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

Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske on their 28th anniversary trip to Italy. — courtesy of the BarbouRoskes

The day the Iowa Supreme Court announced they’d made a decision in Varnum v. Brien, the landmark case that would determine whether to legalize same-sex marriage in Iowa, Dawn and Jennifer BarbouRoskes’ two young daughters had covered their faces in temporary tattoos.

“Jen’s at work and I’m scrubbing their faces,” Dawn recalled. “Bre had fallen at school.”

“And had a massive lump on her forehead,” Jen said. (The women have a tendency to finish each other’s sentences.) “We were told all this national media is going to be there tomorrow. That’s exactly how our life goes.”

“And we didn’t have shoes for McKinley, so we had to get shoes for her,” Dawn added with a laugh. Finding humor in stressful situations, they said, is one of their talents as a couple.

After some face-washing, shopping and driving, the Iowa City family eventually found themselves at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. The next morning — April 3, 2009 — the BarbouRoskes gathered in a room with the other 11 plaintiffs in the Varnum suit. Someone took their cell phones. Their attorneys were upstairs, sifting through the ruling ahead of a press conference, at which the plaintiffs, in front of the world, would hear the justices’ decision.

“We had to prepare our kids that whole time,” Dawn said. Breeanna, 6 and a half years old, and McKinley, 11, were also plaintiffs in the case. Their moms told them, “We’re fighting for this. It’s the right thing. It may not happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a family still.”

“That’s a lot of pressure: to be sitting in a room knowing other people know what your life has in store for you, but you don’t know,” Dawn said. “In that moment you’re tossed out of a plane, and is the parachute going to open or not?”

Their journey to that hotel room began in 1990, on the Grinnell College campus. Jen, who grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, was working at Grinnell General Hospital; Dawn, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, took a theater job at the college.

“It was a really poor career choice, but it was a fabulous life choice,” Dawn said.

They met in a “traditional” lesbian way, they joked: on a local softball team. They only played a couple games. Then, together, they moved to Iowa City, where they became one of the first couples in town to register as domestic partners. They melded their last names, becoming the BarbouRoskes.

After years of living between Iowa, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, D.C., Pennsylvania and other places, they settled back in Iowa City to raise their family. The mothers started Proud Families, a group of more than 30 gay and lesbian parents in area schools who met once a month to chat while their kids played.

The community they helped build through Proud Families was tapped by Lambda Legal, a nonprofit organization working to achieve LGBT equality across the country. Iowa was well suited for marriage equality, Lambda told local parents in an outreach meeting, with a constitution primed for civil rights advancements and a reputation as a model Heartland state. Part of Lambda’s legal strategy was to collect and share the stories of average LGBT couples in Iowa.

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“It’s your story that engages people and that starts to change hearts and minds,” Dawn said. “With that, then, you have to become more free-flowing about your story. Which took work. Not to craft the story, but to get more comfortable sharing everything.”

The BarbouRoskes toured small-town Iowa, sitting on panels and discussing some of their darkest experiences — struggles that may have been mitigated had they had access to traditional spousal and parental rights: Jen giving birth to McKinley prematurely; Jen’s hospitalization for a heart condition, during which Dawn was told by an ER clerk she could not be with her partner; the costly, complicated process of securing adoption rights for both parents, for both of their daughters.

In 2005, the couple agreed to become plaintiffs in Lambda’s planned marriage lawsuit, led by attorneys Camilla Taylor and Kenneth D. Upton, Jr. They hardly hesitated.

The Varnum v. Brien plaintiffs, as well as Timothy McQuillan and Sean Fritz. The BarbouRoske family is far right. — courtesy of the BarbouRoskes

“[My parents] didn’t understand at all why we were doing the case. ‘Why does it have to be you?’” Dawn said. “Because we want to do it, and we’re proud and we want this change. We’ve been working and advocating for all of these years to make this happen because we don’t have these rights.”

First things first: they had to apply, and be rejected, for a marriage license at the Office of the Polk County Recorder. The BarbouRoskes were the first of the six couples involved in the lawsuit to complete this technicality. They drove to Des Moines with their daughters and Natoshia Askelson, their friend and witness, and submitted their application with a $35 fee.

“They weren’t quite sure what to do,” Dawn said of the Polk County clerks. They took some time to confer with their supervisors before formally denying the request of a marriage license. “It hits you: You’re a second-class citizen. But we knew that was going to happen. We couldn’t file a lawsuit until we had been denied. Then we took the girls to the science museum.”

“We had a great time,” Jen said.

