Same-Sex Marriage in the Heartland?

By Pupovac, Jessica | In These Times, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Same-Sex Marriage in the Heartland?


Pupovac, Jessica, In These Times


KATHRYN VARNUM AND Trish Hyde Varnum's commitment ceremony had all the trappings of tradition: Trish proposed on one knee, their rings bore precious stones from each of their grandmothers' rings, and an Episcopalian priest presided over the service.

The reception also had the traditional speech from Kathryn's father that left the whole room teary-eyed. Kathryn was raised in Iowa, and comes from a long line of farmers; Trish hails from Texas.

"He talked about being stubborn, and about being Iowa stubborn vs. Texas stubborn," Kathryn recalls. "But he said you also have to be stubborn in your relationship, and you have to fight the external forces that come up against you in your relationship."

Kathryn's father passed away last summer, and although the two women's relationship is recognized by their friends and families, Trish wasn't given the bereavement leave routinely granted to spouses in most workplaces.

"She had to take vacation time to celebrate my father's life," Kathryn says. "If she didn't have vacation time, it would have been unpaid leave and she could have been disciplined for it. It was kind of a kick in the gut at a time when I needed her by my side."

It's one of the many reasons that Kathryn and Trish are plaintiffs in Varnum v. Brien, a lawsuit against Polk County, Iowa, where they reside, that claims the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples violates equal protection and due process guarantees in the Iowa Constitution. The case could make Iowa the third state in the country - behind Connecticut and Massachusetts - to recognize same-sex marriage. (Another five states offer civil unions or legally protected domestic partnerships to same-sex couples.)

The suit's other plaintiffs include retired schoolteachers who fear how the medical establishment will view their union in their old age; parents who say their children have experienced discrimination at school because of their unconventional family; and a lower-income couple who say they can't afford individual healthcare plans. All of the couples say they want the protections - for themselves and their families that only marriage can guarantee.

In August 2007, a lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered Polk County to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Polk County appealed the ruling and the case is now before the Iowa Supreme Court. Closing arguments were heard in December and a decision could be issued any time between early April and the end of the year.

Camilla Taylor, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a New York-based firm litigating on behalf of the plaintiffs, says she and the other lawyers in the case feel "optimistic."

"We put our best case forward," she says. "I think the court was very engaged and asked excellent questions and we're looking forward to a ruling." Following a decision, marriages could go into effect immediately. …

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