One Family’s Journey to Marriage Equality in Iowa

This article is cross posted at
Josh O’Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen

When Dawn and Jen BarbouRoske first exchanged rings 19 years ago,
it was just the two of them alone in their living room, expressing
their devotion to each other.

After all that’s happened in the past year — court battles,
press conferences and, at last, a big wedding — they say it’s
odd to think that their relationship was once so private.

There were no cameras, no reporters, no lawyers and no judges that
October day in Grinnell a few months after they met in 1990.

It was a far cry from another important date in their relationship,
April 3, 2009, when they learned that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled
in their favor to legalize same-sex marriage, becoming just the
third state at the time to do so and first in the Midwest.

When the decision was announced, their reaction was broadcast
around the state and frozen on the front page of newspapers across
the U.S. — daughter McKinley’s arms raised in triumph and Dawn
and Jen embracing their youngest child, Breanna.

McKinley returned to school to find her locker crammed with
newspapers her friends had saved for her. Her parents’ e-mail
inboxes were full of congratulatory messages, many from people they
hadn’t met.

Since then, the family spoke at a press conference on Capitol Hill
in September. The following month, Breanna took a local human
rights award the family won to show and tell at school. Just the
other day, the New York Times called.

It’s been a whirlwind of a year for the BarbouRoskes — the
Press-Citizen’s 2009 Persons of the Year — and because of their
work as pioneers in the fight for same-sex marriage, a landmark
year for Iowa.

Said Jen: “We’ve gotten to go to more weddings this summer and
this year than …”

“My entire life,” McKinley laughed.

McKinley’s parents’ wedding included. On a summer day in a park
pavilion two decades after that first ring exchange, the
BarbouRoskes made their vows official in a ceremony in front of 100
friends and family that legally bound them as a couple.

McKinley, 11, played violin at the wedding — “Cannon in D,”
which she had rehearsed for weeks. Breanna, 7, was a flower girl
and presented the rings.

“That must have been the happiest moment of my life,” McKinley

‘We won!’

On decision day, when state’s Supreme Court announced its ruling,
the BarbouRoskes joked that they may have been among the last in
the state to learn of the verdict.

Sequestered in a room at the Hotel Fort Des Moines that April
morning with the rest of the plaintiffs in the case, Dawn and Jen
had turned off their cell phones and were waiting to be led into a
news conference called by their legal team.

“They didn’t want us to know until we went into the room, yet
people all over the state were finding things out and we
couldn’t,” Jen said.

Four years earlier, the BarbouRoskes joined five other same-sex
partners in Varnum v. Brien, a lawsuit filed by the New York-based
gay rights organization Lambda Legal when Polk County Recorder
Timothy Brien denied couples who had applied for marriage

The BarbouRoskes had a talk with the children before the decision
and prepared them for either outcome. It was a difficult
conversation, they said, explaining that no matter what the ruling
was, they were still a family.

When the news broke, it was announced on live TV statewide. But
before calling the plaintiffs into the news conference, Lambda
Legal workers asked the media to not to tip their hands and keep it
a surprise.

Lambda media relations director Lisa Hardaway kept a poker face
when she summoned the families to the other room, Jen said. Des
Moines lawyer Dennis Johnson, who served as a co-counsel with
Lambda in the case, had a tear in his eye, but Dawn couldn’t tell
if it was joy or sadness.

After they were seated, Camilla Taylor, a senior staff attorney at
Lambda Legal, delivered the news at the podium with a shout: “We

Hugs were shared and flashbulbs popped. Before she knew it,
McKinley had a locker full of newspapers.

‘Love at first sight’

Dawn Roske and Jen Barbour met in Grinnell in 1990 playing softball
together — a typical lesbian love story, they joke. Dawn was
working in the theater department at Grinnell College, while Jen
was going to school to become a nurse.

