‘It rocked my world’: Catching up with the Grays, one of the first lesbian couples married in Iowa

Karen and Lois Gray of Coralville, together for 33 years, are approaching their 10th anniversary as a legally married couple. They were one of the first five same-sex couples to file a marriage license after Varnum v. Brien established marriage equality in Iowa in April 2009. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Decades before Lois and Karen Gray became one of the first same-sex couples in Iowa to legally marry, they were Iowa farm girls, courting each other on the campus of Grand View College (now University) in Des Moines.

In the mid-1980s, in fairly quick succession, the women became friends, then roommates, then girlfriends. This evolution was organic, they said, though neither was fully aware of their attraction to women until they met each other. Lois was from New Hampton, Karen from Lake City; both are from fairly conservative families.

“I remember an early date, we went to the Des Moines capitol after hours and we brought a bottle of wine and we sat and drank it on the steps of the State Capitol Building,” Karen recalled.

“I remember that!” Lois said.

They were confident they’d be together forever. The women decided they were married in their hearts and minds, and set Feb. 24, 1986 as their anniversary: February 1986, because it was the month they “knew they were more than friends,” and the 24th because Lois was born on May 15, Karen June 9, and 15 plus 9 equals 24.

“By the time we graduated college, it would have been easy to gravitate to San Francisco or somewhere with a more out and visible LGBTQ mecca,” Lois said. “But since family was so important to us, we made a conscious decision to stay in the Midwest.”

Their parents weren’t exactly celebrating the relationship — Karen’s felt a little awkward about it and seemed to see it as lesser than her siblings’ heterosexual relationships; Lois’s family has “always been quietly accepting” — but they enjoyed walking, hiking and traveling together, as well as visiting gay bars, including Iowa City’s now-closed 620 Club.

“It wasn’t like we were really into the bar scene, but it was a space where you could feel safe and kind of celebrate and feel open and hold hands without worrying about violence or harassment,” Lois said. “You could just dance and enjoy the music.”

Karen joined the Army Nurse Corps and served as a second lieutenant from 1986-1989. “I couldn’t be out,” Karen said. “That was a tough time.”

Before long, their sights turned to starting a family.

“We had considered ourselves married for 10 years and our life was just structured and designed to have children, and that’s what we wanted more than anything. To go through that experience was just amazing,” Karen said.

“Karen carried our first daughter and I carried our second daughter, 16 months apart,” Lois said. “There was this big fear and concern for us: If something happened to one parent, what would happen to the non-biological child?”

They pursued second-parent adoption, a long and expensive process that involved them moving their family from Cedar County to the less conservative Johnson County, where there were a few recorded instances of same-sex couples being granted second-parent adoption rights. Around 2003 or 2004, the rights were granted.

The Grays stuck around as their first daughter started school, sure the child of same-sex parents would be safer in the Iowa City Community School District than other eastern Iowa districts. That didn’t mean there weren’t challenges.

Karen and Lois Gray at their home in Coralville. March 27, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“I often felt like I lived in a glass house, because we were one of the first lesbian parents that some educators, even in Iowa City at that time, had encountered,” Lois said. “There was always this feeling of representing; you’re just living your life, but you recognize that it has repercussions.”

Lois and Karen had never imagined marriage equality would be achieved in their lifetimes. Then the Varnum v. Brien decision came through on April 3, 2009.

“It was just kind of hard to believe at first that it was real. It rocked my world for a little bit,” Lois said of the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. “It was really shocking, but also exhilarating and affirming.”

Spousal rights had been on Lois and Karen’s minds since the ’80s, when they saw a film about an older lesbian woman who was denied survivor’s benefits after the death of her partner.

“We thought, ‘We need that legal protection.’ It wouldn’t make our relationship any stronger or make us love each other any more. What it can do is protect us legally if something happened to us. Benefits, Social Security, just all those things any committed couple would want [in] protections and recognition,” Lois said.

Planning a family vacation to Washington D.C. just days after the ruling would go into effect, Lois and Karen felt an urgency to cement the protections granted by Varnum for their daughters, should anything happen to them. Marriage licenses — which same-sex couples were able to access starting April 27 — usually have a three-day waiting period after being issued before they’re active. The Grays, along with six other couples, were granted a waiver to the waiting period the morning of April 27, meaning they were free to become officially married that day.

“It happened pretty rapidly,” Lois said.

After getting the call about the waiver, the Grays pulled their daughters out of school, called Lois’ two nephews, on their way up from Utah for a casual visit, to tell them to hurry, and invited a couple neighbors to be witnesses. “It was just this very small constellation of people who were close to us and who celebrated our relationship,” Lois said.

Lois and Karen Gray with their family and neighbors at the Johnson County Courthouse after their marriage ceremony. April 27, 2009. — courtesy of the Grays

The Press-Citizen ran a front-page photo of the women walking down the steps of the Johnson County Courthouse, grinning after signing their license. In the weeks and years since, they said they’ve received more support than they anticipated, particularly in their jobs at the University of Iowa — Lois, with the Office of Strategic Communication and Karen in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the UI Children’s Hospital.

“The unit that I worked for at the hospital, they would have group celebrations for wedding showers, and even though we weren’t having a traditional wedding, Lois and I were included,” Karen said. “I’m not a really out person, I don’t talk about really personal issues, so it was really affirming to get that support from the university.”

“Even to say I have a wife — even having it be legal, it has made it better for me to come out,” she continued. “I have [proof] that my marriage matters as much as a heterosexual marriage does, where I didn’t have that until that law was passed. I definitely think I was more closeted before, or at least not as open.”

Another landmark moment came on June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, securing marriage equality nationwide.

“That definitely made a big difference for our rights as a married couple,” Karen said.

“It made doing taxes a lot easier,” Lois added with a laugh.

Today, the couple is celebrating the success of their daughters: The oldest is headed to medical school, the youngest to an internship at the United Launch Alliance coding rockets; she’ll graduate from UI in May 2020.

Between the laws on the books and better representation of LGBTQ people and families in TV, movies, comic books, YouTube channels and social media, Lois said they’re seeing “more reflections of our reality now.”

Lois and Karen Gray submit their marriage license at the Johnson County Courthouse. April 27, 2009. — courtesy of the Grays

A much less hopeful narrative is playing out in the U.S. legislature, Karen said, but despite the proposal of policies that threaten to stifle LGBTQ progress, she feels homophobic rhetoric is being taken to task better than in the past.

“People have to acknowledge what they believe and then support why they think someone should have less rights than them,” she noted. “I’m optimistic people will do the right thing. That they will not take away our rights and go back in time.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in 33 years has been the bond between Lois and Karen Gray.

“In our hearts and minds, we’ve always been married,” Lois said. “I feel like the arc of our life has been that of a married couple.”

Editorial note: In the print version of this article, the attitudes of Karen and Lois’s families were switched. Little Village regrets this error. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.

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