It’s been a year since Iowa shocked progressives on both coasts and became—as local t-shirts love to proclaim—“officially cooler than California.” On April 3, 2009 our Supreme Court unanimously declared that all citizens have the right to access the civic benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage. Theirs did better than any ruling so far to directly address public confusion about the role of religious freedom in all of this. Our justices carefully explained why recognizing the right to marriage for all citizens does not violate the religious freedom of any community of faith and why denying equal rights to marriage does.
We’re marking the anniversary with gala affairs, celebrations of love and family, federal and state tax complications, and a visit from Fred Phelps.
I’ve been an ambivalent participant in the marriage equality mania. This wasn’t the issue I would have chosen to occupy center-stage for the lgbt movement. When I officially married my two friends three months after the ruling, I was thrilled that R. would finally have access to health insurance through her firefighting spouse and relieved she could finally get that long overdue mammogram. But, I couldn’t shake the bitter sense that her right to a mammogram existed long before the Court recognized her right to marry.
Still, when the ruling came down I felt compelled to show up and be counted—an out and proud lesbian living in Iowa. And, I was deeply moved by the courage, hope, and pride that overflowed in the halls of our County Recorder’s office. One couldn’t help but feel that she was taking part in history. Meanwhile, the crowd gathering to apply for marriage licenses was by far the most racially and generationally diverse group of lgbt people, folks who appeared to come from a variety of socioeconomic classes, that I have seen in my six years living here. My fears that marriage equality is an implicitly white and middle-class lgbt issue or that the racial cleavages and white ignorance we saw in the aftermath of Proposition 8 in California are necessarily inherent to the marriage equality struggle have been challenged during the last year. I have been pushed to think with more nuance.
The belief that same-sex marriage is a magic harbinger of full-blown equality for all lgbt people—and thus the issue—or the “next” chapter in the civil rights struggle—implying the one for people of color has been successfully concluded—is one that can only be held by those of us privileged enough to be insulated from the ongoing daily effects of white supremacy, unbridled capitalism and an array of other oppressive forces. But, as I have witnessed the effect of marriage equality on lgbt people in Iowa—a place in which it is arguably more difficult to be out and proud than it is in many other places in this nation—I have come to believe that privilege also shapes the lens of those of us who too easily dismiss marriage equality as irrelevant, meaningless or as nothing more than the wrong issue. The argument for disregarding, abolishing, or simply opting out of our very imperfect, but powerful, social institutions is made much more easily by those of us with the power to mitigate or negotiate the impact institutions have on our lives.
Family law is imperfect, but the ability to draw on the protections of the law and courts is something some lgbt folks (or their children) sometimes need. The public recognition and formal respect that marriage equality confers matters for those of us who face other kinds of public dismissal, disparagement, or vilification because of race, class, nationality or a myriad of other disparaged social locations. Marriage equality does not solve many things, but here in the Iowa it has changed the social landscape, the public discourse, and sometimes simply the relationship between neighbors for the better.
Still, the venom of Fred Phelps’ press release was spewed not only against lgbt people, but against a society that would embrace a Black president, religious pluralism, empowered women, and virtually any other group or idea that represents the possibility of realizing something other than Christian, white, male supremacy. He brings us a critical reminder of the connections between racial justice, gender justice, the empowerment of lgbt people, religious freedom, and economic systems that humanize the lives of the people who inhabit them. And so, as we raise our glass of celebration here in Iowa one year later, as we courageously sustain the struggle against the public calls for us to move back to where we were 53 weeks ago, we must not pause even for a moment, but instead keep our feet to the pavement working to realize liberty and justice for all.
Associate Professor of Religion