“It was one of the wacky love at first sight things,” Dawn

They moved to Iowa City together in 1991 for Dawn to go to graduate
school and Jen to continue her nursing training. Three years after
meeting, they legally combined their last names, which was another
step in solidifying their relationship, they said.

They moved away from Iowa City for a time and lived for several
years in the Berkeley, Calif., area, where McKinley was born in

Jen delivered McKinley eight weeks early, and the couple spent a
month in the neonatal intensive care unit watching over her. At the
same time, however, Jen was dealing with health complications from
the birth and the couple was scrambling to secure legal parenting
rights for Dawn, which they weren’t allowed to do before the
birth and proved to be an arduous process.

Taylor, who has become a close family friend while working with the
BarbouRoskes, said that struggle was pivotal in their decision to
fight for the right to marry years later in Iowa.

“That was really a traumatic experience for them,” Taylor said.
“Even though they had planned the birth together and decided to
have the child together, Dawn wasn’t a recognized parent to
McKinley at birth the way she would have been if the two had been
able to marry.”

Although they lived in the Bay area for seven years, Iowa City
always felt more like home for the couple. When McKinley was
nearing school age, they decided to pack up and return to the
Midwest to allow her to grow up in the Iowa City public school

“Iowa City has just a welcoming feel to it,” Dawn said. “A
lot of people when we were leaving Berkeley were like, ‘You’re
moving where?’”

“I don’t think they could even find Iowa on the map,” Jen
said. “But they can now.”

In 2002, they became foster parents for 21-day-old Breanna before
adopting her in March 2003.

Dawn, 41, now works as a teacher in the extended learning programs
at Lucas Elementary and Coralville Central, and Jen, 39, is a
pediatrics nursing supervisor at University Hospitals and Clinics.
They live in a cozy house on the northeast side of Iowa City, where
a snowman stands outside their front window these days alongside a
tire swing in the tree.

“They acted with great bravery in seeking equality,” Taylor
said. “Yet, when you meet them, you would never know that they
have been in the public eye for so many years or that they had done
something so very brave and so very courageous, because they’re
an ordinary, loving family with extraordinary girls.”

‘They were instrumental’

Dawn and Jen were one of 39 gay and lesbian couples who went to the
Johnson County Recorder’s Office in 2004 seeking marriage
licenses. When they were turned down because of existing state
laws, same-sex marriage proponent Janelle Rettig, a candidate for a
seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, put them in
contact with Lambda Legal.

By joining the Varnum v. Brien suit, which was first filed in Polk
County District Court in 2005, Rettig said the BarbouRoskes helped
put the face of an everyday family to the struggle for same-sex
couples’ rights in the state.

“Hearing people’s stories and people’s lives, and families
who are in pain and suffering, makes it more real,” Rettig said.
“I think they were instrumental and pivotal in the public
opinion. I’m not sure if that story can be told if you don’t
have a family like the BarbouRoskes.”

The suit initially listed only the six couples as plaintiffs, but
in August 2006, Lambda Legal motioned to add three of the
couples’ children, including McKinley and Breanna, to show that
children of same-sex families deserved the same protections as
those of heterosexual families.

Taylor said she had never before asked a family to do something
that courageous. Jen called it a difficult and stressful decision,
but after a day or two of talking it over as a family and hearing
their children’s wishes to be involved, they told Lambda to add
the McKinley and Breanna’s names, which the court allowed in
December 2006.

“They called me back, and they didn’t hesitate and said, ‘We
want to do it. We understand what the implications are, we
understand that we’re in the public eye and that this will focus
the lawsuit even more on our children,’” Taylor said. “Yet,
because their motivation were so child centered, and because they
understood the reason why I had asked them to do this, they did it
understanding that this was the best thing they could do for the
sake of the case.”

Rettig said McKinley begged her parents to let her be a part of the
court case, saying, “I want to talk to those judges; they’ll
listen to me.”

“I don’t know how a kid her age can have that much courage, but
it must be in her genes,” Rettig said. “Her parents have raised
her well. She’s articulate, she’s passionate, she’s
thoughtful, and she believes she can change the world.”

