3 days in Iowa, for gays and progressives alike
Newlyweds Eugenia Stanton (left) and Sheri Kutsch share a kiss during their first dance as a married couple during their reception last month at Buddy's Corral, a bar. (Tribune photo by Josh Noel / May 3, 2009)
"You've got to pin your hair in," he said, jutting his hip. "There's nothing more embarrassing than coming out, doing a twirl and your hair goes flying."
Applause. Laughter. And all was well.
Such concerns, it turns out, are not limited to Halsted Street. They extend to Iowa, where gay marriage is now the law of the land. That sudden, and some would say surprising, development makes the Hawkeye state a travel destination for gay people and their supportive friends, particularly Chicagoans, who have never heard wedding bells so close to home.
Gay marriage took effect on April 27, but there are no quickie marriages here: Iowa law mandates a three-day waiting period between applying for a license and walking down the aisle.
The good news is that there are tons of ways to make those three days fabulous. Plus, there are plenty of restaurants, mostly in the urban areas, where any couple can show up hand in hand, choose between the seared tuna and braised pork with pappardelle noodles and exchange a small peck with no one thinking twice.
The state's progressive infrastructure has been in place for years -- in some cases, decades. The state repealed laws or practices against interracial marriage, slavery and segregated schools decades before the federal government. It is one of a handful of states that has a law protecting students from sexuality-based harassment. And in case you forgot, Iowa helped launch President Barack Obama.
Now, progressiveness and tourism intersect.
Iowa's most enterprising business minds are starting to court the nation's gay travelers on the Internet, while B&B's, restaurants and the most open-minded of churches line up to lure the state's newest brand of tourist.
"We're hearing from a lot of couples who have been together for 20 or 30 years and don't want the pomp and circumstance; they want the piece of paper," said Christopher Diebel, who launched myiowagaywedding.com, a listing of gay-friendly businesses. "But since they have to be here for three days, they want to know what's a good hotel, what to do and where they can have a celebratory dinner before flying out."
On a recent multiday swing though the state, I set off looking for the heart of progressive Iowa. It can be tough to find in some of the more rural patches -- or west of Des Moines -- but it was there: in the food, the accommodations, the arts and in a gentle Midwestern sentiment that is equal bits "live and let live," "don't ask, don't tell" and a belief that judgment is best left to the coastal elites. Or God.
It lives in places such as Ritual Cafe, at the western edge of Des Moines' clean, placid downtown, one of the few -- if not only -- businesses flying a pair of rainbow flags out front. Five years ago, Ritual's co-owner, Denise Diaz, 42, was working at another cafe when her boss told her that she and her partner hugged too long when saying goodbye.
"I almost walked off the job," Diaz said.
Instead, she and her then-partner, Linda Shepley, 46, opened a cafe of their own. In the pleasantly airy space, the bookcase teems with titles such as "Completely Queer" and "Homosexuality in History," the usual suspect bumper stickers are pasted about ("Eve Was Framed," "In Goddess We Trust") and the staff serves an all-vegetarian menu (including the gender bending "po boi" sandwich).
Ritual attracts a wide swath of clientele, from teens with laptops to hard-hatted construction workers on break. It has become an epicenter for the gay and lesbian community, a host for meetings, fundraisers and people who don't want to mess with the bars. It's also the kind of place where you will learn about the gay-friendly things going on in town, such as the weekly Sunday afternoon men's bike ride.
I showed up at the appointed hour and met Jeff Reese, 36, organizer of the ride, who said it is not a show of strength, just a bunch of friends riding together. In Des Moines, the show of strength is not needed.
"I've been out since I was 14, and I remember what it used to be like," Reese said. "No one cares anymore. If you are a normal human being, people will accept you."
He pointed across the street, to an old-school Italian restaurant decked in red, white and green, Tumea and Sons.
"We go there to eat and they come over here to drink," he said, meaning the Rio gay bar. "And no one [cares]. I wish it could be like that everywhere."