Iowa Now a Big Draw for Gay Weddings
When caterer Sandy Bridges arrived at a recent wedding reception to set up the food service, she was a little taken aback to learn that the party was for two brides.
"It's kind of surprising at first, but it's their choice, I feel, and I'm going to respect that," she says.
Since the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in April, Iowans have been adjusting to their state's new status as a wedding destination for gay and lesbian couples.
Iowa is the first Midwestern state and the third in the USA - along with Massachusetts and Connecticut - to currently allow same-sex weddings. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are to begin allowing such marriages within the next few months.
Some Iowa communities and businesses are eager to attract gay and lesbian visitors. The Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau is developing an advertising campaign aimed at out-of-state gay couples.
The Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau has joined a gay and lesbian travel association. At Davenport's PrideFest last month, booths promoted formal wear stores, jewelers and a hotel.
Carolyn Jenison, executive director of One Iowa, the state's largest gay and lesbian advocacy organization, says she has received no complaints from same-sex couples about their treatment. Instead, she says, many have commented on how polite and supportive Iowans were.
"Iowans have such a great sense of community," Jenison says. "We don't want to hurt our neighbors, and we're just very respectful of others."
Rich Hendricks, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities in Davenport and an activist in the gay community, has performed many same-sex weddings and married his own partner in May. The Quad Cities - Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill. - have "a reputation for being very progressive," he says.
Still, two employees of the bakery that made Hendricks' wedding cake declined to work on it and were fired, he says.
Quad Citians Affirming Diversity, a non-profit gay and lesbian community center in Rock Island, hopes to curtail such episodes. It trained employees of the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Scott County recorder's office, which issues marriage licenses in Davenport, in "hospitality acceptance." Soon it will provide similar sessions for area businesses, says Scott Smith, who helps conduct the classes.
The training describes encounters between gays and lesbians and people in service industries, such as two women checking into a hotel and asking for one bed. Smith advises people to avoid condescending remarks, eye-rolling and smirks. Most people who take the training are "very eager, and they don't want to offend anybody," he says.
Deanna Jensen, sales director at Davenport's Clarion Hotel Conference Center, expects employees there to take the training. "Not because I think we have issues," she says, but to ensure that same-sex customers are treated "no differently than you would treat a heterosexual couple."
Good for business
Same-sex weddings could become big business.
Spending on gay and lesbian weddings and related tourism could total $53 million a year in Iowa, says a 2008 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which studies sexual orientation law and public policy. That would give the state $5.3 million a year in revenue, mostly from taxes.
No state agency collects data on the number of same-sex marriages, but the study concluded that 57,640 couples could be married in Iowa in the first three years of legalization, including 2,917 Iowa couples.
For Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg Jewelers in Iowa City, reaching out to same-sex couples is smart business. He has offered a line of "love without prejudice" products since 1984.
"It's a no-brainer" to target gay and lesbian couples, Ginsberg says. "This is specifically good economics to work with everybody. We're willing to live and let live and be inclusive."
Beau Fodor, an event and wedding planner in Des Moines, created two websites days after same-sex marriage became legal: iowasgayweddingplanner.com and gayweddingswithpanache.com. He hosted a gay wedding expo last month that included about 40 vendors.
"I have been met with almost no resistance or homophobia" from businesses, Fodor says, though one florist claimed to be unavailable after he ordered two bouquets for a lesbian wedding.
The Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in Bettendorf had a booth at Davenport's Pride Fest featuring photos of a recent gay wedding reception it hosted, general manager Connie Schlichting says.
"It's a huge potential market and I think people who do not tap into it are crazy," she says.