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Married Gays in Iowa Live With Uncertainty

In a Marion Patch project, interviews with state legislators, a political columnist, a political science professor, a same-sex-couple and an analysis of polling data, we try to answer the question: Is same-sex marriage in Iowa forever?

Andrea La Ronde and her fiancee, Amber Sigo, had their wedding planned to a T.

La Ronde found her dress, planned the music — a mix of The Beatles, soul and indie pop — saved a date and settled on a location: October 8, 2011 at Lowe Park.

Then, they nearly scrapped the idea altogether.

It wasn’t a cheating lover or cold feet. It was a bill, HJR 6, that stood between the Marion couple. The bill, an amendment to the Iowa Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman, passed in the Iowa House of Representatives in February 2011.

Despite threats to their vows, the Sigo-La Rondes, as they go by now, went through with their marriage.

"It hit me really hard. I definitely cried about it," Andrea said. "It is really going to hurt if our marriage is no longer legal in Iowa."

Amber wasn’t as bothered at the thought of losing the legal status. She said she doesn’t need a legal document to prove her love for Andrea. What bothered her was the hurt it caused her fiance.  

HJR 6 stalled after the Iowa House, but the couple's legal bond and those of all same-sex couples in Iowa, remains in jeopardy.

Given the opportunity, Iowa Republicans are expected to challenge gay marriage again. While some opponents vow not to bring it up this legislative session, which is less than two weeks old, it only takes one legislator to introduce such a bill. Then, the topic would be back to the forefront, and could gain momentum.

Gay marriage in Iowa is hardly a dead issue.

Iowa is one of six states that allow gay marriage, and Washington State could soon join the list. Meanwhile, opponents are gaining steam in other states, including Minnesota and North Carolina, which have public votes on constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage scheduled this year.

Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and the majority of Iowa House Republicans want Iowans to vote on a constitutional ban.

If that comes to pass, there’s no telling the fate of same-sex couples.

"It is ridiculous that my future is in question because of how other people feel about it," Andrea said. "They don't know me."

The Landscape

The Iowa Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage in 2009 when it ruled it unconstitutional to ban same-sex marriage. There was immediate opposition to the controversial decision, and since then it's become political fodder that spawns passionate debates and drives political contributions.

The year after the Supreme Court ruling, Iowa voters ousted three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices that ruled in the case as punishment. Anti-gay groups spent nearly $1 million on the campaign, and many point to the outcome as a referendum on gay marriage.

"It is ridiculous that my future is in question because of how other people feel about it ... They don't know me."

Andrea and Amber have grown to live with the uncertainty.

After the three Iowa State Supreme Court justices lost the retention vote, Amber said Andrea was angry. She felt that the effort to oust the judges was almost a personal attack on her, and the worst of it came with the passing of HJR 6.

"It had got to that point where it was this sort of slaughter fest," Andrea said.

Their saving grace has been a slim Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate, which has thus far managed to stalemate the Republican-led Iowa House and hold off Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Both desire putting a gay marriage ban to voters.

Close Call

After six months of waiting, Sigo and La Ronde decided to go through with marriage. They stopped caring about the what ifs.

"There was a point where we just didn’t care anymore. If us being happy screws up your marriage that is your problem,” Amber said. "So we just sat down and had a talk — we talked about how we wanted our life to start." 

Right around the same time, another what if was arising right in their home community.

In October, state, national and international media flocked to Marion to cover the story that some felt would determine the fate of same-sex marriage in Iowa: a single state senate election.

Democratic state senator Swati Dandekar, of Marion, had resigned unexpectedly to accept Branstad’s appointment to a lucrative post. This set up a showdown via a special election that would determine the balance of power in the Iowa Legislature.

If Republicans claimed Senate District 18, it would create a tie in the Senate and potentially remove the obstacle to challenging gay marriage.

Nearly $1 million was . Residents were with up to five mailers a day, television ads and gay marriage-themed robocalls. The National Organization for Marriage claimed in a mailer, "The future of marriage hangs in the balance."

The Sigo-La Rondes were spectators as neighbors candidate signs went up. One neighbor had a sign for the Republican candidate Cindy Golding — who has previously stated her support for bringing the amendment to a popular vote —which they had to restrain themselves from tearing down. 

Democrats held the seat as candidate Liz Mathis beat Golding and preserved the Democratic senate majority — for now.

What is Keeping the Threat to Gay Marriage Alive?

There’s a couple of ways that same sex-marriage can be a thing of the past.

  1. A same-sex marriage ban passing this legislative season.

    • While Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said he won't introduce marriage issues in this session, a rogue Republican legislator could still introduce an amendment. Tim Hagle, University of Iowa political science associate professor, said Republicans might be reluctant to support it given their stated priorities on jobs and the economy and opposition from the Democratic majority. But the Democratic caucus’ resolve may be weakened in the upcoming election year, a time when opposing a controversial issue like gay marriage may benefit their re-election prospects.

