Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 1, 2010
Our View - BarbouRoskes changed how the world looks at Iowa
If you're looking to bring about long-lasting social change, the court system is a necessary arena. But it's far easier — at least, far more instantly gratifying — to whip up support for a city or statewide referendum that has a specific date on which you'll know whether or not your cause has won.
And perhaps trusting the discernment of a judge — or a group of justices — is preferable to trusting a majority of lawmakers to make some beneficial legislative sausage out of your cause. But the process of working through the courts still takes much, much longer than any legislative session.
Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske have experienced these lessons firsthand over the past few years. In their efforts to have Iowa recognize their relationship and their family — to ensure that they can visit each other in the hospital; to ensure that their daughters, McKinley and Breanna, can take solace in how their parents are in a legally-binding, long-term relationship — they've learned that using the courts to fight for social change is a hurry up and wait process. They've seen how the process has moments of intensity followed by long stretches of tedium and uncertainty as judges and their clerks, read, write and decide.
But they also have learned that there are times when long awaited rulings — especially coming from the highest court in the state — fundamentally alter how the rest of the nation and the world look at Iowa and how Iowans look at themselves.
Iowa Supreme Court ruling
Such was the case on April 3 when the Iowa Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling written by the court's most conservative member, ordered that marriage licenses should be issued to otherwise qualifying gay and lesbian couples. Where previous legal and legislative battles over same-sex marriage had waged primarily on the east and west coasts, the April 3 decision showed that same-sex marriage was being recognized as a civil right in the heartland of America.
In other states, such a civil rights victory for a minority was at risk of being overturned by the tyranny of the majority. But the April 3 decision is set to stand for years to come — until a constitutional amendment can pass two different legislatures and then be approved by a majority of the voters statewide.
The ruling also meant that gay and lesbian couples in Iowa didn't have to rush out and make their relationships "official" in the eyes of the state. With civil marriage not under immediate threat in Iowa, the couples were free to schedule weddings for when it was convenient for them and for their friends and families. (The BarbouRoskes waited until July to hold their wedding.) And couples also were free to take the radical step of having their ceremonies be as traditional — or non-traditional — as any of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.
That change is so fundamentally important to our state and to our local area — Iowa City, after all, was one of the first cities in the nation to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — that it's hard to argue for any other specific impact in the past calendar year that rivals it.
And that's why the Press-Citizen is naming BarbouRoske family as its "Person of the Year" for 2009.
Becoming Exhibit A
Jen and Dawn were one of the six couples who traveled to Ames in late 2005 and early 2006 and had their request for a marriage license be denied by Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien. Working with the national organization Lambda Legal, the couples filed suit shortly after, and the joint case worked its way through the courts until it burst on the national scene with the April 3 decision.
Jen and Dawn initially listed only themselves as plaintiffs. But after the state made the argument that one of the purposes of the Iowa 1998 Defense of Marriage Act was to defend the children of heterosexual couples, they added their two daughters, McKinley and Breanna, to the list of plaintiffs as well. And 11-year-old McKinley especially has become an eloquent and passionate advocate for explaining how she, her sister and the thousands of other children of same-sex couples deserve the state's protection and recognition as well.
There are some economic benefits to the decision. The Iowa City/Coralville Conventional and Visitors Bureau, for example, has developed much more expertise in marketing the area to gay and lesbian couples around the country. But such a statewide bump in wedding tourism hopefully is only short term as more state courts, legislatures and voters learn to follow Iowa's example and decide that citizens' civil rights are not something that should be granted or taken away by mere legislative or popular fiat.
Looking to the future
Yet there are many in-state and out-of-state organizations who, because of the April 3 decision, are looking to reclaim our heartland state for what they view as more "traditional values." And with the right legislative and executive officials in place, they may one day succeed.
The BarbouRoskes' victory reminds us that recognition of broader civil rights has been never been automatic process in U.S. history. There always have been steps forward and steps backward. The 19th-century constitutional amendments ending slavery and extending the votes to black men were followed by Jim Crow laws. Sexism continues long after women were granted the right to vote in 1920. And on Nov. 4, Maine voters narrowly rejected a state law passed by their own legislature that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed.
That's why it's also important to stress that, while April 3 decision overturns a number of legal and social assumptions surrounding how Iowans understand the word "family," the decision is not a threat to the close-knit, familial relations treasured by Iowans across the spectrum of sexuality.
We're recognizing the BarbouRoske family as Person of the Year for the impact made by their patience and endurance during the past calendar year. We thank them for being willing to stand up and to step into the legal fray. And we thank them for continuing to demonstrate to their fellow citizens why Iowa needs to stay on the right side of history.