A conversation with Kate and Trish Varnum, 10 years after Varnum v. Brien

Kate (blue shirt) and Trish Varnum. — courtesy of the Varnums

Cedar Rapids couple Kate and Trish Varnum celebrate their 18th, 15th and 10th anniversaries this year: they’ve been together since 2001, had a religious marriage ceremony in 2004 and were legally married in 2009, after a landmark Iowa Supreme Court case that bore their name.

Since the April 3, 2009 ruling in Varnum v. Brien, the case spearheaded by Lambda Legal that legalized same-sex marriage in the state of Iowa, the Varnums adopted their son, Alex, now 7 years old. Both mothers went back to school to earn their degrees, and are employed by Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids.

Little Village caught up with Kate and Trish on the eve of Varnum v. Brien’s own 10th anniversary. It was the Varnums’ first interview in years, and the couple discussed their relationship, how it feels to have a famous name and the issues on their minds now. They also shared a message for their fellow plaintiffs.

Where are you from and how did you two meet?

Kate: I grew up here in Cedar Rapids. I’ve lived here almost all of my life.

Trish: I’m originally from Texas. I moved here actually for someone else and ended up staying because I had a good job. And then three years later, I met Kate.

Kate: We met online. Trish had a personal ad and I had a personal ad on Planet Out, which was ages ago and that site’s gone now. My personal ad said, “Iowa girl hates snow.”

Trish: And it was misleading because I thought I could get her back to Texas, maybe!

How did you first get involved with Lambda Legal?

Trish: We attended a training that they had put on years before, a discussion of equality. Out of the blue, we get a phone call asking if we wanted to be a part of [the lawsuit, in 2005]. We were actually recommended by some friends in Des Moines.

Kate: They asked us directly if we would be interested in being the lead plaintiffs on the case and I asked, “Well, what does that involve?” and they said, “Oh, just a little more publicity.”

Trish: They lied!

Kate: They lied.

Has it been a lot more publicity?

Kate: I think that we got a little more of the national attention because of our name. But then again, some of the other couples got different national attention. Lambda was really good about having a good variety of couples. We were a couple that was trying to have a child at the time, there was another couple that they were pregnant, another couple that had two kids already and another couple that were in retirement. We all had a different story and we all had different reasons for wanting to be married. But at the end of the day it was about our families, it wasn’t really about the case.

Varnum is my family name. I grew up with this name and to have it referred to as an abstract, as this case — you know, people will say “Varnum changed this,” or “Varnum did that.” I didn’t do anything. Separating my own name from the case has been sort of difficult. Even since April 3, 2009, we’ve gone on with our lives. We’ve built our family, we have a son now. We have our home, we have our jobs. Our lives have continued. It didn’t end with our marriage. That’s just a small part of who we are.

Trish: Just the other day, someone recognized me and said, “Thank you.” I don’t need thanks for this, because this is something I did for us. Everybody gets the benefit of it, but this was the way to protect my family.

Trish and Kate Varnum with their son, Alex. — courtesy of the Varnums

Was there ever a time when you thought, Well, I’ll help out, but let’s let someone else be the lead plaintiff ? Why did you decide to step up and put your name on it?

Kate: In 2004, before we had our first wedding, that was around the time that Massachusetts [legalized same-sex marriage] and San Francisco was doing weddings. And friends would contact us and say, “Hey, we know you’re planning a wedding. Why don’t you go to California or Massachusetts to get married?” And we said, “We don’t live there.” Iowa is home and it wouldn’t mean anything to us unless we were married in Iowa.

To be part of the case after that was pretty incredible. We said all along, hey, if anything ever happened in Iowa we would be knocking on doors, we would hand out flyers at a county fair, or whatever it was that we needed to do to get marriage equality in Iowa. We didn’t expect this, but we’re really humbled and proud to be a part of it.

Trish: Extremely proud.

What were some of the biggest moments for you in the course of the case?

Kate: In August [2008], we were walking down the street at the farmers market in Cedar Rapids and a woman came out from behind her booth to congratulate us. That was pretty surreal.

The other thing that really drove it home for us was the day we filed to get our license after the decision, we were at the county office and this woman came up to us. Her face was tear-stained, it was red, and she said, “Thank you. I’m having surgery on Thursday” — this was Monday — “and I have no next of kin. I will be married by Thursday and my wife will be able to be with me.” And that hit home for us so hard: that it wasn’t about all the press, it wasn’t about the attention, it was about things like that where families were being protected.

Trish: That one still touches my heart. To have a woman there sobbing, practically, giving you the biggest hug because of something that you had no control over, really. You were just in the right place at the right time and you decided to stand up. Because there were others that couldn’t, for whatever reason.

Trish and Kate Varnum with their son, Alex, after completing his adoption. — courtesy of the Varnums

On the day the decision was announced, April 3, 2009, how did you guys feel?

