DES MOINES, Iowa — The 2012 presidential election campaign has been personal for John Sellers and Tom Helton.
Several candidates in the race for the Republican nomination have pledged to end their same-sex marriage — and the marriages of gay and lesbian couples in Iowa and throughout the country — via constitutional amendment.
In an interview with the Washington Blade, Sellers, 51, a remote engineer for Clear Channel Radio, and Helton, 53, a clerical worker for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, expressed their unease with how the GOP contenders have addressed marriage.
“I know that not all Republicans feel that way,” Sellers said. “To a lot of people, it isn’t a huge issue. If you look at the latest poll results, the ones who are supportive of civil unions and marriages together, it’s the majority of the Republican Party.”
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Sellers added he thinks these Republicans are “catering” to the what he said is a minority of Republicans who don’t believe in any kind of relationship recognition for gay couples.
Helton shared a similar sentiment that Republicans he knows are not as concerned about marriage as other issues — despite the GOP candidates attacking same-sex marriage as they have toured Iowa.
“I know a lot of Republican people that I work with and just acquaintances that really — I don’t want to say don’t care — but it’s not the main issue,” Helton said. “And a lot of the candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, they’re focusing so much on that.”
The couple has been together 13 years and married in Des Moines on May 1, 2009, following a three-day waiting period after it was first possible for same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license in the state. Marriage equality was instituted in Iowa in 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state constitution guaranteed marriage rights for gay couples.
Sellers recounted the well wishes he received after telling a female conservative co-worker about his wedding.
“When we got married, she was one the few people that acknowledged it, and gave us a gift,” Sellers said. “I think that’s very interesting because as this subject goes to her, this is a non-issue. We should have the same rights as everybody else, yet she’s a very conservative Republican.”
Nonetheless, no shortage of campaign rhetoric against same-sex marriage has spewed from Republican candidates as they made the rounds in Iowa.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who reportedly directed $150,000 to a referendum effort in 2010 that successfully ousted three Iowa justices who ruled in favor of marriage equality — called marriage equality “a temporary aberration that will dissipate” at aIowa campaign event in September.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has been particularly critical of the Iowa justices who determined that same-sex couples have a right to marry in the state. She’s repeatedly called them “black-robed masters” for legalizing marriage equality in the Hawkeye State.
Enjoying a boost in the polls in Iowa in the days for before the caucuses, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said Saturday during an interview with NBC News’ Chuck Todd that his version of the Federal Marriage Amendment would not only prohibit additional same-sex marriages, but existing marriages “would be invalid.”
“I’d love to think that there is another way of doing it, but I’ve got great concerns about the Supreme Court and the courts in the future, and what they’ll do to marriage is what they’ve done with abortion in this country, which is take it away from the public,” Santorum said.
Santorum’s vision contrasts with that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s said that under his leadership individuals in existing same-sex marriages would remain married if a Federal Marriage Amendment passed, although future such marriages would be prohibited.
Candidates have also signed pledges committing themselves to work against same-sex marriage if they’re elected to the White House.
The FAMiLY LEADER, an anti-gay group in Iowa, has been soliciting candidates to sign a pledge to back a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
Three contenders — Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Santorum — have each signed the pledge. Gingrich sent a letter to the organization saying he supports the principles of the organization, but he didn’t sign the pledge.
Those candidates — as well as Romney — have also signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage committing them to oppose marriage equality nationwide if elected president.
Republicans within the state have also gone after same-sex marriage as presidential candidates have toured the state. Last year, the Republican-controlled Iowa State House approved a constitutional amendment by a vote of 62-37. However, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D) — whose leadership was recently assured by a recent special election maintaining his majority — has vowed to block the amendment in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Troy Price, executive director of One Iowa, a statewide LGBT group, said the presidential election season has made 2012 “a tough caucus cycle for the LGBT community.”
“For nearly a year, presidential candidates have been crisscrossing our state trying to score political points on the backs of loving, committed gay and lesbian couples,” Price said. “It’s hard to measure the impact this has had, but the one thing we do know is that this negative, divisive, and mean-spirited rhetoric we have seen this year has had an emotional toll on LGBT couples and their families.”
Price added the thousands of same-sex couples who’ve exercised their marriage rights in Iowa are constantly hearing candidates pledging to terminate their unions in the media.
“Every time we open a newspaper or turn on the TV and see people claim to be trustworthy leaders while in the same breath invalidate our families or say that we are a ‘temporary aberration,’ it hurts,” Price said.
But not all the Republican candidates have campaigned against same-sex marriage. Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has said government should get out of marriage entirely, although he supports DOMA and said he personally believes marriage is one man, one woman. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman supports civil unions, but has said DOMA “serves a useful purpose.”
Still, both Sellers and Helton say they’re backing President Obama in his bid for re-election in 2012 — even though the president himself has yet to endorse same-sex marriage. They said they would participate in the Democratic caucus — even though Obama is the only candidate — but work may prevent them from attending.
Sellers said he isn’t disappointed that Obama doesn’t support marriage equality. He noted the president said he could evolve on the issue and has faith the president will come out in favor of same-sex marriage.
“I think it’ll come,” Sellers said. “I think he’ll be supportive of us. He is pushing for the repeal of [the Defense of Marriage Act]. Publicly, I think people think they can only say what they can say. I assume he’s probably more concerned that there would be a backlash if he were to support it, but probably, he really does.”
In the meantime, Sellers and Helton are ready for the election to end so they no longer have to hear about their union being an issue for Republican candidates seeking the White House.
“Here you feel you really have to really cave to that wing of the Republican Party … even though, like I said, not all Republicans feel that way,” Sellers said.