Happy 5 Year Anniversary, Iowa: Proud of My Home State

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April 4, 2014
Lambda Legal Deputy Director of EPA - Communications Lisa Hardaway and wife, Liz Accles

April 3rd marks the five year anniversary of Lambda Legal's historic decision in Varnum v. Brien, the case that won the freedom to marry in Iowa. To celebrate the milestone, our staff and former plaintiffs reflect on what the decision has meant to them and their families.

I grew up on a farm outside a very small town in Iowa. There were 17 of us in my grade until we merged schools with the next town over—and our numbers grew to 54.  I wish that my 13-year-old self had known that, on April 3, 2009, I’d be in the middle of organizing a marriage victory press conference for Lambda Legal in my home state—the third state in the country and the first in the Midwest where same-sex couples could marry. Whether it’s workplace fairness, youth in schools, transgender rights, or HIV discrimination, working at Lambda Legal is always a personal investment for me. But working on the marriage case in Iowa was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my time here.

My colleagues and I criss-crossed the state, traveling roads that I grew up on and meeting same-sex couples and their families who had amazing stories and were willing to share them. During the more than five years of the case and communications work, I ran into several folks who I knew growing up but, until we met at a marriage town hall meeting, we had no idea that the other was gay. I sometimes joked that perhaps I should start a Facebook page called Growing up Gay in Calhoun County, Iowa—I haven’t done it yet, so if you want to, go ahead.

April 3rd – the morning I’ll never ever forget. The couples in our case very bravely and graciously agreed to learn the news of the decision in front of the news media. It was important to show the rest of the country the impact the decision would have on real families—the tears of joy or of sorrow. As the couples filed into the press conference, the tension in the room was off the charts. Then Camilla Taylor, our National Marriage Project Director, announced the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision: “We won. And not only that, it’s unanimous.” The room erupted. I have the front page of the April 4, 2009 Des Moines Register hanging in  my office... "IOWA GAYS HAVE A RIGHT TO MARRY, JUSTICES RULE" with a big photo of the overjoyed families we represented.

I sent a quick text to Liz and asked her to marry me…which is how we agreed she’d hear the news. We married in August of 2010 surrounded by family and friends, and celebrated the day after the wedding with a trip to the Iowa State Fair—our vows sealed with a corndog and a porkchop-on-a-stick. ​

There were some folks outside of Iowa who thought that Lambda Legal was crazy for bringing a case there—but the victory changed everything. The freedom to marry was no longer just a conversation to be had on the coasts. There were many exclamations of shock---the freedom to marry in Iowa?!? Before New York? So soon after California lost at the ballot? How could it be? And now in the months after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case striking down the core section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the exclamations have become Utah? Oklahoma? Michigan?

At the heart of that shock is a belief that somehow LGBT people only live in big cities and on the coasts—and if they do live in what others might call “backwards” or “conservative” states, they should just give up and move to places where laws are more fair. But rural LGBT people are all over this country and have amazing stories to tell—they are changing hearts and minds in profound ways. And we are working hard to help the law match up to the reality of their lives.

I’m incredibly proud to have worked with the families in our Iowa case as they opened their lives and their homes so that more people could see their happy love stories and their dreams for the future. And I am proud of the state where I grew up.  

Happy fifth Anniversary, Iowa!

Learn more about the case here.

Check out our Love Unites US campaign here.

Varnum v. Brien