Kate: Ten years ago tonight, we were a bundle of nerves. We were all in Des Moines and we’re trying to visit with each other because we’re from all over the state and we haven’t seen each other in a while and we’re all good friends. When [Lambda attorney] Camilla Taylor came out and said, “We won and it was unanimous,” the shock and the relief and the joy, it all came out of us at once. There are videos of us crying tears of joy. I don’t think I can explain it.

Trish: That was a true response, because they kept us sequestered until that moment. They took all of our communication devices. We had no way to text people, people couldn’t text us. They wanted the media to get our first reaction and they did.

Kate: We had a photographer sitting about a foot and a half in front of our faces trying to get those reactions. That was really weird for us. We didn’t set out to be celebrities, we just wanted to be married.

Trish: I don’t know that we’re “celebrities.”

Kate: Well, I like to call us “infamous.” [Laughs]

Since that day, what has been the effect, to put it broadly, of that decision? How did it feel watching the dominoes fall after?

Trish: I think that Iowa was the tipping point because we’re talking the Midwest, we’re talking the wholesome family [state] right in the middle of the U.S.A. If it can happen somewhere that’s not the East Coast or the West Coast — a lot of people were stunned by that, but I think that was the tipping point where people realized, hey, these folks can treat their neighbors the right way. Why are we waiting? It was really rewarding to see everything start coming in waves.

Did you get married as soon as you could?

Kate: We’d gone to the state supreme court [to attend the oral arguments in December 2008] and been advised by the attorneys the decision would come probably in May or so. We thought, probably this summer we’ll have a decision. Well, why don’t we just book a place?

We decided on Labor Day weekend, so we booked a lodge at one of the Linn County parks and we said, “Well, either we’re going to have a really big summer party or we’re going to have a wedding.” We ended up switching from a party to a wedding. It was very informal. We had a friend come from Ireland. We had friends come from New York and Florida and all over the country. It was a really nice time.

Trish: Our first wedding was our religious ceremony and this one was just our civil ceremony, but it had some meaning behind it. It will always be the civil part of it — as we said in our invitations, “to handle a little legal business.”

Trish and Kate Varnum at their first wedding in 2004. — courtesy of the Varnums

Is it odd to have your family and relationship have such a big political meaning tied to it?

Kate: When the case was decided, we had some press, and we had a reporter in our home doing an interview. After the interview she said, “We’re going to come to your wedding.” And we said, “No, you’re not, because that’s our wedding.” And she said, “Well, yes, we’re going to come because it’s an historical event.” We said, “No, it’s not an historic event, it’s our wedding.” And that’s the approach that we had to it. We weren’t inviting anybody we didn’t want there. We didn’t publicize it. This was for us, it wasn’t for anybody else.

Trish: This was just one more step to take to finalize the protection for our family.

Kate: Even after that, we would cross state lines after that wedding and say, “Well, it was nice being married to you.” We’d drive a couple miles and suddenly we were not married. Once other states started to [legalize] we stopped being this little island of equality. Once we crossed state lines, it felt a little more real.

And once the two Supreme Court cases came through — the [2013 United States v.] Windsor case actually mentioned Varnum, which is totally mind-boggling in itself. Once we started getting some of those bigger victories and especially the 2015 case, that’s when we felt that we were whole in the legality for our marriage.

Since 2004, in our minds, we’ve been married. We just always had those asterisks at the end saying, “you’re not married here” or “you’re not legal there.” But now we feel that we can go to Trish’s home state of Texas and be married. We can go to Florida and be married. We can go anywhere in the United States and still be married.

Trish: And the biggest thing that gives us is the fact if something happened to one of us while we’re on vacation, God forbid, the other one would be allowed in the hospital with her. That was a very real possibility, that one of us would be denied. In fact, before all of this came about, in Cedar Rapids I had a medical procedure going on. They told Kate she couldn’t come back. When we got in there and the doctor came in the room I said, “Doc, I’m about to piss you off.” He stopped and said, “She’s already on her way.” Legally, he could have kept her out of there.

Trish, Kate and Alex Varnum watch the 2017 solar eclipse. — photo courtesy of the Varnums

Kate: We already had the paperwork that listed me as medical power of attorney and her as my medical power of attorney, but the nurse wanted to stop it. It happened that this procedure did not go very well, and I had to have the doctor stop the procedure because Trish was in so much pain, she was turning purple. Those are very real threats.

People think, “Oh you’re going to get married and have this fabulous wedding.” Well, it’s not the wedding. It’s the life you have together, and the fact that you can be an advocate for your spouse when the chips are down. Just like that woman that stopped us at the county office. I need my advocate, I want it to be Trish, and I don’t want her stopped by some bureaucrat thinking that it’s not OK.

When we adopted our son, he was born in Texas, and we had to do one of the hearings in Texas. The judge, one of the first things he said to us is, “What happens when you divorce?” And I said, “Your Honor, I don’t think that will happen with us.” He didn’t know who we were, but it was a bygone conclusion that we would divorce in his mind. He also said to us that our son would have a stigma attached to him because he had two moms, and how would we deal with this? “Your Honor, I think we can handle this and we will educate our son to be a strong person and face that with dignity.” It’s not what we wanted to say, but it’s what we said.

