share our commitment to each other with the full support of our family and friends, most of whom live here in Washington. We also want our marriage to be legally recognized by Washington -- a step this state has yet to make. I know it will in time.

Last year on the flight home, I captured my immediate reaction to the ruling and thought I would share those thoughts with you again today. The excitement in these words is just as real today as they were one year ago.

Originally published April 3, 2009:

This morning the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage and granted full marriage equality to gays and lesbians. In December 2008, my partner and I purchased tickets to return to Iowa from Seattle during this week to welcome my new born nephew to the world. Our timing was perfect. He was born just days before our arrival. Of coarse I was overjoyed by the experience of becoming an uncle for the first time. It helped that my little nephew is the cutest baby ever to grace this lonely planet. Like any new baby, it was easy to project hopes and dreams upon him -- to imagine the amazing story waiting to be told before his eyes.

When I was browsing the available tickets to Iowa, I said to my partner of five years Joe Brokken, "wouldn't it be great if the court ruled while we were home?" I had patiently followed Varnum vs. Brian for years and knew the court could rule at any moment. I imagined what it might be like for the state that we called home for most of our lives to grant us full equality. I tried to imagine at least.

Yesterday afternoon I was preparing to leave Iowa for my new home Seattle, when I received a text message from Amy Balliett. It read, "Are you in Iowa? I hope you will be celebrating. The court rules tomorrow." Amy and I are working together to organize a Day of Decision rally in Seattle for the day the California Supreme Court rules on proposition 8. I immediately interpreted her message as a signal to spread the word to the city to prepare for the rally. I sent out a mass e-mail announcing the California decision was coming down and to prepare to celebrate or protest. Seconds later my e-mail/facebook/twitter was flooded with people more than willing to help, and others drawing attention to my mistake. It was not California that was to rule, but Iowa. As quickly as possible I stopped the presses and corrected my mistake.

It began to dawn on me that I may just be hours away from witnessing history, but more importantly, moments away from being an equal citizen in Iowa. I called my partner who was with his family and told him the exciting news. "The Iowa decision is coming down tomorrow. Do you think we should extend our tickets and get married?" I asked.

"Well let's see what happens," he said.

Our parents met for the first time last night. The plans were set well before politics were in play. His mom and dad and my mom and dad hit it off wonderfully. I spent most of the dinner holding my nephew while admiring how perfect he was. My partner held him for a while. "Joe will be a great father", I thought as he cradled my sleeping nephew and held his little hand. I fell in love with him all over again.

I could not sleep last night. I was like a child on Christmas eve. As I laid awake, my seventeen year old cat Snickers, who was the first being I came out to, purred in my arms. I thought about my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have brought us this far. I thought about Matthew Shepherd who was murdered a mere week before I came out. I thought about the millions of gays and lesbians in this country and throughout the world who would one day benefit from full equality. I thought about the daunting fight still ahead of us. It was overwhelming.

This morning I nearly leaped from bed. I immediately logged onto the Cedar Rapids Gazette homepage. The headline read, "Same-sex marriage now legal in Iowa". I read it several times just to soak it in. "This is really happening. This is real," I reminded myself. My heart swelled with happiness and a transcendent feeling swept through my body.

We ate breakfast with my father. I said, "So dad, your son will finally be treated as an equal citizen in Iowa."

He said, "Well now you will have to pay the marriage penalty tax." (That's his way of saying congratulations.) I corrected him, though and said, "Well actually, we are still not recognized at the federal level. This is one step in a very long fight."

On our way from Cedar Rapids to the Des Moines airport Joe and I decided to stop in Iowa City to try to get a marriage license. We went to see Kimberly Painter, the Johnson County Registrar. Several years ago a group of gays and lesbians tried to get marriage licenses from her as an act of civil disobedience. She was forced to deny them licenses. It was a heartbreaking scene. Painter is an out lesbian and knew several of the couples she had to deny. I remember her crying while saying on the news that it was her job to uphold the law of Iowa despite her own opinion. I wanted to see her today to celebrate with her.

My partner and I walked up to the desk and nearly shouted, "We want to get married!" At first an unknown woman stood up from her desk, walked over and said, "Are you... I mean.... um...."

