One of the plaintiffs in Iowa’s historic Varnum v Brien case passed away late last week. As Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen described in their book Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality, Larry Hoch was a middle-school teacher in his late 50s when he met David Twombley online in 2000. A few years later, he moved from New York to Des Moines to be with Twombley.
The couple had already entered into a civil union in Vermont, but our state didn’t recognize the legal status of their relationship. So when Camilla Taylor, an attorney for the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal, reached out in the summer of 2005, looking for plaintiffs in a case that would challenge Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act, Hoch agreed immediately without consulting Twombley. The two men jokingly called themselves the “Old Fart Couple,” since they were much older than the five other couples who joined the lawsuit.
Hoch and Twombly unsuccessfully applied for a Polk County marriage license in November 2005. The lawsuit was filed the following month. Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson heard oral arguments in May 2007 and found Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional in August of that year. His ruling was stayed pending appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, where seven justices unanimously affirmed the decision in April 2009, allowing the Varnum plaintiffs and others to marry the person of their choice, regardless of gender.
Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s Molly Longman, One Iowa executive director Donna Red Wing described Hoch as an “incredible, sweet man” and said he was a regular at LGBT events in central Iowa: “I think for the community to see this older couple — they weren’t exactly spring chickens — engage so passionately in the fight for equality was so important.” Twombley told Longman, “We were both very proud to have been a part of history. We’ve had numerous gay couples that have married that know us or know of us, and they’ve gone out of their way to thank us for what we did for them.”
Although my life was not directly affected by the Varnum case, all Iowans should be grateful for what Hoch and the other plaintiffs did to promote fairness and equality in our state. Without their lawsuit, thousands of LGBT couples in Iowa would have had to wait six more years (until the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell) to obtain the legal and psychological benefits of being married. Witosky and Hansen wrote that Hoch and Twombley “weren’t the first couple the [Lambda Legal] organization had contacted. […] Several Des Moines area couples had been approached but declined for a variety of reasons, mostly because of the attention the case would attract.” After living in the closet for most of his adult life, Hoch risked becoming a target for haters in order to take a stand. May his memory be a blessing.
P.S.- Chief Justice Mark Cady, the author of the Varnum decision, and Supreme Court Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht are up for retention this year statewide. Polk County voters will also see Judge Hanson’s name on the ballot. Please remember to mark yes for them all when you vote.