STEPHANIE BELL of West Des Moines is a 2008 graduate of the University of Chicago and is a Rhodes Scholar studying at the University of Oxford.
In middle school in West Des Moines, I earned money by babysitting for many neighborhood families, including state Rep. Kim Pearson. Pearson is co-sponsoring the Iowa House bill to amend the Iowa Constitution to ban gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships. This is a condensed version of my letter to her.
This is your former neighbor, writing you from a long ways away – Oxford, England, where I am studying on a Rhodes Scholarship. I know it’s been a decade since I babysat your daughters, but my mother suggested I let you know what I’ve been up to. I really thrived at Valley High School, where I joined the debate team and the orchestra. My proudest moment in high school came when the school district adopted a solution to its 2003 budget crisis that I had helped develop with a coalition of students, teachers, and community members. That initial foray into community involvement set the stage for my college activities. At the University of Chicago, I worked in an impoverished ward office to improve Chicago’s services to its residents, and was part of a campaign that increased access to HIV/AIDS medicines throughout the developing world.
I’m now a graduate student in international development at Oxford. I intend to spend my life enabling people to make their lives better – in what realm, I’m not sure yet. I am sure, however, that I got to where I am by being a good neighbor – by making good on the values I learned growing up in Iowa. While I may have left Iowa a while ago, it’s never left me. In Oxford’s recent snowstorm, I was stunned by the condition of the sidewalks. No one shoveled them, and they became dangerous sheets of ice. This never happened where I grew up. People cleared their walks for the convenience and safety of their community, and if people nearby couldn’t clean their walks, their neighbors would do it for them, no future favors asked.
I have a great fondness for Iowa, and pride in our state for reasons exemplified in that anecdote. There’s a certain pragmatism about life in Iowa, a stoicism in folks’ willingness to take care of business, regardless of the cold. There’s a sense of responsibility for each other, an understanding of oneself as a member of a bigger community. One of the things I love most about Iowa’s sense of community is that it, too, is pragmatic. It’s a sense of community that recognizes that people have different needs, aspirations and desires. The Iowa I grew up in celebrated the diversity it had – and the ties that bound us were stronger than the divides created by our differences.
You may be wondering why I decided to contact you after so long. Part of it is to congratulate you on your election and thank you for serving our state. And the other part of it is to make a plea, from one good neighbor to another.
Kim, I’m gay.
I figured it out during my senior year of high school, and stayed silent until I graduated for fear of my classmates’ reactions. I told my mother before leaving for college, but it took over two years before I found the courage to tell my father. He’s fiscally conservative, and we rarely talked about social issues. My dad has voted Republican in every election since he was 18. I’d watched friends of mine come out and have their parents reject them – refuse to help pay for college, kick them out of the house, tell them they were worthless. While I knew my father would not react that badly, I stayed silent for years to ensure that I didn’t destroy our relationship. Thankfully, I was lucky, unlike so many gay youth across our state. My parents and sister are tremendously supportive because they know what I know: I’m the same person I was before I realized I was gay. Being gay has done nothing to change my sense of humor, my love for my family, or my belief in the value of service that I know you and I share. I remain the same good neighbor – to you, and to the world – that I’ve always been.
I thought Iowa understood this, too. April 3, 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously legalized gay marriage, was the day on which I was proudest to be an Iowan. I know the way I lead my life makes some people uncomfortable – just as the ways others lead their lives sometimes make me uncomfortable. But on that day, I thought Iowa moved past that discomfort. The justices voted independently of their political opinions, because that’s what the law demanded. That’s also what a true sense of justice and equality demands: equal civil rights for all.
Kim, I (and others like me) shouldn’t have to justify having the same rights as you on our attempts to be good citizens. Like you, I serve because I think it’s the right thing to do. It shouldn’t be relevant that the people you’re depriving of their rights are police officers, firefighters, and teachers. No other group has to justify their rights by pointing to what they’ve contributed to the world. The rest of society has the right to marry because they’re part of society, period.
San Francisco City Councilman Harvey Milk once said that a young person in Des Moines who recognizes that he or she is gay has two options: move to San Francisco, or stay and fight for a better tomorrow.
Over 30 years after Milk was assassinated, I thought Iowa had moved beyond pushing its LGBT youth to live elsewhere when it recognized that depriving gays of their right to marry was fundamentally discriminatory. It’s an offense to our understanding of democracy and freedom to remove the rights of some because the way they lead their lives makes others uncomfortable. It goes against the Iowa values I was raised on: sensibility and respect. There’s nothing sensible about legislating bigotry. And nothing about it is neighborly.
Respectfully yours, Stephanie Bell