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Varnums enjoying married life, still focused on equality
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Kate and Trish Varnum, lead plaintiffs in the Iowa Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage last year, could be easily mistaken for just another newlywed couple.
They remain madly in love. They spend time at work so that they can pay their bills, and spend their free time with family, friends and planning for the future. They know they want to be a positive force in their local community and larger state.
Yet, while it is true that most newly married couples get a little tingle of satisfaction each time they are reminded in day-to-day life of their new-found marital status, such small reminders are both a jolt of electricity and a call to action for these women.
“It is interesting what actually makes it real,” said Trish, who noted mundane tasks like listing herself as married on forms still sometimes feel surreal. “It’s been an incredible year.”
The Varnums, like all six couples who served as plaintiffs in the Iowa case, had hoped there would come a day when the state would recognize them as married. Yet, even the night before the verdict was read, the women were nervous about the outcome. Even now that they are married legally and moving their lives together forward — and by all rights should be able to blend back in to the fabric of their community — the women know that can’t just forget the discrimination of the past.
“[T]he further we get from the court decision, the more secure people are going to feel,” said Kate. “But that doesn’t mean that we can stop speaking out. We need to make sure that in three or four years this doesn’t change. We need to make sure that we are still telling our stories, still educating people on what this really is and what it really means to same-sex couples.”
The Varnums believe that opportunities to teach others arise everyday.
“Just the other day we had to speak to a loan officer about it — about how even now we are still not considered married by the federal government, and the differences between a same-sex couple and a heterosexual couple,” Kate said. “[There are] rights and privileges that come with a federal marriage that aren’t granted to us, even when we sign the same paperwork.”
Small things that other couples take for granted, like spontaneous road trips into neighboring states, remain somewhat of a challenge for the Varnums and others legally married in Iowa.
“We are so close to Chicago, yet when we cross the state line, we are very aware that we are not married outside of the state of Iowa,” Kate said.
“That is, outside of the few states that will recognize our marriage,” added Trish.
The mounds of paperwork the women collected prior to the court decision in an attempt to afford their relationship the legal protections of marriage is still needed and necessary when they travel outside the state. Yet, even after spending thousands of dollars on legal documents such as powers of attorney, there is no guarantee that the documents will be honored in a time of crisis.
“If we are in another state, our hope is that those documents would be recognized by hospital administrators or whomever, but there is always that fear that it may not happen because it is, a lot of time, at the whim of the hospital,” Kate said. “I know that Lambda Legal has defended cases like that where couples do have power of attorney and they are still denied being able to see their dying partner, and are not able to be together in those final moments.
“While this is a very real fear, we cannot let that fear take over our lives. We still need to work on getting other states involved. Telling our story doesn’t just impact Iowa. It goes all over.”
The long-term goal, according to Trish, is for all same-sex couples to be able to just live their lives like heterosexual couples do.
“That will happen when every state in the United States and Washington, D.C. recognizes same-sex marriage. We hope that someday that will happen,” Trish said.
Kate added, “And, until that happens, we are willing to be advocates — and we know so many people who also are.”
So, then, what does it actually mean to have the state legally recognize your marriage?
“It is a validation of our status as citizens, as people and as humans,” Trish said. “Marriage is the highest honor that society can give a couple. We finally have that in Iowa, and we are blessed to have it.”
The Varnums, who have previously served as foster parents, are currently working with an agency and hope to adopt a child in the future. When they speak to the media on the second anniversary of marriage equality in Iowa they hope to have a new family member, and they hope some of vitriol toward same-sex couples has ended.
“I hope that the hate speech ends,” Trish said. “I hope that media begins to pay less attention to the vocal minority and more attention to the people who are out there just living their lives day-to-day and being a part of their communities, cities and the state of Iowa.”