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Gay marriage boon ends

Cathy Bolkcom, right, of LeClaire said she officiated at about 200 same-sex-weddings between 2011 and last year. Greg Chaffin, left, and Murat Candiler, of Indiana, were among her grooms.

For some people in the marriage business, the party's over in Iowa. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June in favor of marriage equality in all 50 states, Iowa ceased to be a same-sex marriage destination.

"We're kind of disappointed," said Rita Vargas, the Scott County recorder. "They were so nice, so excited. We always greeted same-sex couples with excitement — that they'd come all this way."

Shortly after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2009, Scott County became a hot spot for couples seeking to wed.

"We got bombarded," Vargas said. "We saw (people from) Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, you name it."

But Iowa's popularity began to dwindle last year when Illinois made the switch from civil unions to recognized marriages.

"That's when it really started to drop off," Vargas said. "There was a time we'd get 10 to 12 (marriage applications) for same-sex couples every week. Now, we may get one a week."

For her staff in the Recorder's Office, Vargas said, being on the front line of marriage equality was more than historic.

"It was fantastic, actually," she said. "Our magistrates were wonderful. We never had one complaint (about being asked to officiate for same-sex marriages).

"And you talk about a tourist attraction: Many of the couples stayed here for the whole weekend."

One Quad-City woman knows especially well how the impact Iowa's early entree into gay marriage affected couples, and how the couples affected Iowa.

Cathy Bolkcom estimates she has officiated for 200 same-sex weddings since 2011. A hospital chaplain since 2009, Bolkcom said that getting into the wedding business in Iowa was one of the best moves of her life.

"It was just the most incredible thing to happen to me, really," the LeClaire woman said. "I got to marry people who historically were forbidden to marry. I spent time getting to know them so I could make their story part of their ceremony. Some of them had been together for 30 years or more.

"Some of them would get in the car and drive for 24 hours with their tuxes. They'd say they'd been together forever, and it's not that big of a deal. When the ceremony started, they'd fall apart. Everybody would cry at every wedding, because it was so emotional and moving."

In the first few months, Bolkcom would meet the brides and grooms at a park near the courthouse for a simple vows-and-rings ceremony. As her reputation as a minister grew, so did her home. She added a special terrace that served perfectly for ceremonies, although she also kept riverfront park venues an option.

"A lot of the people from out of town were concerned about how they would be received by Iowans," she said. "But we'd be down at Marquette Park or LeClaire Park, and people would realize what was going on, and they'd applaud. There was never a bad reaction."

She credits both the web and word-of-mouth for her schedule of officiating up to a dozen weddings in a week.

"In the first full year for me, which was 2012, I did two-thirds straight weddings and one-third gay," she said. "In the next year, it totally flipped. In 2013, it went crazy. People no longer wanted to wait for their home states to recognize them."

The history of adversity made each ceremony particularly joyful, she said.

"It truly was the biggest gift of my life," Bolkcom said of the experience. "I'm very happy they can get married where they live now. I'm also sad that I won't get to meet all these people who don't have to come to Iowa now. It was such an incredible moment in time — in Iowa, of all places.

"At one of my first weddings, I had these two women from North Hollywood, California, getting married on my porch in LeClaire, Iowa. I remember thinking, 'This is just wild.'

"I can assure you, it hasn't changed my marriage (to Mark for 38 years) at all.

"Now the rest of the country gets to realize what Iowa came to realize over the past several years: Everybody is the same.

"How about we just call it marriage now?"

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