Erica Riggs (left) said she was a “love-struck puppy” when she met Sarah Baird. After spending years apart, the women married on New Year’s Eve 2009. – Photo by Joe Scott

Paula Boback (left) and Katie Imborek of Iowa City, are one of many female couples that married in Johnson County in 2009. “You feel validated as a couple, that you are no longer swept out of the public eye,” said Boback of their marriage.- Photo by Joe ScottWhile social conservatives in the 2010 election campaign depict gay marriage as a threat to married life as we know it, Iowa’s 18-month experience with the newly legalized institution has revealed striking similarities to traditional marriage and no discernible harm to it, according to an IowaWatch study.

Moreover, marriage statistics show that female couples made up nearly two-thirds of the same-sex marriages in Iowa in the year after the state Supreme Court ruled it legal in April 2009. Although experts say a single year does not constitute a trend, they say the disparity is consistent with the traditional way Americans raise children and establish their gender roles early in life. The disparity also reflects similar trends in other states where same-sex marriages are allowed.

Thousands of same sex couples married during that period, and despite the controversy that has swirled around them, their marriages have endured.

For many, the marriage license provided a slice of American life previously denied them. For others, the license, because legal limitations remain, is just recognition of relationships already tested by time, legal obstacles and social ostracism.

“It’s suitable for framing,” said Ellen Lewin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, whose marriage to her same-sex partner in Canada is now recognized in Iowa.*

Researchers have studied the meaning and characteristics of same-sex unions for decades. Rather than examining the nature of gay marriage to determine the merit of opponents’ arguments, the public debate has focused mostly on opponents’ charge that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage and proponents arguing that gay couples deserve equal rights.

The IowaWatch study found that similarities range from the way men and women often view marriage to the more mundane tasks of married life, such as doing yard work. Like people in traditional marriages, same-sex couples also talk about raising children and shielding them from the verbal slings of peers, the stability and unit-strength of a family and the value of loving relationships among parents and children, as well as legal necessities and financial security.

The study is based on more than a dozen interviews with gay couples and national experts and on an examination of journal articles, marriage statistics, census data, polls and court rulings.

‘We live pretty boring lives’

The Iowa Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage was unanimous, but the opposition has persisted, because it is fueled by fears that that the family, the bedrock of American society, is at stake.

They should be allowed to marry, they shouldn’t be allowed to redefine marriage to mean ‘whatever relationship I choose,’” said Maggie Gallagher, chairman for the National Organization for Marriage, in an email.*  “All Americans have the right to live as we choose, we do not have the right to redefine marriage.”

In sharp contrast, married gays often depict a lifestyle and relationship that’s seems suburban stable, only now they have a marriage license like other couples.

“Not much has changed,” said Ledon Sweeney of Iowa City, who married his partner of 12 years. “We live pretty boring lives. We go to work; we mow our lawn, we pay our mortgage, and we go on vacation if we can save enough money.”

Four other states – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut – allow gay marriage. Nationwide, support has been inching up in polls, with an Aug. 10 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll giving proponents a 49-percent score nationwide.

Now, Iowa moves into national focus, because the country will see what voters in a state known for corn and hogs say about gays getting married. Their megaphones are two high profile elections.

One is the gubernatorial campaign between Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and Republican challenger Terry Branstad, who, along with social conservatives hope to win enough legislative seats to get a vote to allow a referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. In the other campaign, three of the state Supreme Court justices are fending off retention challenges led by anti-gay marriage forces.

While Iowa’s rural image conveys conservatism, Iowans are known for their passive, mind-your-own-business brand of independence, which often makes them difficult categorize on the political spectrum.

“I think Iowa is pretty libertarian,” said Mark A. Holbrook, who recently married his partner, Ronald J. Trouten of Iowa City.  “A lot of people don’t feel compelled to force their views on others.”

The angst over marriage in Iowa comes after year in which the state of marriage has made a turn toward statistical bliss: more people got married and fewer split up.

