Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me, but it did, when former Iowa state Senator Jeff Angelo launched Iowa Republicans for Freedom whose mission is to change the hearts and minds of Iowa's social conservatives who currently oppose marriage equality. Angelo told the Des Moines Register, "I don't think this debate reflects the character of Iowans, the culture of Iowa."
Angelo was a three-term state Senator who did not seek reelection in 2008. He has not always been on the side of same-sex marriage. Five years ago, Angelo, an evangelical Christian, co-sponsored a bill to amend the state's constitution to prohibit marriage between same-sex couples. Now he says that his views have evolved because of his relationships with Iowans who have families with same-sex couples. Angelo has said that he believes his new position is consistent with basic GOP values: individual freedom, limited government, and the pursuit of happiness.
It wasn't until I was forty that I came out. I was married, with two children, and it was the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I was unsure if I could be open about my sexual orientation as a physician. I knew no other openly gay physicians at the time. Now, twenty five years later, I am legally married to the man I have loved for most of that time. When I told some of my friends that I was marrying a man, I often heard, "In Iowa? Of all places!"
Iowa has a little-known history of being on the leading edge of many civil rights issues. Unlike neighboring states, Iowa has not always followed the national majority opinion. In 1839, several years before Iowa statehood, the Territorial Supreme Court decided to allow a slave residing in Iowa to retain his freedom. In 1851 Iowa territorial law rejected anti-miscegenation laws; Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota did not allow interracial marrying until over one hundred years later. The Iowa Supreme Court ordered school integration nearly one hundred years before the federal court's decision.
When the University of Iowa opened in 1855, men and women were admitted equally and it was the first University to grant a law degree to a woman and to an African American. The U of I was the first state university to recognize an LGBT student organization and the first to offer insurance benefits to domestic partners of its employees. In 2007, following a long tradition, the Iowa District Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, a decision upheld unanimously by the Iowa Supreme Court.
None of this suggests, however, that there is no opposition in Iowa to marriage equality. Many in Iowa continue to seek a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and there are those with deep pockets throughout the country who contribute their dollars to keep things stirred up in Iowa. As we head into the Iowa caucuses, it is bound to once again become a hot topic, at least for a few.
It is too early to know what response Angelo will receive from his fellow Republicans. Since he is not seeking re-election, he can speak out more freely. As Newt Gingrich recently discovered, speaking out against Republican social conservative positions can drive a nail into an election coffin. It is doubtful that even those Republicans seeking re-election and agree with Angelo will speak out in favor of marriage equality. It is too early to know how large the membership of Iowa Republicans for Freedom will become.
According to a 2011 poll in the Des Moines Register, 32 percent of Iowans support same-sex marriage and another 30 percent just don't care very much. Now with some prominent Republicans abandoning the issue, the 37 percent of Iowans who opposed the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling may be dwindling even further.
Speaking on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently, Bill Moyers commented on how little factual information there is in the media. He said that news must be based on fact; all else is opinion and publicity. Almost all of the opposition to same-sex marriage is based on opinion, not facts. As one of my friends suggested, "Our same-sex marriages are political whether or not we choose them to be." Now that people in Iowa like Angelo are learning that same-marriage doesn't threaten their families and gay men and women are not stealing their children to recruit new members, many of the old arguments against same-sex marriage are being seen for what they are: self-promoting publicity.
The arguments against marriage equality are bolts of lightning used to strike fear into the hearts of people who are not so much homophobic as homo-naïve.