Trish: Because of the case, we were able to adopt our son jointly in Iowa, where previously one parent would do an adoption first, and then there was a second-parent adoption.

Marriage equality was a big legal and symbolic fight for LGBT activists. Now that marriage rights seem to be secure, what do you think have been the most important issues facing the LGBT community in the last five to 10 years?

Kate: One of the things that we’ve come across is workplace equality. Iowa is fortunate that we do have nondiscrimination that covers sexual orientation, but the country does not, and that’s something that we’ve been looking at based on our involvement in our employee resource group. Of the [core] life events — getting married, finding a job and buying a home — in the United States, only marriage is protected. In some states in the country you can get married at 8, lose your job at noon and be kicked out of your house by 5.

Trish: It will be a long time before I’m able to move back to Texas. And get her to move with me that is. [Both laugh]

Kate: Meanwhile, we’ll still endure the snow.

Kate, Alex and Trish Varnum at the Iowa City Pride Parade. — courtesy of the Varnums

Have you felt welcome and embraced in your workplace?

Kate: Collins has a 100 rating with the HRC Corporate Equality Index and we’ve been really involved with the employee resource group at work.

Trish: It’s actually been a wonderful company for us. They’re out ahead of other companies in terms of equality, not just for gays and lesbians but for transgender and other minority groups.

Kate: Every year they go to Out and Equal, a workplace equality conference, and last year Rockwell sponsored the Cedar Rapids Pride Fest, they were the lead sponsors. Ten years ago, we worked for employers that weren’t as public with their support, if they were supportive, but to be at a company now that visibly supports the LGBT community is really encouraging. I hope it continues. I know UTC, our new parent company, has a 100 on the Corporate Equality Index as well. We hope to see more companies embrace that because it’s good for recruiting.

Trish: As far as issues facing the LGBT community, it’s really more focusing on those other letters. Transgender, bisexual — these are sometimes people that are treated less than the gay and lesbian population, and it shouldn’t be that way. You’re you, and that’s something we need to keep reminding people, and work on erasing the hatred that starts so young. I think we do that through education.

Kate: And we lead by example with that, too. We have boring lives, and just by showing you can have a boring life, too, it’s not so bad. You can get to that American dream of owning the house and having a child and being boring middle-aged lesbians. [Laughs]

How does it feel knowing your son and his classmates may be reading about Varnum v. Brien in their textbooks?

Trish: Oh, criminy, I hadn’t even thought about that yet!

Kate: We actually showed Alex tonight a video of the case and he was like, “You were on TV? You’re famous!” And we were like, “Well, not exactly.” He’s only 7, he doesn’t quite understand it. When he was 2, he was introducing us to waiters, pointing us out: Mommy and Mama. At daycare he’d be like, “Guys, I have two moms!”

Trish: Our son outed us, so it didn’t even matter.

Kate: He’s going to be a good advocate, I think.

Do you think your son is growing up in a more accepting environment than you did?

Kate: I sure hope so. I hope he never knows a time where marriages like ours are not recognized.

Trish: Having grown up in Texas, from the time frame I grew up, I can say for a fact that he is growing up in a more tolerant, more accepting environment than I did.

The Varnum v. Brien plaintiffs. — courtesy of the BarbouRoskes

If you could say anything to your fellow plaintiffs, what would you say?

Kate: We’re humbled and honored to have been part of this with you and we’re so glad we got to go through this together.

Trish: We love you, you’re our family, no matter what else happens. Life changes, and it throws you curves, but what doesn’t change is what we went through together, and we will always have that.

Kate: There are very few people who understand what we went through, who have experienced something like this. There are five families — it’s not just about the Varnums, it’s not just about the BarbouRoskes, it’s about each of our families and how connected we are and how beautiful we are and how lucky we are to just be here and be in this time.

We stand on the shoulders of greatness. Not only are we celebrating 10 years of Varnum v. Brien, we’re celebrating 50 years of Stonewall. Look how far we’ve come since 1969. And we have a long way to go; marriage isn’t the only thing we’re fighting for. It’s a start, but it’s not the only thing.

You have been together for a long time. What would you say is the secret to making it work?

Kate: Before Alex came along, we’d have issues that came up. In the 18 years we’ve been together, both our fathers have died. We tried to have our first wedding in the church that I grew up in and we were told we can’t do that. We’ve faced things big and small, but we’d say to each other, “What matters most?” And the answer was always, “You and me.” Now with Alex in our lives, it’s you, me and him. The three of us together, we are a unit and we can face anything that comes at us. As long as we’re together and side by side, we’ve got it.

Further reading: The BarbouRoskes, plaintiffs in Varnum v. Brien, reflect on Iowa’s fight for marriage equality

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

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