Divorces declined to 7,286, to lowest per capita level since 1968, according to 2009 provisional and historical data from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The health department’s statistics also suggest gay marriage is not a trend on the fringe. Of the 19,204 couples who bought licenses to marry during the year ending March 31, one out of ten were gay. In Pottowattamie and Johnson Counties, the ratio was one out four. The marriages occurred in 21 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

County by county marriage breakdown – April 2009 to March 2010

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Dissonance on a national stage

In Iowa, the disharmony over matrimony began almost five years ago when six same-sex couples, who had been together five to 15 years applied for marriage licenses in Polk County and were denied. One couple had two small children. Three were men, including one couple who were state licensed foster parents. It was these complaints that reached the Iowa Supreme Court and ignited the controversy.

To add to the political cacophony, earlier this month Chief U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker struck down Proposition 8 in California, overturning a referendum that had banned same-sex marriage. The ruling will be reviewed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and may go all the way to the US Supreme Court. Although gay rights advocates say the ruling creates judicial momentum that will carry to other states, opponents say it just energized the referendum forces in Iowa.

Walker’s 136-page decision carries a dense ‘findings of fact’ section based on legal, psychological and sociological testimony and studies that bear on the Iowa controversy. Those findings led Walker to a bottom-line conclusion: both types of marriages carry the major factors that make the family unit a basic building block in American society, starting with the strength of family members’ relationships and the importance of those bonds to each member.

The ruling said successful marriage – whether gay or traditional – “facilitate governance and public order by organizing cohesive family units…, creating established households.” Walker found that “same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics … of successful marital unions.” He also noted that California recognizes citizens’ sexual orientation has no bearing on their ability to raise children, and it encourages same-sex couples to adopt or become foster parents.

Turning to matters of the heart, Walker, sticking with his cold legalistic tone, wrote: “Standardized measures of relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustments and love do not differ depending on whether a couple is same-sex or opposite sex.” Like most married couples, Walker said, gay couples are financially dependent on each other. They also get involved in their communities, contribute to the economy and help raise the next generation.

Approaches to marriage: similarities and one peculiar statistic

One of the experts cited in his ruling, Lee Badgett, research director of the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, told IowaWatch that the meaning of marriage for gays and heterosexuals is clear.

“I have not seen any evidence that same sex couples approach marriage differently,” she said.

But the fact that lesbians make up nearly two-thirds of same-sex couples poses somewhat of a mystery to researchers. The proportion is way out of line with the 2000 Census figures showing lesbians made up 49 percent unmarried same-sex couples. That pattern follows in other gay-marriage states.

Adding to the mystery is that more married same couples in the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are male, according to Esther Rothblum, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University . Studies in the early 2000s found the ratio around 3 to1 male. Moreover, in Mexico City, where a six-month-old same-sex marriage law was upheld in early August, gay male marriages also outnumber lesbian marriages.

So, why do more American lesbians marry than gay men?

Some experts think it goes back to the way America culture raises children. Long before children know about sexual orientation, society begins foisting gender roles on them, Mimi Schippers, associate professor of sociology at Tulane University, said. Tradition dictates that women desire marriage more than men, she said.

“Girls are raised pretty from the moment they become consciously aware to think about marriage, to desire marriage and to see marriage as a goal.”

Males, on the other hand, are socialized to be reluctant to marry, said Stephanie Coontz, of Evergreen State College in Washington and author of numerous books on marriage, its history and myths. Because gay men and lesbians are raised in the same way, the pattern effects same-sex couples and helps explain differences in the two sexes’ desire for children.

Katie Imborek and Paula Boback, a lesbian couple in Iowa City, would agree. “We knew that we wanted kids and that was part of the traditional family structure that’s ingrained in you,” Imborek said. “A little part of us felt some inclination to follow along that path.”

Census figures show their inclination is common. The 2000 Census found that 33 percent of lesbian households have a child compared to 22 percent of same-sex male couples.

A lack of ‘bullet-proof’ rights

The disparity also has an economic explanation: men make more money than women, and gay men across the Atlantic, whose marriages enjoy national recognition, have greater financial incentive to marry than do gay men in America, where federal law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, according to Rothblum.

In a 2005 article for the Journal of LGBT studies, Rothblum wrote the lack of federal recognition makes state-level marriage largely symbolic. Because women have a greater desire to marry and have children, a symbolic marriage may have more attraction for them.

The overwhelming majority of an estimated 1,300 specific rights, benefits and privileges that marriage delivers to couples come from the federal government. Same sex couples can file joint state tax returns, for example, but have to file separate federal tax returns.

