On April 3, 2009, the Iowa State Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Varum v. Brien that limiting marriage to one man and one woman violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. The ruling made Iowa the fourth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Varnum v. Brien and the backlash against it has become the single most defining moment in Iowa politics for the past decade.
Iowa was the first Midwestern state and the first politically purple state to recognize same-sex marriage. And Iowans’ experience with marriage freedom had an impact on national sentiment.
The year of Iowa’s historic Supreme Court ruling marked a turning point in public approval of same-sex marriage. In the two years following that decision, national support for same-sex marriage increased nearly 10 percentage points, and finally topped opposition to same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.
There were other effects too. In the aftermath of the ruling, Iowa lawmakers attempted to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Those efforts ultimately failed, but in 2011, a 19-year-old student, Zach Wahls, testified in the Iowa Senate about growing up with two mothers. Wahl’s speech went viral and ultimately launched his political career. Now 28, Wahl’s is a state senator for Iowa’s 37th district.
Other careers were made by the ruling. Bob Vander Plaats, who had previously had three failed attempts at winning the GOP gubernatorial nomination, headed up the backlash against the Iowa Supreme Court justices. Vander Plaats’ efforts were ultimately successful, when three of the justices lost their seats. The efforts had the net result of politicizing the process of judicial appointments and elections in Iowa and across the nation. In 2012, Vander Plaats became the CEO of the socially conservative political activist group The Family Leader, which plays an influential role in GOP politics in the state. There was an effort to unseat a fourth justice in 2012, which ultimately failed. But in 2019 GOP lawmakers made a serious effort to dramatically alter the way judges are chosen.
In response to the judicial backlash, Justice Mark Cady took the oral arguments of the Supreme Court on the road across the state in an effort to help Iowans understand the judicial process.
Varnum, in so many ways, galvanized Iowa politics and became a political Rubicon.
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A full ten years after Varnum, Iowa began its long caucus season and with same the launch of the campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate. In the past decade, same-sex marriage has gone from a divisive political issue to one where the majority of Iowans are in favor of the issue. But the ripple effect on other LGBTQ rights is far reaching. Currently, efforts by Gov. Kim Reynolds to defund Planned Parenthood have left many LGBTQ Iowans across the state without access to affordable and qualified health care. And the state denies Medicaid to trans people for vitally necessary procedures. And while some cities in Iowa like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are heralded by the Human Rights Commission as open and accessible to LGBTQ people, in Orange City, the local gay pride festival is struggling to stay alive amid discrimination and pushback from community members.
It’s been a long decade for human rights in Iowa, but the work isn’t done.
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