We shouted, "Yes WE -- he and I -- want to get married!"

Kimberly Painter came from outside her office and relived her nervous employee. She smiled and handed us the application to apply for a marriage license. She explained how to fill out the forms and instructed us to mail them in. She told us the ruling would go into effect in 21 days. She warned us that the process may change during the waiting period. For example, the form we took still said bride and groom. My partner and I teased each other, "Your name is going in the bride section," I quipped. "No Yours is!" We both laughed. Either way, we would have a marriage license waiting for us to pick up when we returned home. Painter would hold onto our license until we came back to Iowa, she promised.

I thanked her profusely and started to cry. "I can't believe this is real. Thank you, thank you!" I saw tears in her eyes. She said she planned to marry her partner too.

We nearly skipped to our rental car, "Let's do this right." I said, "Let's stop by the Iowa State Capital in Des Moines before we go to the airport." During the hour and half drive we drove through Iowa's golden rolling hills filled with the remnants of last season's corn. The sun shown down and glistened off farm ponds and stream beds as I imagined the spring planting about to fill the fields before me. I thought about how simple and beautiful Iowa was and how proud I am to call it home. I began to cry with happiness.

We turned on the AM radio hoping to hear some commentary on the history occurring. The first station was discussing how to repair a ditch after a flood. The second station was discussing how to prevent Japanese Beetle infestations in the fall. I was beginning to wonder if we were the only people paying attention. It is easy to feel alone in Iowa. But then, on the hour, AM 910 Iowa Public Radio played a piece about the ruling. It was a recording of Lambda Legal proudly announcing the unanimous decision and telling the plaintiffs they could marry in a short 21 days. The radio piece also quoted both majority leaders from the Iowa House and Senate celebrating the Supreme Court's decision. They said, "We are proud of Iowa's long history of pioneering civil rights issues. There will be no constitutional amendment this session." Joe and I both began to cry, AGAIN, as it sunk in that this state would not fall victim to a constitutional amendment banning our equality any time soon -- hopefully never.

When we arrived at the Iowa State Capital the sun reflected gloriously on the golden capital dome. Other than some hammering at a nearby construction zone, there was no one around. It was quiet, peaceful -- not a protester in site. I got on my knee and looked up at the love of my life and said, "I would be honored if you would spend the rest of your life with me. Will you marry me?" He smiled and said, "Yes, yes I will." We quickly kissed, almost as if we expected someone to stop us. No one did.

A KCRG TV 9 van pulled up and parked next to our car as we descended the capital steps. A news anchor emerged from the white satellite van. I assumed he was there for a story about marriage in Iowa so I shouted, "We're going to get married! I just proposed and he said yes!" The news man smiled and congratulated us. That was it. He was there to report on the construction project. I laughed and said, "Well I guess the news here is that equality is becoming less of a news story."

My fiance said, "He wouldn't know a good story if it bit him on the a**!"

I'm sitting on my flight back to Seattle right now. My fiance is blissfully improving the Sky Mall catalog with humorous edits. I'm still fighting back occasional tears as I write this. I'm thinking about how transformative this decision will be for the country. Iowa's first in the nation caucus status brings every presidential hopeful to the doorsteps of my friends and neighbors begging them for their attention. From now on they will be forced to confront families who are treated equally despite their sexual orientation. According to a recent University of Iowa poll 65% of Iowans support legal protection for same-sex couples. Future candidates better get on board now if they want to perform well in Iowa.

More importantly, I am thinking about how amazing it is going to be for my nephew to grow up in Iowa. He will likely read about today in history books and wonder how a country that prides itself on freedom could ever discriminate against gays and lesbians. My relationship will be no more remarkable than his parents. I will be able to tell him, "I was there on April 3, 2009. The sun was bright and warm. Spring was on the horizon and we felt like we could do anything. Your uncle and I proposed to each other that day. I never felt more alive or more in love."

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You mean the sky didn't cave in over top of Iowa? It didn't flood or suffer dozens of hurricanados?

Well, I'll go empty the giant ark I built then.


I'm sorry you went to all that work for nothing, Bil. It has been raining a lot in the Northwest, we may need to use that Arc up here. Maybe you can bring it with you next month?