To protect some of their rights, Sweeney and his partner, Mark Signs, took legal steps before they married. Their lawyer prepared power-of-attorney documents to protect their financial and medical rights. Still, they are worried about being caught without them.

“Heterosexual couples have bullet-proof rights …,” Sweeney said. “We do not.”

So they made copies and put one in the glove-boxes of each car, another in a lock-box at home, and they put one in their suitcases when they travel. Sweeney said that process prompted him to begin considering the issue of same-sex marriage.

Such legally imposed restrictions and separations produce more differences between gay and straight couples than would not exist otherwise, said Judith Stacey, professor of cultural analysis at New York University.

By the time gay couples wed, their relationships are usually well established. In a 2004 study, Kimberly Richman, a University of San Francisco associate sociology professor, found the average same-sex couple married in San Francisco had been together 11 years.

Attitudes toward marriages

The length of same-sex-couple’s relationships produces different attitudes toward marriage. For some, it whets their appetite for marriage; for others, it makes them wonder if they need it.

Consider Sweeney and Signs, the same-sex-couple in Iowa City. They were together for 11 years before they were married.

“I just figured we would be roommates for the next 50 to 60 years until both of us died,” Sweeney said.

Signs said for many of the male couples he knows, getting married isn’t a major goal. As for him, his relationship with Sweeney remains largely the same.

But many same-sex couples who had long relationships said marriage has created a powerful change.

“You feel validated as a couple, that you are no longer swept out of the public eye,” Katie Imborek of Iowa City, said, speaking about her marriage to Paula Boback. “That was such a wonderful feeling.”

Richman interviewed 100 same-sex couples who married in Massachusetts and San Francisco, and studied a survey of 1,469 same-sex-couples who married in San Francisco.

Seventy-two percent of couples said they felt more committed to their partners after marriage, and around 70 percent felt more accepted by their community. Acceptance from others legitimated their relationship in their eyes, more so than even the legal rights, she said.

“I heard a lot of stories about people who have been together for 18 years, and their parents didn’t see them as a couple until they were married,” Richman said.

Because marriage has never been available to gay people, many did not pursue long-lasting relationships. Stereotypes of promiscuity harden, because same-sex-couples can’t legitimize their relationship in the most socially acceptable way – marriage.

“The fact that they were excluded from normalized monogamy [marriage] reinforced the idea that they don’t need the monogamy,” she said.

Erika Riggs, an Iowa City lesbian who married less than two years ago, was a case on point.

Riggs met Sarah Williams 19 years ago and felt a strong attraction.

“I wrote her a poem,” Riggs said. “I was a love-struck puppy.”

But Williams became committed to another woman and took the name Sarah Baird. Seventeen years passed. Baird had children, and Riggs had girlfriends.

During that period, Riggs said she didn’t think much about marriage. It wasn’t possible, and Riggs wasn’t sure she wanted it. But, in November 2008, Sarah Baird split up with her long-time partner, and on New Years Eve 2009, Baird and Riggs married. Riggs said she has gone from avoiding commitment to embracing it, in part due to finding the right person and because same-sex-marriage became legal in Iowa.

Listen to Riggs speak about marriage and children

“She had kids. This was the last thing I would have wanted or needed, but it turns out it is everything I need,” she said, turning to face Sarah in the back porch of their home. “It’s your fault.”

It opened up the possibilities of the heterosexual world which she said had been excluded from and never wanted.

Until now.

*Editor’s Note: In a version of the story posted Wednesday, IowaWatch incorrectly identified Ellen Lewin as a sociology professor who married her partner in Iowa. She is an anthropology professor whose marriage in Canada to her partner is now recognized in Iowa. IowaWatch also inadvertently misquoted Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, as saying in an email that same-sex couples “shouldn’t be allowed to marry.” A review of that email, which is dated Aug. 4, revealed that Gallagher said the opposite. The quote has been corrected in the story. IowaWatch regrets the error.


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  1. “Iowa’s 18-month experience”

    Not sure you can make such sweeping statements as are made in this article after this short period of time with so few people entering into same-sex marriages. Changes like this take at least a generation to analyze.

  2. Gays deserve the respect and rights that are afforded to everyone. Even if you don’t agree with their lifestyle, you shouldn’t pass judgement. Only God can judge.

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