Q&A: Protecting Same-Sex Marriage in Iowa

A little-noticed special election earlier this week in Iowa had far-reaching consequences for the future of marriage equality. Liz Mathis's victory will keep Democrats in the majority, ensuring that same-sex marriage will not be overturned anytime soon. The Prospect spoke with Troy Price, executive director of One Iowa, the state's leading LBGT-rights organization.

Why was the race important, and how was One Iowa involved?

The race was incredibly important because it was going to decide the outcome of who would control the senate. Being as that's the only chamber that is controlled by Democrats, it had huge implications for the future of public policy in the state.

From the LBGT community's perspective, this was a very important race, because the senate is controlled by the fair-minded majority. We have been very supportive of them because they have been very supportive of us. They were able to stop the discriminatory anti-marriage amendment that was moving through the legislature.

I think what you saw in this election was, in spite of the best efforts by our opposition to try and make this election about marriage equality—you saw some very nasty and quite frankly, disgusting attacks right up until the last minute of this election—voters rejected those tactics, voters said they did not want that in Des Moines, and I think that's why Liz Mathis prevailed.

What were those tactics?

The National Organization for Marriage sent at least two mailers into that district. Their so-called Values Voters bus tour stopped in Marion on Monday night. And on Monday, we don't know who this group is, but Citizens for Honesty and Sound Marriage did robocalls into the district asking voters to call Liz Mathis and ask her which gay sex acts she endorses. We saw some pretty nasty tricks right up until the very end. It was very disheartening to see, quite frankly.

What does it mean for marriage equality in Iowa that Democrats are going to be holding the majority in the senate until at least the 2012 election?

It makes it much less likely that we'll see a constitutional amendment move forward. If the senate holds true this year, and we don't have any more surprises like this special election, then the earliest we could be looking at a constitutional amendment is 2015.

But that's not to say that our job is done. During the last legislative session, we saw countless attempts by the extremist Republican forces in the house to try to strip away equal marriage rights here in the state. The constitutional amendment was the most visible of those, but there was legislation introduced which would have made it possible for any business owner in the state to discriminate against any married couple based on religion. The language was written so broadly that it would have applied not only to committed gay and lesbian couples -- it would have applied to interracial and interfaith couples as well.

We saw another bill where, in their zeal to try to take away rights, the county auditors would have been prohibited from issuing marriage licenses until a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment. We've seen several far-reaching attempts and extreme attempts to take away the equal marriage rights of gay and lesbian couples, and I don't expect that to abate at all this year.

It's been two and a half years since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Have you seen views shift?

What I often say is that when people think of gay marriage or LGBT rights, they think of a nameless, faceless bloc of people, but in fact they've seen over the last two and a half years that the people who are getting married are their co-workers, their friends, their neighbors down the street, their loved ones. The gay and lesbian couple that is active in the PTA or active in the church. As people have seen the impact that marriage has had—that gay couples are no different than straight couples, that they are concerned about having jobs, about putting food on the table, paying their bills, keeping their family safe and happy—as people see that yeah, attitudes have changed quite a bit. And not just in big cities but in rural communities as well.

Does Mathis's victory steal some of the fire from their rhetoric, or will the state's right wing use that for the foreseeable future?

I think you're going to see it continue to be an issue for the foreseeable elections. You're seeing it play out in the presidential caucuses for sure. But the thing that's interesting is the Republicans who are starting to stand up to some of these more bullying tactics by Bob Vander Plaats, the Family Leader, the Iowa Family Policy Center, and NOM. You've seen them starting to call their bluff. Quite frankly, a lot of Republicans don't want to talk about that.

When you look at a map of the country, of all the states that have marriage equality, Iowa stands right in the middle, and we're the center of a bull's-eye. For our opposition, that's their focus, more than any other state. It upsets them to see that marriage equality not only exists in the heartland but that its alive and well in the heartland. And I don't believe they'll stop at anything to take that away.

If you look at marriage equality nationally, it has increased quite a bit over the past two years, but that's mainly confined to the Northeast. What role does Iowa play as the only Midwestern state?

It tells people across the country that marriage can exist in places that you wouldn't necessarily think. A lot of people used to think that marriage is a liberal New England idea, and it's not. Iowa is not a liberal state, we're a moderate state, a truly purple state here in the middle of the Midwest. This just goes to show that marriage equality is not just a New England idea or a liberal idea -- it's an American idea.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.