Iowa's gay-marriage law sparks tourism
New tourism industry emerging in Iowa after gay-marriage law is passed.
Gay IowaNow that gay marriage is legal in Iowa, a new tourism industry has emerged. Whether you go to get hitched or to enjoy a quick getaway in what some are surprised to learn is one of the nation's most open-minded places, Iowa has plenty of options.
In Des Moines: The most luxurious hotel stay can be had at the Suites of 800 Locust (www.800locust.com). Large rooms, comfortable beds, immaculate and, in some cases, with a whirlpool bath. ...
Butler House on Grand (www.butlerhouseongrand.com) is a B&B revelation. Built into the side of a hill as a single-family home in the 1920s, the sprawling brick structure was carved into apartments for four decades before Lauren and Clark Smith rescued it 10 years ago. Each of the seven rooms is charming in its own way, and the breakfast here is delicious. The Smiths don't host weddings, but the Des Moines Art Center across the street does.
In Iowa City: The ultramodern Hotel Vetro (www.hotelvetro.com) is probably the state's coolest hotel, with concrete floors, sleek lines, huge rooms, wide windows and out-of-this world bathrooms.
Brown Street Inn (www.brownstreetinn.com) is a B&B owned by fantastic hosts who maintain a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood, a short walk from the University of Iowa campus. It's a wonderfully quiet spot with a great porch for lounging. Plus, a tray of homemade cookies awaited my arrival.
In Davenport: You need to see the Renwick Mansion (563-324-9678) to believe it. Built in 1877 and restored in 1997, this Italian villa-style behemoth has been a single-family home, a nursing home, an insane asylum and an office building. Now it's a B&B and popular wedding site. The mansion is perched on one of the highest points in the city. Totally cool.
In Des Moines: Lucca (www.luccarestaurant.net;) is housed in a beautiful room, with long brick walls, wood floors and sleek edges. The modern American menu (with Italian overtones) is short and simple. But the unbelievably tender pork atop homemade pappardelle noodles, as well as the fluffy gnocchi appetizer, were fresh and delicious.
Other good bets: Centro (www.centrodesmoines.com), an Italian-style restaurant with a modern flair and massive menu anchored by coal-fired pizzas. Also does a brunch that includes a Bloody Mary bar.
Django (www.djangodesmoines.com) is a tasty French bistro and great happy-hour spot for drinks and seafood.
In Iowa City: Devotay (www.devotay.net) is a tasty and unfussy tapas place with non-matching chairs and tablecloths, a favorite with the university crowd.
In Davenport/Quad Cities: Le Figaro (www.lefigarorestaurant.com) is across the river, in Rock Island, Ill., but locals say it's the finest French meal for miles.
Long on decadent meat and fish dishes, Duck City Bistro (www.duckcitybistro.com; 563-322-3825) is in downtown Davenport.
In Des Moines: The East Village neighborhood, in the shadow of the Capitol, is home to city's most progressive and gay-friendly businesses, with bars such as the Blazing Saddle (theblazingsaddle.com) and the Garden (www.grdn.com).
Ritual Cafe (www.ritualcafe.com) is a touchstone in the community — and the drinks (like the horchata latte) and food make it doubly worth a visit.
The Des Moines Art Center (www.desmoinesartcenter.org;) has traveling exhibitions and a permanent collection focusing on modern art. And the art center hosts weddings.
In Iowa City: The argument goes that the city is so gay-friendly that few places cater to the community. That said, there is a gay bar, Studio 13 (www.sthirteen.com;), which is near the University of Iowa campus. ... Check out Prairie Lights Bookstore (www.prairielights.com) for mainstream fiction and gay/lesbian magazines. It hosts a ton of readings, and in June (which is Pride Month), ups the presence of gay authors.
Davenport The Rainbow District (800 block of West 2nd Street) is small: four bars across the street from one another. But it's there and can get hopping.
The Figge Art Museum (www.figgeart.org) is housed in a beautiful glass structure overlooking the Mississippi River and offers art from the 15th century to today.
If rock 'n' roll is your game, some of the best up-and-coming bands can be found playing just across the Mississippi River in Rock Island at Huckleberry's Great Pizza (223 18th St.; 309-786-1122). The shows are sponsored by daytrotter.com, which brings bands to the Quad Cities to record live-in-the-studio sessions that air on the Internet.
DES MOINES — In Iowa, gay marriage is now the law of the land. That sudden, and some would say surprising, development makes the state a travel destination for gay people and their supportive friends — gay travelers who just want to be tourists and those who want to get married.
Iowa's most enterprising business minds are starting to court the nation's gay travelers online, while B&B's, restaurants and the most open-minded of churches line up to lure the state's newest brand of tourist.
Gay marriage took effect on April 27, but there are no quickie marriages here: Iowa law mandates a three-day waiting period between applying for a license and walking down the aisle.
The good news is that there are tons of ways in Iowa to make those three days fabulous. Plus, there are plenty of restaurants, mostly in the urban areas, where any couple can show up hand in hand, choose between the seared tuna and braised pork with pappardelle noodles and exchange a small peck with no one thinking twice.
The state's progressive infrastructure has been in place for years — in some cases, decades. The state repealed laws or practices against interracial marriage, slavery and segregated schools decades before the federal government. It is one of a handful of states that has a law protecting students from sexuality-based harassment. And in case you forgot, Iowa helped launch President Barack Obama.
Now, progressiveness and tourism intersect.
"We're hearing from a lot of couples who have been together for 20 or 30 years and don't want the pomp and circumstance; they want the piece of paper," said Christopher Diebel, who launched myiowagaywedding.com, a listing of gay-friendly businesses. "But since they have to be here for three days, they want to know what's a good hotel, what to do and where they can have a celebratory dinner before flying out."
