COUNCIL BLUFFS “Chase me, Mom, chase me!”
A floppy mop of blond hair flew behind Jamison Olson as he popped out the bottom of a tunnel slide. He cast a few backward glances at his mother Ingrid Evans Olson, who followed close behind, before letting loose with laughter and jumping into the waiting arms of Reva Evans Olson, his other mother.
A year ago, a warm spring evening would have spawned a similar scene: A slightly younger Jamison playing at the park down the street from the home he shares with his moms. But, a year ago, his parents were just roommates to the State of Iowa. Now they're married a status they began fighting for when Jamison, now almost 4, was little more than a zygote.
It has been one year since the Iowa Supreme Court released its unanimous decision in favor of the Evans Olsons and five other couples who sued for the right to marry. The decision overturned a 1998 state law banning same-gender couples from marrying, saying it denied “gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution.”
Opponents of same-gender marriage spent much of the last year lobbying against the court decision. Gay and lesbian unions do not promote procreation and change the definition of family, they have argued. Same-gender unions are unnatural and against God, said Bryan English, spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center ACTION.
Still, opponents were unsuccessful in attempts to circumvent Democratic leadership in the Legislature and force debate on a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage. Now that the 2010 legislative session has ended, efforts are shifting to elections for state offices in hopes that the scales can be tipped in favor of Republicans and away from Democrats.
Reva and Ingrid are aware of all of that. But, for them, the past year has been a succession of everyday happenings. Their life isn't exactly what it was before. Being plaintiffs in the lawsuit raised their profile, and they've been recognized at banks and car dealerships. They continue to speak about gay families and the lawsuit when asked. But a normal, happy life for them and their son was always the end goal.
“I'm always happy to share our story and just to keep educating people. But sometimes I also feel like we don't have a huge story to tell,” said Reva. “It's so painfully boring and normal.”
In December 2005, they filed their lawsuit in Polk County District Court after being denied a marriage license by the county recorder there. Lambda Legal, a national gay rights group, organized the lawsuit and provided pro bono legal representation to the plaintiff couples. Joining the lawsuit wasn't an easy decision. They knew it would mean public scrutiny and media attention. They worried about backlash and harassment, and they were concerned about how all of it might affect Reva's recent pregnancy. But, in the end, the thought of Jamison, their baby-to-be, is what persuaded them to participate in the lawsuit.
“We didn't want Jamison to be 20 years old and say, so you could've been part of this lawsuit and you didn't? Why didn't you stand up for our family?” Ingrid said. “We wanted him to always know that we were willing to stand up for fairness.”
On a recent evening, Jamison crawled onto Reva's lap to read a book, while Ingrid spoke to a visitor about what she wanted her son to take from their fight.
“I want Jamison to hear, yeah, life isn't fair, because that's the truth,” said Ingrid. “Life isn't fair, but you can do something about it.”
Across town, another couple almost strangers to Reva and Ingrid marveled at their own looming wedding anniversary.
One year ago Saturday was Jacob Holman's 32nd birthday. He had pretty much everything he wanted: a great job as a respiratory therapist, a loving committed relationship and a nice home. But that day he woke up to a birthday gift he didn't think he would ever get.
After hearing about the court decision on the news, Holman burst into the bedroom of his tidy Council Bluffs house and told Michael Walker: “We can get married!”
Holman and Walker wasted little time before tying the knot in Red Oak on May 23. Surrounded by friends, co-workers and two of Walker's sisters, they made promises they hadn't thought possible. Unaware of the pending lawsuit, the couple had, just one month earlier, purchased commitment rings they placed on their right hands because they were “different” from other couples, Holman said.
“I don't think it really dawned on us that we could be equal,” said Holman.
Marriage was their past, not their future, they thought. Both men are divorced, after spending portions of their 20s married to women. Those marriages fit with their respective religious upbringings, but they didn't make for happy lives.
As a couple for the last seven years, they have long felt happy with each other, as well as true to themselves. Now, they feel validated. They call each other husband or spouse and wear rings on their left hands, just like other married couples do.
“As humans, our civil rights, we're being fully recognized,” Walker said.
Not everything is equal. They aren't guaranteed the same rights as opposite-gender married couples when it comes to health benefits and pensions. Filing income taxes is a juggling maneuver between state, where they're considered married, and federal, where they must file as single people. But they're hopeful, said Walker.
“It's a step in the right direction, baby steps along the way,” said Walker. “But they're gradually adding up and getting momentum.”
There are signs of momentum in the past year. When the marriage decision came down from the Iowa Supreme Court, marriage was open to same-gender couples only in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Since then, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia began granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
On the other hand, after the Maine Legislature approved a law allowing gay couples to marry in Maine in 2009, it was overturned by voters. And prior to the Iowa decision, in the largest referendum on the issue, California voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The state Supreme Court upheld the election results but said prior same-gender marriages remained valid in the state. There are numerous federal court cases challenging the California law.
For both couples, the difference between states that recognize their marriages and those that don't is often present in their minds, because they all work in Omaha. Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-gender marriage in 2000.
“We both spend a third of our day in the state of Nebraska, and that third of the day we're not married,” said Ingrid. “That's hard. If I get in a car accident, I pray it's on this side of the river.”
For now, they hope people will look at the first year of same-gender marriage in Iowa and see it the way they do.
“I just want people to see that, because we got married, life in Iowa hasn't changed,” said Reva. “Nothing traumatic or dramatic happened because we were able to get married. My marriage hasn't impacted anybody negatively.”
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