Iowa City’s first LGBTQ safe space

The old Unitarian Universalist Society church on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street in Iowa City. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

On May 1, 2009, a charter bus rolled into downtown Iowa City, packed with lesbian and gay couples from Missouri (and a rabbi or two). A few weeks earlier, Iowa had become the first state in the Midwest to recognize same-sex marriage. The busload of couples had come to the Hawkeye State to get hitched.

St. Louis couple Ed Reggi and Scott Emanuel organized what would become known as the Missouri Marriage Bus or Love Bus. After making plans to get married in Iowa, dozens of other couples began reaching out to Reggi and Emanuel asking if they could carpool. Reggi did some fundraising, researched the logistics and cost of Iowa marriage certificates ($35) and rented a bus.

“A lot of people early on … compared it to the Freedom Riders,” Reggi said. “For us, it was about safety. To have a bus of almost 60 people coming together was the strongest thing.”

“It was a complete community on wheels.”

As for the multi-wedding venue, Reggi reached out to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City (UUSIC). The congregation wasn’t just willing but enthusiastic about the marriages. In fact, UUSIC reverends had been performing “services of union” for same-sex couples since 1984, and has opened their doors to the LGBTQ community for far longer.

Briana Ladwig/Little Village

UUSIC occupied their historic space on 10 S Gilbert St for more than a century, but there’d been a Universalist congregation in Iowa City since 1838. Members advocated for a liberal view of religion, guided by a succinct set of principles centered on peace, justice, knowledge and dignity for all.

“Ours is a living faith that is constantly evolving to changes in society, and also a free faith without dogma or a creed that you must subscribe to,” UUSIC explains on their website.

The Universalists were among the first to embrace women on an equal status as men. In the 1860s, Iowa City Universalists hosted suffragists and abolitionists, including Susan B. Anthony, Jane Swisshelm and Mary Livermore. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the congregation provided more than 3,500 meals to health care workers and crafted face masks for children. UUSIC reverends worked to integrate Iowa City restaurants in the 1940s and barber shops in the ’60s; one reverend even joined the Selma Freedom March in 1965.

The church formally adopted an “open door policy” in 1973, allowing their building on Gilbert Street to be used for political events, art shows, yoga classes and dances for the local LGBTQ community.

“I was a teacher in the public school system [in the ’70s],” said Dr. Tova Vitiello, a Jewish woman, lesbian and retired Kirkwood Community College psychology professor. “My heterosexual colleagues had pictures of their loved ones on their desk. I did not feel free enough.”

Vitiello said queer women in the 1970s faced widespread discrimination in Iowa City, even from queer men. They were often targeted by police, followed and taunted by straight men, sometimes even assaulted or raped. Even after the formation of a Lesbian Alliance in Iowa City, cofounded by Vitiello, the group didn’t feel welcome or safe in straight-centric social clubs or male-dominated gay bars.

“We decided that we wanted our own space,” Vitiello said. “I went from place to place and was rejected. And then I went to the Unitarian Universalist Society. The minister at that time, Tom Mikelson, said, ‘Sure, fine with us,’ and he actually gave me a key.”

The Lesbian Alliance hosted dances, talent shows, poetry readings and frequent gatherings at the downtown church. Many events were open to all women, queer and straight.

“Rather than just accepting us, they actually celebrated us,” Vitiello said of UUSIC. “The fact that we had the support and the protection of the congregation was really, really important to us. It was a safe space — before people started using the term ‘safe space.’”

HEARTLAND TRANSPORT from Cody Stokes on Vimeo.

Vitiello joined UUSIC and has been a member for 48 years. In spring 2009, as the Love Bus made its way into town, she helped welcome the affianced Missourians, rolling out welcome signs, bearing witness to their weddings and offering a reception spread including cake and champagne.

UUSIC was a natural fit to host same-sex weddings. Still, the Love Bus ceremonies were a completely unique affair, with each couple given approximately 10 minutes for a ceremony in their preferred tradition. Reporters attended, and UUSIC set boundaries to keep their guests comfortable.

The first couple to get married were Reggi and Emanuel, the Love Bus founders.

“We were getting married in a Jewish ceremony, we had the rabbi there, we were under the chuppah, and it all hit me. It was visceral,” Reggi recalled. “That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m going to be married to this person I’ve been with for 10 years, legally married.’ … It was definitely a moment that made me recognize why the fight of so many people before me was there, why that was such an issue for couples who unfortunately never got to be married legally and never got that $35 paper given to them.”

Scott Emanuel and Ed Reggi kiss after being married in the UUS sanctuary in Iowa City, May 1, 2009 — video still from Cody Stokes’ short documentary ‘Heartland Transport’

It was Reggi and Emanuel’s first but far from last time in the UUSIC sanctuary. The Love Bus made dozens of day trips to Iowa City over the years, facilitating 252 peoples’ marriages. (Devotay was a common after-wedding dinner stop.) Couples from other states followed suit between 2009 and 2015; marriage ceremonies ranged from secular to Christian to Wiccan.

Reggi said returning to Missouri in the Love Bus often felt like leaving Disney World, their new marriage licenses rendered null once they crossed the border. But in June 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision made marriage equality the law of the land, Love Bus veterans were among the first same-sex couples in Missouri to hold legal marriage licenses.

The Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City’s new building in Coralville. — courtesy of Neumann Monson Architects

In 2017, after nearly 110 years and countless LGBTQ events and marriages at the Gilbert Street church, the UUSIC relocated to a brand new building on Oakdale Road in Coralville. The new building is much more accessible and spacious, with beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. Still focused on progressive values, the congregation seeks to be “the greenest church in Iowa,” built with sustainable materials and powered by solar and geothermal energy. Much of their attention as of late has been focused on supporting Black Lives Matter and families struggling with COVID-19-related issues, Vitiello said.

Still, the move was bittersweet.

“I hated to let go of [the old building],” she said wistfully. “The women’s dances, and the poetry readings and the talent shows — It was one of the first places I could go and feel free and safe, and be with like-minded people.”

Unitarian Universalist Society members march in the 2018 Iowa City Pride Parade in downtown Iowa City. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Emma McClatchey is Little Village’s managing editor. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 285.

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