In summer 2006, Jen and Dawn made the more difficult decision to add their children to the lawsuit. Trusting Lambda’s judgement and the legitimacy of their daughters’ claims to justice, they agreed. McKinley and Bre, as well as Jamison Olson, became the first children to serve as plaintiffs in a marriage equality case in the U.S. They faced a lack of legal protections and “a loss of dignity and legitimacy,” according to Lambda’s filings, because of their parents’ inability to marry.

“What I did, it wasn’t just for my family, it was for a ton of families,” a 12-year-old McKinley told the New York Times in 2010, reflecting on her involvement in the case.

Through every step of the lawsuit, appealed all the way to the state’s supreme court, the plaintiffs became like family, Dawn said. The BarbouRoskes, Kate and Trish Varnum, David Twombley (who passed away on Dec. 8, 2018), Larry Hoch, Ingrid Olson, Reva Evans, Jamison Olson, Jason Morgan, Chuck Swaggerty, Bill Musser and Otter Dreaming all contributed their presence in the courtroom as well as their stories, shared through the attorneys’ petitions and statements.

They attended oral arguments in front of the Iowa Supreme Court in December 2008, and were cautioned by Lambda to expect massive protests.

“They would tell us, ‘Prepare the kids because they’re going to hear some awful things,’” Jen said. “So we sit the kids down and say, ‘OK, you might hear people say this about your parents and you might hear them say this about people you know.’ And then they didn’t hear them so, sadly — I mean, it’s good —”

“But we ended up saying worse things to them than the protesters,” Dawn said as both mothers laughed. Demonstrations that day were rather tame, it turned out, despite the keen interest vocal anti-LGBT organization Focus on the Family took in the case.

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus — who was removed from office in a post-Varnum retention election but went on to receive the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation — made the unique decision to allow cameras in the courtroom during opening arguments as a means of educating the public. Sitting in the front row, amid the pomp and circumstance of the Supreme Court, Dawn and Jen had the distinct impression the camera was trained on them.

When it was over, the waiting game began again until finally, on April 3, 2009, Camilla Taylor approached the podium in the hotel conference room. Dawn and Jen tried to decipher the verdict from her expression.

“We couldn’t read her,” Jen said. “No smile.”

“None of us knew,” Dawn said. “Then she was like —”

“‘We won,’” Jen said. She and Dawn recited in unison, “‘It was unanimous.’”

Dawn showed me her arms, covered in goosebumps. She said she still gets them, 10 years later, whenever she thinks of that moment.

“It was amazing. It was thrilling,” she said. “McKinley just naturally threw her hands up and was so excited.” An AP photographer snapped a photo. It would wind up in papers and magazines across the country and, later, in a frame on the BarbouRoskes’ living room wall.

Hugs, kisses and a whirlwind of questions followed the announcement. Through all the celebrations, Dawn said they couldn’t help wanting to hurry home.

“Your knee-jerk reaction is, let’s drive back to Iowa City and get the license, because what if they revoke [the ruling]?”

Reluctantly, they followed Lambda’s advice and took their time (a few months, at least) to plan the wedding their way, which included rainbow cupcakes and plenty of kid-centric entertainment. They saw it as a time to rejoice and rejuvenate.

Jen and Dawn at their wedding in July 2009. — courtesy of the BarbouRoskes

The BarbouRoskes’ signed a marriage license at last. Camilla Taylor and Janelle Rettig contributed their signatures as witnesses. Some of their fellow plaintiffs attended. That summer was full of weddings.

An even stronger sense of validity came with the federal acknowledgement of their marriage rights in 2013, and then the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, Dawn said. But there was, and is, still so much work to do, from guarding the laws in place to establishing protections for trans and nonbinary individuals.

A substitute teacher through much of the Varnum case, Dawn now works as an ELP teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Iowa City; Jen has shifted from nursing at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to serving as the school nurse at Mark Twain, another Iowa City elementary school. Both are members of the Iowa City Community School District’s LGBTQ+ Steering Committee.

“What we’ve done is take our focus and efforts, emboldened by our collective victories, and have focused in the last six years in particular on really pushing to create policy and openness and professional development and awareness to families,” Dawn said.

The BarbouRoskes helped establish an ICCSD presence at the Iowa City Pride Festival, and invited district staff to submit their names and photos to a book of allies, creating a resource for LGBTQ students.

“We’re trying to help the next generation,” Jen said, and Dawn continued, “because it wasn’t there for us. We’ve secured rights for families, but we still have kids who are being left out, who are in non-supportive households and environments and for whom school can be one of those.” LGBTQ youth are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than other students, she noted. “It can’t just be that whispered thing anymore. They have to find safety and protection and people they can go to, and have respect for who they are.”

In April 2018, ICCSD approved a statement of inclusion for LGBTQ+ youth. In the schools themselves, textbooks now include sections on Varnum v. Brien.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.