On a recent multiday swing though the state, I set off looking for the heart of progressive Iowa. It can be tough to find in some of the more rural patches — or west of Des Moines — but it was there: in the food, the accommodations, the arts and in a gentle Midwestern sentiment that is equal bits "live and let live," "don't ask, don't tell" and a belief that judgment is best left to the coastal elites. Or God.
It lives in places such as Ritual Cafe, at the western edge of Des Moines' clean, placid downtown, one of the few — if not only — businesses flying a pair of rainbow flags out front. Five years ago, Ritual's co-owner, Denise Diaz, 42, was working at another cafe when her boss told her that she and her partner hugged too long when saying goodbye.
"I almost walked off the job," Diaz said.
Instead, she and her then-partner, Linda Shepley, 46, opened a cafe of their own. In the pleasantly airy space, the bookcase teems with titles such as "Completely Queer" and "Homosexuality in History," the usual suspect bumper stickers are pasted about ("Eve Was Framed," "In Goddess We Trust") and the staff serves an all-vegetarian menu (including the gender-bending "po boi" sandwich).
Ritual attracts a wide swath of clientele, from teens with laptops to hard-hatted construction workers on break. It has become an epicenter for the gay and lesbian community, a host for meetings, fundraisers and people who don't want to mess with the bars. It's also the kind of place where you will learn about the gay-friendly things going on in town, such as the weekly Sunday afternoon men's bike ride.
I showed up at the appointed hour and met Jeff Reese, 36, organizer of the ride, who said it is not a show of strength, just a bunch of friends riding together. In Des Moines, the show of strength is not needed.
"I've been out since I was 14, and I remember what it used to be like," Reese said. "No one cares anymore. If you are a normal human being, people will accept you."
He pointed across the street, to an old-school Italian restaurant decked in red, white and green, Tumea and Sons.
"We go there to eat and they come over here to drink," he said, meaning the Rio gay bar. "And no one (cares). I wish it could be like that everywhere."
The bar where the rides were hatched over a night of beers is the other epicenter of gay life in Des Moines. On a Saturday night, Blazing Saddle was packed, crammed at least two bodies deep around the bartender. The music throbbed, shirtless men frolicked on a television screen in the corner, and a rainbow border traced the edge of the pool table. Otherwise, it wasn't much of a scene, just men being slightly more affectionate with one another than you might expect.
The bar is popular with straight people too. A bachelorette party showed up on a bus, the bride-to-be wearing a skimpy red dress and tiara. The men rolled their eyes but grudgingly took it as a sign of mainstream acceptance.
Jeff Woods, a 35-year-old bank manager, was there, showing off a newly published magazine ad for the Des Moines Gay Men's Chorus that featured his shirtless (and ripped) boyfriend smearing rainbow paint on his chest.
"Iowa is way more progressive than people give it credit for," Woods said. "But if someone comes here to get married, I recommend Des Moines or Iowa City. They'll get less flak."
The next day, I was off to Iowa City, which could be considered the most actively progressive corner of the state. Then again, it's a college town, so it's maybe not so surprising to find musicians jamming on a pedestrian mall, a mainstream bookstore with a large gay reading section or a university lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender student association so strong that it "takes over" a different straight bar every Friday afternoon (news of which bar is circulated on Facebook).
In fact, Iowa City is considered so progressive that there isn't much of a gay infrastructure. There's just one gay bar, called Studio 13 (it's kind of hard to find; the front door is in an alley), but that's because most gay people say they are at home anywhere.
"I was prepared to have some culture shock, but it hasn't been bad," said Elizabeth Krause, 29, manager of University of Iowa LGBT Resource Center, who moved to Iowa City from Northern California last year. "There are all sorts of places where you can be a couple and kiss and not get funny looks."
One of them is Brown Street Inn, a B&B owned by a gay couple with six tidy rooms spread across three floors on a lovely brick street. Their quiet neighborhood is a short walk from the University of Iowa campus and all that it offers: restaurants with fresh, local ingredients; dark college bars and old-school lefty bookstores such as Prairie Lights, which boasts a second-floor cafe in a room where a local literary society met in the 1930s, hosting such luminaries as Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings.
More recently, it reached another impressive milestone.
"We were the first latte in Iowa City," said Prairie Lights co-owner Jan Weissmiller, 53.
A completely different type of progressiveness sits 60 miles east: Davenport. Rather than the pastoral open-mindedness that can be found in much of the rest of the state, Davenport, perched on the Mississippi River, is an industrial, blue-collar city rooted in Democratic politics and home to one of the least likely gay districts in the country: four bars across the street from one another, loosely called the Rainbow District. Indeed, the bars do not hide their proclivities, flying rainbow flags out front of their worn brick facades on a quiet stretch of West 2nd Street.
In one of those bars, Connections, I met Rich Hendricks, 50, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities on an early Tuesday evening. Things were quiet — the biggest hit was the taco bar of ground beef, melted cheese, salsa and chips in a back room — but Hendricks, sipping a margarita, swore the Quad Cities' gay population can get the place hopping.
"After 10 o'clock it gets pretty busy," he said. "Some people hunker down at their favorite, and some cycle through the four."
Hendricks, who was married to a woman before coming out at 40 and dedicating himself to a life of spirituality, is becoming a popular tourist destination unto himself. He has performed 16 wedding ceremonies since the law changed, six of them for out-of-state couples. He has seven more ceremonies on his calendar this summer, including for couples from New Orleans and Phoenix.
"This has definitely put Iowa on the map," Hendricks said. "People see this as a place where the average Joe comes from, but we've made this bold declaration in favor of equality."
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