Iowa or Bust: Fourteen gay couples from St. Louis will soon head to the Hawkeye State to get hitched. Well, sort of.

Apr 22, 2009 at 4:00 am

On April 3 the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled that gay men and women have the right to be legally married under the state's constitution. Minutes after the judges' decision, Ed Reggi got engaged.

A 37-year-old acting instructor from St. Louis, Reggi was out of town on business and closely following the court proceedings online, when Scott Emanuel, his partner of more than a decade, popped the question in a text message.

"We text a lot, but really, after ten years, I wasn't expecting to get proposed to in a text message," Reggi recounts with a laugh. "I teased him when we talked later. I said, 'I hope you're on bended knee when I get back, because I don't want the text message to be the story that I have to tell people. When I get home, there had better be a rock!'"

While the tale of their engagement may lack romance, the fiancés plan on making up for it with a wedding that they, and thirteen other same-sex couples from St. Louis, won't soon forget.

Reggi and Emanuel have chartered what Reggi calls a "rock & roll-style tour bus," and on May 1, four days after the Iowa court's decree becomes law, they intend on driving a group of eleven lesbian and two gay couples from St. Louis to Iowa City. There, they'll collectively tie the knot, knowing full well that their marriages will become invalid when they return to Missouri. Also making the journey will be a rabbi and ministers from three different denominations to conduct the ceremonies.

"It's a statement to Jeff City and Missourians," Reggi says, "that we are everyday people in committed relationships, and we're really just as 'normal' as everyone else."

Because the court ruling doesn't preclude non-residents from exchanging vows, some Iowans, including Justin Uebelhor, a spokesman for One Iowa, the state's largest gay-rights organization, are wary that gay couples from across the country will flock to the state.

"We want this to be about Iowa and about Iowa couples who want to commit to each other," says Uebelhor. "I think the opposition is going to be watching this closely. They'll look for any opportunity to say, 'Look at all these outsiders getting married in mass weddings.' We don't want it to turn into a sideshow."

Republican U.S. representative from Iowa Steve King, in fact, went so far as to issue a statement, predicting that Iowa would soon become "a gay-marriage mecca."

Other conservative lawmakers in the state tried to counteract the court's decision with legislation. One bill — shot down by Iowa's Democrat-controlled legislature — proposed that marriages of out-of-state same-sex couples would only be granted if they came from the two other states (Massachusetts and Connecticut) that recognize gay marriages.

Meanwhile, Matt McCoy, an openly gay Iowa legislator, recently posted a video on the Internet inviting everyone, "gay or straight," to come get married and settle down in the Hawkeye State.

"We encourage couples if they want to come individually, but we hope they do it in a way that will be respectful. We're not going to turn anyone away," says Uebelhor. He adds that One Iowa plans to create an online "marriage kit" to guide would-be newlyweds through the marriage-license process.

For Reggi, who jokes that he's now working a second full-time job as a wedding planner, such assistance is indispensible.

"We just don't know what to expect," Reggi says, adding that the group chose Iowa City because of its liberal reputation. "Will they be welcoming us with open arms and gracious, or will they turn us away if we're not carrying the right documents? We want to do it right. We don't want to be looking for favors and extras."

Reggi is the creator of a web-based Missouri gay-rights group called Show Me No Hate ( The group was formed in November 2008 to organize local protests of Proposition 8, the voter initiative that repealed California's gay-marriage law.

After the Iowa court's ruling, he came upon the idea of a bus trip, which he dubbed the "Show Me Marriage Equality Tour." He proceeded to post a message on his website that invited other couples to come along.

"At first, responses were trickling in," he recalls. "Then people were signing up on Facebook, on Twitter — people from everywhere in the state were like, 'Count me in.' From everywhere, Poplar Bluff, Cape Girardeau. They were like, 'Bring the bus near us,' 'Make a stop in Joplin,' 'Don't forget St. Joseph.' It was pretty amazing."

The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA estimated in a 2005 study that more than 14,700 same-sex couples reside in Missouri, and that nearly 161,000 residents identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

In 2004 Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state's constitution that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, which means homosexual couples are denied many legal protections and tax benefits afforded by marriage.

"Some people have called us and wanted to know if their marriage will count when they get home," says Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "I think everyone knows, but they're still disappointed. If a same-sex couple from Missouri goes to Iowa and gets married, when they come back, their marriage will be treated as if it never happened. It's a bizarre circumstance that in history will look peculiar or unfair, but it is where we are today."

Says Reggi: "We know it's not going to be recognized in Missouri. We're not delusional."

Reggi adds that he and his Iowa-bound group are quickly discovering that the stereotypically straight-laced, corn-happy state has its share of exotic enticements. After the wedding ceremony, the couples hope to attend a reception at a Buddhist commune just outside of Iowa City.

"With the exception of their role in presidential politics, I lumped them in with that whole Midwestern cornfield stereotype. Now, I'm getting a sense that there's a lot more underneath that."