Zach, Melissa, Heather and Mackenzie Gartner
I had the honor of exchanging tweets with Sarah Brady this week. If you can’t place the name, she is the wife of James Brady, the White House Press Secretary who was permanently disabled by the assassination attempt that wounded Ronald Reagan. Sarah retweeted a picture I had posted of a little girl testing a pink rifle at the NRA’s annual meeting. I took the opportunity to send her back a link to my New Civil Rights Movement piece on mandatory gun insurance, and ask her opinion on the idea. She responded that gun control advocates discussed requiring liability insurance in the 80s, but perhaps it deserved another look. I really wanted to “favorite” (save) her tweets, because I am at heart a celebrity whore, but in the end, I didn’t, because I didn’t want her to know that about me.
It did not occur to me until days later that Sarah Brady is, no doubt, a Republican. I had broken an unwritten rule of the Twitterverse, where the Left and the Right are never supposed to exchange civil greetings, much less discuss ideas. But Republican or not, Sarah Brady is someone I have always admired. After her husband was shot, she founded the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She worked for 12 years to get the Brady Bill passed. And, like Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords’ husband, she has honored the marriage vow, “in sickness and in health” with what deserves to be called amazing grace. So she’s a Republican. Nobody’s perfect.
I often think of social change as a relay race we are all running. Every once in awhile, usually when we least expect it, one of us is “passed the baton” – presented with a unique opportunity to make the world a better place. It happened to Sarah Brady. Fate chose her to lead an effort to reduce gun violence. It also happened recently to Melissa and Heather Gartner, a legally married lesbian couple from Des Moines, Iowa. Fate surprised them with a chance to advance the right of gay equality. Like Sarah Brady, Melissa and Heather were not activists looking for ways to advance their cause. They were something much more dangerous than political activists; they were mothers. And when the Iowa Department of Health told these mothers, that even though they were legally married, they could not both be listed on their newborn baby’s birth certificate as her parents, they realized Iowa had robbed their daughter of the security being the child of a married couple should have given her. So Melissa and Heather took up the baton of gay equality, and this week, they crossed the finish line in victory.
Heather and Melissa married shortly after the Varnum decision, expecting they would be granted all the rights of any two-parent family. In September, the newly married Gartners welcomed their second child when Heather gave birth to a daughter conceived through donor sperm. They named their daughter Mackenzie Jean. The moms had the expectation that since they were legally married, they would both be listed on the birth certificate as her parents. That is how it works for heterosexual couples who use a sperm donor, why should it be different for gay couples? The Iowa Department of Health refused. Heather was listed as the mother, but Melissa was told to be considered Mackenzie’s legal parent, she would have to adopt her.
The decision of the Health Department to deny Mackenzie all the rights and privileges of any opposite-sex, two-parent family affected the Gartners almost immediately. Shortly after her birth, Mackenzie had a health scare. Any other married couple would have been able to take turns sitting with the baby, but Heather, the mother who had just given birth and was physically the least able, was forced to stay with Mackenzie 24/7 because the mothers feared Melissa would not be allowed to make emergency decisions about Mackenzie’s care. When they needed it most, their marriage license meant nothing.
Besides the practical matters, the Health Department’s decision subjected the Gartners to extra financial burdens. The average adoption in Iowa costs about $3000. And there was an emotional blow as well. Melissa visibly choked up explaining to a reporter how she and Heather had planned for and anticipated and welcomed this new baby. When the birth certificate arrived in the mail without her name on it, Melissa said it made her feel as if she were not a part of her own family.
I suspect every gay person who is reading this can empathize with the sense of unfairness the Gartners felt. They must have been suffering the very same feelings of inequality the six couples who filed the Varnum case suffered. The Gartners hadn’t asked for the baton of social justice, but it had been passed to them. This was their race to run.
With the help of Lambda Legal, Heather and Melissa filed suit against the Iowa Department of Health. The Health Department claimed in its brief that “the accuracy of birth certificates, the efficiency and effectiveness of government administration, and the determination of paternity” required that the state “adhere to biological definitions in recording a child’s parentage.” The Court rejected that argument, pointing out the Health Department makes no attempt to determine parentage before issuing birth certificates for children of heterosexual couples who used a sperm donor. In Iowa, as in most states, there has always been a presumption of parenthood given to the legal spouse of the birth mother. Why should that assumption be different for same-sex marriages? The Court ruled in favor of the Gartners and ordered Melissa’s name be added to Mackenzie’s birth certificate.
In April of 2012, the State of Iowa issued to the Gartners the very first birth certificate with the designation Parent 1 and Parent 2 instead of Mother and Father. Heather and Melissa had reason to hope their race was over. But the state, saying they wanted clarification, appealed the verdict to the Iowa Supreme Court. This week, in a unanimous decision, the high court upheld the district court’s verdict. Justice Wiggins wrote in the opinion:
“It is important for our laws to recognize that married lesbian couples who have children enjoy the same benefits and burdens as married opposite-sex couples who have children. By naming the nonbirthing spouse on the birth certificate of a married lesbian couple’s child, the child is ensured support from that parent and the parent establishes fundamental legal rights at the moment of birth. Therefore, the only explanation for not listing the nonbirthing lesbian spouse on the birth certificate is stereotype or prejudice.”
Heather and Melissa Gartner not only changed the legal status of their own family ties, they changed the rules of parenthood for every married lesbian couple in Iowa. Because of their mothers’ determination that Mackenzie would not be shortchanged, the spouse of every birth mother in the state will be assumed to be the child’s parent, regardless of whether or not they produced the sperm that made the baby, and birth certificates issued in Iowa will now ask for name of each newborn’s “parents,” not their “mother” and “father.”
The mothers can now pass on the baton of social justice. Their race has been won.
Images are from Heather’s Facebook Page.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.