‘They made it all possible’

Jen and Dawn’s experiences raising their children and the
challenges they’ve faced from the outside world have been the
driving force in their involvement in the same-sex marriage

There was the day several years ago, for instance, when they were
shopping around for a preschool for McKinley and thought they had
found the perfect place. Before writing the check, however, they
thought to ask the school’s head administrator if their daughter
would be treated any differently because of her non-traditional

After thinking for a moment, the administrator told them that
McKinley wouldn’t be able to participate in a unit when all of
the children were invited to stand up and talk about their

The BarbouRoskes didn’t write that check.

A couple years of later, Jen came home from work one day and told
Dawn about a conversation she had with a co-worker who was unaware
that same-sex marriage was not allowed in Iowa. McKinley overheard
the exchange and burst into tears. It was the first time she
realized her parents weren’t legally married.

McKinley’s parents told her that when a judge would allow them to
do so, they would be married.

“For her, the lack of a marriage meant that her family wasn’t
permanent, because for little girls, being married is an indication
of commitment,” Taylor said. “So it took a lot of work on their
part to reassure her that they were a permanent family, that they
all loved each other very much.”

For the past eight years, the BarbouRoskes have been fostering a
sense a community between same-sex couples in the Iowa City area
who are raising children by leading Proud Families, a parenting and
play group that meets for a monthly potluck at their house. The
group, which now includes nearly 40 couples, provides a support
system for the parents while their children play together and make
new friends.

Proud Families member Monique DiCarlo said when she and her partner
were considering becoming foster parents four years ago, and later
when they first took custody of their daughter, the BarbouRoskes
provided much-needed guidance.

“They talked about their experiences openly, they were
encouraging and they were empathic,” DiCarlo said. “It’s not
the easiest process.”

When DiCarlo brought her daughter to the playgroup for the first
time, Breanna took her under her wing and helped her meet the other

DiCarlo and her partner are now preparing for a wedding in 2010 on
their 20th anniversary as a couple — a right she says they now
have because of the BarbouRoskes’ efforts.

“They made it all possible,” she said.

‘It’s not right to treat us differently’

The BarbouRoskes say their work is far from over. In addition to
protecting the rights they’ve earned this past year in Iowa,
which some opponents have vowed to fight in the coming legislative
season, they are working to help overturn the federal Defense of
Marriage Act. The 1996 law defined marriage exclusively as a union
between one man and one woman, and said that states did not need to
recognize marriage license granted to couples in other states.

In September, Dawn and Jen spoke at a news conference at the U.S.
Capitol, where they championed the newly proposed Defense of
Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA and grant same-sex couples
the federal protections given to heterosexuals.

“At this point in time, we’re looking at filing our first
married Iowa state tax return,” Jen said on Capitol Hill. “This
is new for us. We’re going to still have to file a separate tax
return and lie on our federal return and say we’re single. I am
not a single woman anymore, I am married, and I should have that

McKinley also spoke in front of reporters with her family, as New
York Congressman Jerrald Nadler, who sponsored the bill, stood

“One of the things my awesome moms taught me was fairness and how
to be fair,” McKinley said at the podium. “Treating my moms
differently is not fair. They’ve been together for 19 years, and
I think that’s a feat to be proud of. They’ve overcome all
sorts of hardships.

“It’s not right to treat us differently than other

On a recent afternoon in their home, sitting near the Christmas
tree as their daughters colored pictures at the coffee table, the
BarbouRoskes reflected on the changes they’ve helped bring about
in the past year.

“Having marriage legalized not only gives us rights and
responsibilities, but along with that, there’s a level of respect
given to our relationship,” Dawn said. “Not everybody agrees,

“It’s OK to disagree, as long as you’re not going to take
away our rights.”

More than anything, Dawn and Jen say this fight has been about
their children.

“That’s been big for us; to show the kids to stand up for who
you are,” Jen said.