Can America Learn Something From Iowan Tolerance?

Gay couples began applying for marriage licenses in Iowa today, and a Times article examines why this midwestern state became more progressive — at least on this issue — than California.

Some Iowans think of gay marriage as an extension of a long progressive tradition — Iowa was a safe haven for utopian societies and, as Marilynne Robinson showed in Gilead, a little-known hotbed of abolitionism. But for many, the State Supreme Court’s decision speaks more to “an Iowa attitude” of live-and-let-live. Iowans may not be fans of gay marriage per se — in a poll last year, 62% thought marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re clamoring to start the amendment process necessary to override the Court’s ruling. Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat who has historically opposed gay marriage, says he will not push for a ban.

Iowa State University sociologist Paul Lasley says this grudging acceptance is typical of Iowa: “People may think of us some other way,” he tells the Times, “but in the main, it is tolerance – not always support, but tolerance – that has really been the weave and warp of Iowa culture.” Iowan Jeni McCubbins bears out this view. She says,

I don’t think it’s right. But it’s a little like getting married itself, you know? If you think you’re going to change someone, you’re wrong. So I’m better off to leave well enough alone on this.

Many liberals in Iowa (myself included) wish our fellow Iowans offered support as well as tolerance to the gay couples now beginning to marry in our state. At the same time, there’s something kind of hopeful about a culture committed to leaving well enough alone. Americans on the coasts sometimes deride the midwest as a backwater full of bible-thumping fundies. The truth, though, is more complicated. Lasley points out that many Iowans “are descendants of people who were once denied liberties in their home countries,” and, in a Times editorial last month, Samantha Chang attributed some of Iowa’s character to its harsh winters. She quoted mechanic Gary Dunne, who said, “you watch the seasons happen and you learn how to make a steady life with all of the change happening around you.” Much as I might wish everyone in the country shared the same liberal values, I know that’s not going to happen soon. And in a country that has seen so much hate, the capacity to weather change — with tolerance, if not always with support — is a lot better than nothing.

Same-Sex Ruling Belies the Staid Image of Iowa [New York Times]
Iowa Issues Marriage Licenses To Gays [CBS News]
Volvos From Florida [New York Times]

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