Refuting the Naysayers: 1st Anniversary of Marriage in Iowa and Other “Unlikely” Victories

By Evan Wolfson, Executive Director, Freedom to Marry
 
April 3rd is the first anniversary of the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that excluding same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional.   As happy couples and their delighted loved ones begin celebrating personal anniversaries, the milestone marks yet another moment in the marriage movement when critics said we couldn’t – but we did. 

Before Iowa, same-sex couples could only marry in two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, leaving many families without the protections and legal responsibilities that marriage brings.  Today, five states, our Nation’s capital, and eight countries have ended same-sex couples’ exclusion from marriage, its safety-net, and its rich personal significance.  Before Iowa, naysayers dismissed the freedom to marry movement as a New England phenomenon or a struggle confined to the coasts.  But since April 3, 2009, no one can call the freedom to marry just a coastal phenomenon.  Marriage has arrived in America’s heartland.

After the Iowa Supreme Court’s powerful and persuasive ruling (in an opinion written for a unanimous court by a Republican appointee), naysayers again tried to dismiss the freedom to marry as just a judicial phenomenon.  They sought to disparage the legitimate and vital role courts play in enforcing the constitution’s command of equal justice for all (in those “rare” instances where politicians or even the majority make mistakes).  They claimed that we could never persuade lawmakers to vote for the freedom to marry in legislatures.  Four days after victory in Iowa, on April 7, 2009, the Vermont state legislature passed a marriage bill by a super-majority, overriding a governor’s veto to end marriage discrimination in Vermont.   They said we couldn’t – but we did.

The naysayers then said the freedom to marry is a partisan phenomenon, supported only by Democrats.  But throughout the past year, they’ve been proven wrong.  Prominent Republicans, including George W. Bush’s Solicitor-General and conservative icon Ted Olson, Bob Barr (congressional sponsor of 1996’s so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”), and even Cindy McCain have called for an end to federal marriage discrimination.  They said we couldn’t get Republican support for the freedom to marry – but we did. 

So then the naysayers declared that the freedom to marry is embraced only by elite lawmakers, who in their “elite” majority votes in legislatures from Maine to California are detached from the values of most Americans.  They said we could not move hearts and minds and achieve popular support for the freedom to marry – but we did and continue to do so.   As public education increases – centering on the personal conversations that are the key to moving the reachable-but-not-yet-reached – support continues to grow, approaching Freedom to Marry’s goal of building a majority for marriage.   A heartening sign of that continuing momentum came last week in California, when the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing that for the first time 50 percent of Californians support the freedom to marry, bringing us closer to the goal of restoring marriage in the Golden State.  

Finally, the naysayers said they’d work to overturn the marriages celebrated by families in Iowa.  They claimed that a surge of grassroots opposition to the freedom to marry would force legislators to write discrimination into the state constitution and undo the ruling of – you guessed it – “activist” judges.  But with personal stories and tenacious engagement by local leaders such as One Iowa and the level-headed lawmakers committed to fairness for all, the effort to stampede Iowa into discriminating foundered.  Iowa’s legislature adjourned last week  heeding what every poll reported: that Iowans have no interest in taking away the newfound joy and security of same-sex couples and their families.  Particularly in tough economic times like these, it’s wrong to put obstacles in the path of committed couples seeking to care for one another and their families. And Iowa was joined by New Hampshire in embracing this sentiment.  Thanks to the hard work of the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition, over the past year 73 towns rebuffed opponents’ campaign to enact resolutions to strip away marriage, and more than 88 refused to even consider the anti-gay proposals. 

As we celebrate the anniversary of marriage in Iowa, all of us committed to the freedom to marry in America have come a long way and confounded the naysayers, but there are still more “unlikely” wins to achieve.  Much like any social justice cause in its early days, we have yet to succeed in winning a direct public vote —it’s hard for a minority to persuade a majority to just end discrimination – but through increased public education and mobilization, we can and will.   Despite giant gains in several states and key parts of the population, notably young people, we have yet to build an outright majority for marriage nationwide – but conversation by conversation, we can and will.  And we have yet to end federal discrimination against married same-sex couples, but by changing hearts and minds, winning more states, and educating Congress, we can ensure the repeal of so-called “DOMA,” creating the best climate, too, for litigation underway in federal court.   All this we will do, together.

One of the benefits of marriage is happy anniversaries.   As we celebrate the joy in Iowa, Freedom to Marry pledges more “unlikely” victories, as America follows its heartland to marriage equality.