I have been to Iowa exactly once in my life.
Over two decades ago, I heard a story that got me on a bus and on my way there.
This was the story: the previous year, there had been a gay pride parade in Dubuque. Thirty people participated. They were met with an angry mob of 300 citizens who drove them from the streets, and no one did a damned thing to stop it from happening.
The group that organized this parade organized another one for the following year. They got word out all across the midwest. They went to the police and told them that if they didn’t get police protection for the parade, they’d sue the town to get it.
The town complied. And we came from all over the midwest. I went with a group of two friends from school, and we joined up with a group from Madison and took a bus out there for the day.
It was the first, and best, pride parade I’ve ever been to.The mechanics of it weren’t anything extraordinary. There were five hundred of us strong, and when we chanted, we all, every one of us, chanted the same chant in one voice. The chant’s weren’t inventive. “What do we want? Gay rights! When do we want them? Now!” There were people watching. Three people tried to oppose us, calling us various names, thinking they could intimidate us. Every time we all just turned and faced them and yelled “shame” over and over again until they gave up.
There is one thing I’ll remember in particular: during the parade I looked around and spotted a 2nd floor window, with a dance class watching. There were a bunch of 8-10 year olds looking out the window, smiling and waving at us, and pointing to their instructor, who was just beaming. I wondered if he was one of the ones who’d gotten driven from the street the year before.
Much of the day was a blur. We stayed through the day; there was a concert that evening (Chris Williamson, if I recall correctly) so everyone hung out.
There was a strange sense of euphoria there; we were all hanging out in the town square after the parade, just celebrating, etc. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but we’d been a bit ghettoized at that moment– no one left that square for a few hours. It was our safe zone. No one would dare challenge us there, but when a friend of mine and I wanted change for a vending machine, we didn’t realize we’d left that safe zone until we ended up going into a bar to get change and suddenly realized we were no longer safe on any level. So we got our change, and left, with a bunch of faces of patrons just staring at us.
The evening was a bit different. Most of the locals were in hiding for the day. Pretty much everywhere we went in the area was not only a queer-friendly zone, most of it was queer-only, save for the people who had to work that evening. We went out to dinner and ended up with about fifteen of us, many of whom had come in separately, all sitting around the same table, sharing stories about our lives. None of the stories seem new now: the fundamentalist closet case who finally realized why she hated everybody; the guy who was kicked out of his house as a teen because his parents thought he was gay even before he knew himself.
But at that time, they were something amazing and new. They were water in a desert, a fresh new wind, something so different from the rest of my life that it was astonishing: people talking about this sort of thing, not in a hidden room, not in a basement, not in whispers, but out loud, in a restaurant and then walking down the street. It was profound and transformed my sense of what we could do as people.
But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, more than two decades later, things would change so much.
I sit here, reading the reports on the decision from the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold same-sex marriage, and just think… wow.