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April 15, 2009


The seemingly surprising victory in Iowa was actually a seven year long, brilliantly strategized campaign.

This morning, I read an interesting, Washington Post account of how the Iowa Supreme Court came to the unanimous decision to legalize gay marriage in the middle of our country's "heartland."

Against all odds and in defiance of many GLBT leaders who objected to pouring time, money and resources into a marriage equality fight in a staunchly conservative, unwinnable state, Camilla Taylor, a Chicago-based lawyer for the gay rights group Lambda Legal since 2002, stood by her beliefs.

Camilla, who is a straight, married mother, calls same-sex marriage "the civil rights cause of my generation." The 38-year-old Cleveland native and Columbia Law School graduate added, "I was brought up to think there's nothing more fulfilling than trying to achieve social change and do something right for society."

For seven years, Camilla traveled regularly from Chicago to Iowa to do research and lay the groundwork for her landmark case. When she immersed herself in Iowa's politics and history, she learned about its progressive past, including how the Hawkeye State was a pioneer in school desegregation, the first to admit a woman to its bar, and among the earliest to allow interracial marriage. The more she learned, the stronger she felt about Iowa being a winnable state. Even it's flag carried an encouraging motto: "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain."

According to the Post article,

Camilla and her colleagues crisscrossed Iowa meeting gay and lesbian couples and organizing workshops and panels on issues that concerned them. She usually spoke as part of a panel that might include community members or the parents of a gay or lesbian child. Her colleagues did the same.

Sometimes it was lonely in those early days, Taylor recalled. At one event, just seven people showed up.

By December 2005, three years after she took on the cause, Taylor decided the foundation in Iowa was set and she filed a case for six gay couples. She selected them strategically, finding those who were representative and picking a pair from every region of the state.

Following her carefully planned strategy, she chose local lawyer Dennis Johnson, a former solicitor general who was heading the litigation department at a prominent Des Moines firm to be her co-council.

She had never met Johnson before and she took a big risk in approaching him because she wanted to keep her plans to file a lawsuit a secret until she actually filed it.

"I had never heard of Lambda Legal, or her," Johnson said. "I had never been involved in gay rights at all." But he said his firm was always interested in having its lawyers do pro bono work, so he agreed to look at the case.

After deciding to take on the case as co-council and getting to know Camilla, Johnson was quoted as saying,

"I've never felt so strongly about a case in my entire career." He credits Taylor as the one who really got the case moving. "She came up with the strategy, she researched Iowa law, she was the primary author of all the briefs. . . . I think she wrote briefs as best as I've seen in my career.

Numerous other carefully planned strategies were carried out, including adding the children of the gay couples as plaintiffs and working with local GLBT groups. Up until the filing, the existing local groups were more focused on being resource centers for health care, social networking, etc.. They weren't really geared for political activism.

Shortly after Camilla filed suit on behalf of the six couples, Sharon Malheiro founded the group One Iowa and began coordinating with Taylor and Lambda Legal. "There wasn't a strong local group that would be the go-to group for organizing a campaign for marriage equality," said Malheiro. "If we we're going to do this in Iowa, it had to be Iowans talking to Iowans." One Iowa took over much of the public education effort, leaving Camilla and her team to concentrate on the legal aspects.

The Washington Post Article is an excellent, 3-page piece and I strongly urge anyone who is already involved in or who wants to become involved in the struggle for any or all of the remaining GLBT rights and protections yet to be granted, to read the full article.

Nothing ever happens just because we want it to. We have to work hard and we have to work smart to MAKE IT HAPPEN. And this is a great example of how to go about it.