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Iowa Gay Marriage:
American as Apple Pie

Iowa Gay Marriage:
American as Apple Pie


As gay and lesbian couples prepare to walk down the aisle for the first time in Iowa, Steven Thrasher looks back on a time when Iowa was one of the few states that would marry his black dad and white mom.

COMMENTARY: Being both biracial and bicoastal (and for a brief period, I even thought I was bisexual), I have spent more time flying over the middle of the country than I have living in it. But I've always bristled at the notion of writing off the middle of our nation as "flyover country," and I'm disappointed when people are shocked that Iowa became the fourth state -- counting still-contentious California -- to make gay marriage legal. "Iowa?" some of my gay friends have asked since the marriage ruling came down, scratching their heads and thinking the only possibly gay thing about the Hawkeye State is that it's the setting of The Music Man .

Iowa doesn't surprise me with its progressiveness at all, nor that it will soon allow me to legally marry the man that I choose. It was in Iowa, after all, that my unusual family first found acceptance.

You see, my father was black and my mother was white. When they met each other in Lincoln, Neb., in 1958, their mere presence together caused almost as much of a stir as if they'd been two men walking down the street holding hands. A sergeant in the Air Force, my dad met my mom when he was dropping off a buddy at the women's residence hall where my mother lived. After they started talking, the son of the hall's owner attacked my father for speaking to a white woman. It took three people to pull the man off of him. Mortified at what happened, my mom asked my dad if she could take him out for coffee, to apologize and show him that not everyone in Lincoln was a racist.

It would be a hard argument for her to prove. They went out on their first date, during which my mom was arrested by the police on charges of being a prostitute. (After all, she was with a black manaEUR|) By the time I came along many years later, my mom was already a middle-aged Midwestern mother. There's a part of me that finds the notion of my Hamburger Helper casserole-making mom as a prostitute outright laughable. But when I think of her as a scared 19-year-old girl sitting alone in a jail cell, it makes me shudder.

I'm not sure where my parents' courage came from, but they kept on dating. My mom was expelled from her college for seeing my dad, and she never completed her degree. She had friends who tried to convince her that interracial children would be striped like zebras. My dad feared retribution from his racist superior officer in the Air Force. Still, they eventually decided to get married, but interracial marriage was illegal in Nebraska.

So where did my parents turn when Nebraska wouldn't confer a civil marriage on their relationship?

They drove next door to Iowa. My uncle tried to have my mom arrested before she left the state to prevent the marriage, but he failed.

Iowa dared to marry my parents five years before Nebraska legalized interracial marriage, and almost a decade before the United States Supreme Court struck down antimiscegenation laws in the 16 states where they remained in force. Even then, it would be over 40 years before the last state removed its antimiscegenation law from its constitution -- however unenforceable. Yes, Alabama explicitly forbade marriage between the races in its constitution until the year 2000.

In marrying my parents, Iowa set in motion a half century of family life for the Thrashers. In our family there was love, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, but the structure and support of our family was made possible by the civil marriage Iowa granted to my parents. By the time my mother and father passed away, their family seemed less like an "interracial family" than just another American family.

My parents did move to California to raise their children, believing life would be easier on the West Coast. I'm sorry my parents didn't get to live to see Iowan Democrats make a zebra the winner of their caucus and send him on his way to the Oval Office. I wish they had lived to see the Iowa supreme court make gay marriage legal. The irony that their gay son -- who has spent his whole life living in or near New York or Los Angeles -- would be denied a marriage license in those uber-liberal cities, but could now get one in Council Bluffs, Iowa, like they did, would not be lost on them.

I do not buy for a moment that because Iowa's decision came through its court, and not through its legislature, that this is not a significant advance. Especially on the black side of my family, I am used to the courts spelling out the promise of America. The Iowa supreme court is creating space for patriots to step forward and, like my parents, begin the brave, arduous, and sometimes lonely American job of creating equality by living your life. It will not be an easy road, but in a generation or two, when the Meghan McCains and Steve Schmidts are the elders of the Republican Party, gay marriage will be as much of a nonissue as interracial marriage is now.

The Reverend Mark Stringer performed the first legal gay marriage in Iowa in 2007, during the brief four-hour window when a county judge deemed denying same-sex marriage certificates unconstitutional before ordering a stay until the supreme court case. I asked him for the best and worst about being at the forefront of this issue. Looking back, he said it was performing that first anniversary on the wedding anniversary of his own marriage. "What an anniversary gift, to have the first legal gay marriage occur on our front lawn!"

And while the worst thing has been seeing how many truly committed couples have had to wait so long to obtain the protections he and his wife have had for years, he's also secretly looking forward to being able to say to naysayers, "You don't have to agree with me, but you do have to agree with the Iowa supreme court."

The six couples who filed for the right to marry in Iowa, and countless couples across the nation, have waited too long for this day. But because of them, gay marriages will someday be seen as boring as straight marriages, as American as apple pie and Iowa.

When the day comes for me to walk down the aisle, I could go to nearby Connecticut or Vermont. But I'd proudly like to spend my money in the state that made my parents' marriage possible. I'd love to file for a marriage license in Council Bluffs, in the same city hall where my parents' marginally accepted union first received the simple, eloquent dignity of civil recognition.

Now I just have to find a man to marryaEUR|but that's another story altogether.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Steven Thrasher