The year was 1976, less than a decade after the Stonewall Riots that launched the gay rights movement. But the ACLU of Iowa, on behalf of brave Iowans Tracy Bjorgum and Kenneth Bunch, filed one of the first lawsuits in the country seeking the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Tracy was a 20-year-old University of Iowa student. Kenneth was a custodian at the University of Iowa hospitals, as well as a spokesperson for the Gay Liberation Front. Both lived in Solon, Iowa. The men appeared in Johnson County District Court, required blood test in hand, and requested a marriage license. It was denied. Months later they did the same in Polk County, were again denied, and the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit on their behalf, but the lawsuit was unsuccessful.
Regardless, it marked the opening round in Iowa of the battle for marriage equality, a movement that had begun a few years earlier in Minnesota. In 1971, two Minnesota men, assisted by the ACLU of Minnesota, were also denied a requested marriage license and filed a similar lawsuit.
It would be almost another four decades before the U.S. Supreme Court would decide that the right to same-sex marriage should apply to couples across the country.
Tracy Bjorgum later died of complications from AIDS. But Kenneth Bunch now lives in San Francisco. "Part of our effort was visibility," Bunch said. "When people know an openly gay person, they tend to support gay rights."
It would be another three decades before marriage equality was recognized in Iowa in the Varnum v. Brien case, in which the ACLU of Iowa filed an amicus brief.