  2. Republicans could take control of the Iowa State Senate in the 2012 general election.

    • This could give Republicans the opportunity to get the issue to the senate floor. Until now, the Democratic majority in the senate has blocked gay marriage from being discussed, much less voted on. Republican Rep. Dave Deyoe said that, given that opportunity, Republicans would pursue the ban.

  3. If the Legislature sends a marriage amendment to Iowans, there is no telling how the state will vote, said Hagle. 

    • Though public opinion on same-sex marriage has grown increasingly favorable, there is still a very vocal, mobilized minority passionately opposed to gay marriage.

Those interviewed by Patch — three Republican and two Democratic state legislators and a political columnist — say they can’t predict the future of same-sex marriage in Iowa, but they expect a much longer battle is to come.

Can a Challenge to Gay Marriage Succeed?

Iowa State Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, a champion of an amendment to ban gay marriage, estimated that 10 percent of Iowans are not only opposed to gay marriage, but they see its eradication as their top priority.

This, he said, could better motivate those 10 percent of people to the polls, as opposed to those that are merely tolerant of same-sex marriage.

Iowa State Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said there is an increasing majority that don't mind the idea of gay marriage and want it to stay, but as Bartz said, they don't have the same passion as those that want to eradicate it.

"There are a wide swath of live-and-let-live Iowans," he said. "They are not passionate for (keeping gay marriage), so that doesn’t motivate you to go to the polls."

A recent poll by the Des Moines Register found that 92 percent of polled Iowans said gay marriage has made no real change to their life. But it is the vocal minority that could change things here if and when gay marriage comes to a public vote.

The Sigo-La Rondes have begun to accept that their legal status as a couple might not be permanent, but what really has driven them is their future and how an unrecognized marriage might effect plans to have children.

Right now, Amber Sigo-La Ronde said they haven't decided between adoption or artificial insemination. If they go for the latter, they plan to use the DNA of the best man at their wedding, but they say that decision is years away.

Still, it worries them.

"We were upset that we wouldn't have the same rights when we were older," Andrea Sigo-La Ronde said. "What would happen to our kids?"

Polls Show Increasing Leniency Towards Gay Marriage

With the public's increasing comfort with gay marriage, time may not be on opponent's side.

A study by the American Political Science Review published in the fall of 2009 —months after the 2009 Iowa State Supreme Court decision — found that only 38 percent of Iowans favored same-sex marriage.

A year later, a CNN poll found 44 percent of Iowans favoring same-sex marriage. A study completed a year later by Public Policy Polling found 46 percent of Iowans favoring gay marriage.

Hagle said these numbers will most likely continue to rise, pending a controversy on the effects of same-sex marriage. This could be detrimental to those who oppose gay marriage. If all goes as planned, it would be at least three years before Iowans can vote on the amendment to the Iowa constitution.

Time is Not on Gay Marriage Opponent’s Side

Time may be Sigo-La Rondes biggest ally.

In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, it has to be approved by a majority in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate during two consecutive legislative assemblies. It would then be put to a vote to the general public.

There is a new assembly every two years.

For example, if an amendment passed in 2013, during the 83rd Iowa General Assembly, it would have to pass again in 2015, during the 84th Iowa General Assembly. Then it could be put to a public vote in a 2015 special election or the 2016 general election.

By then, who knows how Iowan’s will feel about same-sex marriage?

That’s why Iowa State Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, thinks the chance of an amendment passing is slim.

"The issue is fading," he said. "If you want a prognosis, I think it isn't likely to be put to the vote of people. (Same-sex marriage) is something that we are going to continue to see in the near future, if not permanently."

Uncertain Future

Andrea and Amber Sigo-La Ronde have settled into their married life. They go to work, they play video-games, cards, watch The Office together and occasionally go out drinking with friends.

"I have never been married to a man before, but I imagine it is the same as a heterosexual couple," Amber said. "We argue, we fight, we kiss and make up."

But most married couples don't face the doubts that linger in the mind of married gay couples in Iowa: Will their legal status be valid when they start a family?

"It really made me feel inhumane that others can change your life and restrict your plan," Andrea said. "I don't understand how someone can tell me how to live my own life."

You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.

Jozek Niegorol January 18, 2012 at 03:56 PM
There is a rule in the American (and not only American) legal system that goes back to the Roman law: Law cannot go backwards, Therefore, Andrea's and Amber's marriage is safe, no matter what heppens to the legal status of same-sex marriage in Iowa. As for those who don't like it. few suggestions: First, if you want to protect traditional marriage, mandate pre-martial counseling and/or ban divorce. Second, In Iowa same-sex marriage is vloluntary, not mandatory. So, third, if marriages such as Andrea's and Amber's bother you, try to figure out why. Because theproblem is you, not them.
mike January 26, 2012 at 12:15 AM
the american legal system does not go back to roman law, geesh! laws can and have been passed retroactively based on what do those who oppose have a problem? if one is to agree with you then fine?!? obviously, you have a problem

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