My fifth-grade teacher must have experienced an unusual level of confusion as she prepared seating charts and memorized names 15 years ago. Our class of 25 had two “Heidi H”s, a difficulty exacerbated by the fact that they shared not only the same appearance (blonde, blue-eyed) but also the same full name: there was Heidi Hansen, who played violin, and Heidi Hanson, the gymnast. In high school, the main office dealt with the problem matter-of-factly by announcing them on the intercom as “Heidi Hansen E-N” and “Heidi Hanson O-N.” It was only during college that I realized how uniquely Iowan it was to have two students in such a small sample sharing such a Scandinavian name.
So I smiled when I visited the website of the Des Moines Register two Fridays ago and found an article by a guy named Hansen about a guy named Hanson. The title, too, was typically Iowan: “Judges, recorder all did their jobs.” It suggested the kind of no-news story that would only appear in a capital-city paper in the middle of nowhere.
Except that this was news. Hansen E-N was praising the Iowa Supreme Court for unanimously upholding the earlier verdict of Hanson O-N, which declared that Iowa had to provide marriage to same-sex couples. Many of the Iowans who commented on the page joined Hansen in celebrating the decision; some, of course, objected strongly. Yet the most common reaction from non-Iowans was neither approval, nor dismay, but shock: “Gay marriage? Iowa?”
Yes, Iowa. Although many of the stereotypes about the Midwest are true, they rarely do justice to our progressivism—an aspect of Midwestern culture as significant as publishing newspapers with no news or responding to “thank you” with “you bet.” Every election cycle, the national media lumps Iowa together with every other so-called flyover state into a place named “the heartland” and emphasizes how strongly we believe in “family values,” which means they can count on us to be fanatically religious, vote Republican, and, naturally, hate gay people. Even after the court decision, journalists like USA Today’s Dan Gilgoff continued to portray Iowa as “a culturally conservative heartland state.”
Iowa did vote for Bush—though by only a 0.67 percent margin—in 2004. My publicschool district did prohibit school activities on Wednesday night to reserve time for church groups. And it’s true that, for as long as I’ve made the 20-minute drive from my house to the University of Iowa campus, I’ve been greeted by a massive sign over one soybean field declaring, “God is pro-life—Are you?”
But it’s also true that my former congressman, Jim Leach, was one of only six Republicans in the House to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq and the only one to vote against Bush’s 2003 tax cut; despite these moderate views, he lost my district to a Democrat in 2006. That Democrat, Dave Loebsack, now sits in the Congressional Progressive Caucus alongside Barney Frank ’ 62 and Bernie Sanders. Iowa also gave Barack Obama his first victory of the primary cycle, silencing those who insisted that an African-American candidate couldn’t win in an overwhelmingly white state.
Even more revealing of Iowa’s true progressivism is its history. As Pat Murphy, the speaker of the Iowa House, and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal pointed out in a statement lauding the verdict, gay marriage is only the most recent issue on which Iowa has been ahead of the times. They note that our supreme court outlawed racially segregated schools in 1873, almost a century before Brown v. Board, and that Iowa was the first state in the Union to admit a woman to the practice of law, doing so in 1869.
“When all is said and done,” Murphy and Gronstal write, “we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.”
And while I’m tempted to suggest—as they do—that such forward thinking is the province of my home state alone, the reality is that it’s as much a part of the fabric of the entire Upper Midwest as Hansens and Hansons are. Now that Iowa has taken a stand for marriage equality, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota probably aren’t far behind.
It’s time that progressive organizations and progressive people stopped thinking of the Midwest as a lost cause. By organizing an equal-marriage suit in Iowa, gay-rights groups demonstrated a remarkable understanding of who Midwesterners really are. Marriage Equality USA, discussing the significance of the Iowa decision, explains that “we know in our hearts, it is only a matter of time for America to turn its back on this history of discrimination against same-sex couples.” We’ve known it in our heartland for a while too.
Marianne F. Kaletzky ’08, a former Crimson arts chair, grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She now lives in New Orleans and teaches high-school English in the Jefferson Parish public-school system.
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