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In legalizing gay marriage, Iowa confounds stereotypes about Midwest

Rex W. Huppke
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Once again, a humble Midwestern state is being laughed at by cosmopolitan smarty-pants on the East and West coasts. The victim this time, of course, is Iowa, which recently had the gall to legalize gay marriage and attempt to mess up decades of perfectly good Midwestern stereotyping.

People on the coasts gasped: "Iowa? Isn't that where they grow the corn our personal chefs turn into polenta?" Jon Stewart piled on, showing a picture of a lone farm tractor pulling a trailer and claiming it was a shot of Iowa's most recent gay pride parade. Among gay marriage advocates, the mantra soon became, "If they can do it in Iowa, they can do it anywhere."

You see what's happening here? The Midwest is again being painted with a broad, sable-hair brush. Some see the Iowa Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling as staggering not because of what it accomplished but because of where it went down.

Linda Kerber, a history professor at the University of Iowa, has seen it countless times before. A former New Yorker herself who also lived for a while in California, she knows that many left and right coasters know nothing about Iowa or its long progressive legal history.

"You don't need a passport to cross the Hudson River, but many think you do," Kerber said. "These New Yorkers who say, 'Iowa? What?' - they're being very provincial. They need a passport to go to France, and they go to France a lot more than they go to Iowa."

Consider these facts Kerber shared about the Hawkeye State:

In 1847, the University of Iowa became the first public university in the country to give women unfettered access to higher education.

The state did away with racial barriers to marriage in 1851, more than 100 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would ban miscegenation statutes nationwide.

In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are a denial of equal protection of the laws. Brown v. Board of Education, which did away with school segregation nationally, didn't come down until 1954.

And in 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against racial discrimination in public accommodations. It would be almost 100 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would reach the same decision.

Then of course there was that whole "voting for a black man in the Democratic primary" thing not too long ago.

In a joint statement released the day the Iowa court issued its gay marriage ruling, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy said: "When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency."

Hum a few bars of that, snarky Californians. (And by the way, how's your gay-marriage legalization process going out there?)

Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal in Chicago and lead counsel on the Iowa case, recalled a sign she saw in Iowa at a celebration rally after the ruling. It read, referencing the Midwest's oft-ignored status, "Flyover Equality."

"We knew we could count on Iowa's leadership on civil rights issues," Taylor said.

Richard Longworth, in his book "Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism," describes the Midwest like this:

"The stereotype of the narrow, bigoted, unworldly bumpkin, the image of the Midwesterner passed down by (Sinclair) Lewis and other authors, clashes with reality. ... Midwesterners are tolerant, narrow-minded, cultural, crass, sophisticated and naive in pretty much the same measure as other Americans."

And yet he believes the stereotype of the Midwest as a large, conservative monolith remains well intact.

"I think it's as strong as it's ever been," said Longworth, who lives in Chicago but grew up in Iowa. "Look at the shock and amazement when the Iowa Supreme Court took this step. All you can say is, 'Go figure.' "

And isn't that a typical Midwestern thing to say.

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