Openly gay Iowa senator to host reading


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Matt McCoy is the highest ranking openly gay politician in Iowa.

Currently, he is the senator for Iowa’s 21st District, which contains the southern and southwestern portion of Des Moines. He began his legislative career married to the mother of his child and went through the process of coming out while still in office.

It sounds like a setup for a complete political disaster.

However, McCoy has been, and remains, the clear choice of his constituents – he is undefeated since winning his first term in 1997. The side effect of this success, he said, has been an influx of heated emails, often negative.

“People [told] me I was going to hell and that I was bringing all the innocent souls of Iowa with me,” he said.

McCoy, You’re Going Straight to Hell is a book McCoy cowrote with former staffer Jim Ferguson, in which they collect thoughts from both sides of the marriage-equality debate. Published on Dec. 1, 2014, the central narrative relates McCoy’s personal story and opinions relating to marriage equality; a variety of relevant anecdotes and commentary, mainly taken from emails to the senator, orbiting his monologues and transcripts. McCoy and Ferguson will read from the book at 1 p.m. Saturday at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.

The sheer diversity of opinion exhibited, in form and content, throughout the book is expansive. McCoy and Ferguson weave wide-ranging monologues of McCoy’s personal struggles, various quotations, social-media responses, interview transcriptions, blogs, and letters into a snapshot of an ongoing social movement.

For instance, the narrative includes families who have been together in domestic partnerships, parents whose children moved away because “Iowa wasn’t progressive enough,” and opinions from both sides of the religious clergy.

Bret Dublinske, a Des Moines resident who read the book, said he enjoyed iteven if the fragmented format of the book sometimes made it difficult to establish rhythm as he read.

“It’s not often you get to see a behind the scenes look at the personal issues of politicians like this … I think it’s historically important,” Dublinske said.

Ferguson said the correspondence in the book deserves preservation, for the same reasons artifacts from the Civil War are preserved — so people can remember the occasional cost of freedom.

“One of my jobs was looking at [McCoy’s] emails … and we became aware these were historical artifacts of a civil-rights movement,” Ferguson said. “[They] needed to be preserved so people can see the pain and struggle.”

The flood of emails and letters inspiring the book began as a response to a mass email McCoy sent expressing approval for the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling Varnum v. Brien, which ruled that the state’s restriction of giving marriage licenses solely to heterosexuals was unconstitutional.

Following his viral success, people from across the country started sending him their stories about marriage equality and its importance, or lack thereof, in their lives.

It took nearly four years to complete the book, including three major rewrites. The editing involved in turning more than 1,000 communiqués into the final group of around 300 in the final book was hard, McCoy said.

“You felt like you were cutting off one of your fingers,” he said.

Luckily, McCoy has a great coauthor in Ferguson, a former Iowa Citian who served as the first assistant principal of West High and later principal of Southeast Junior High. He also earned a doctorate at the University of Iowa.

Though both the compilation of the book and its writing are a result of collaboration, McCoy said Ferguson’s due diligence was the “driving force” behind the project. Sometimes, he retyped entire correspondences electronically so they could be used, Ferguson said.

“Jim was the organizer, and really marched us forward … he did an enormous amount of fact-checking,” McCoy said.

McCoy said the story of one man whose homosexual son left Iowa because discrimination has stuck with him.

“He really wanted to bring his only son home … [and] I have a son who I’d want to feel welcome no matter where he is,” McCoy said.

Ferguson, himself, is heterosexual. He used to lack an appreciation of the significance legal recognition of romantic partnerships meant for some but soon began to separate the concepts of “marriage” and “civil union.”

“I realized marriage was on a whole other level,” Ferguson said. “There was a depth there, a security there, which I don’t think comes from any other relationship.”

McCoy is happy to see more and more Iowans beginning to back same-sex marriage. Last year, 56 percent of Iowans said they support marriage equality, a percentage that has consistently increased over the past several years, he said.

“I refuse to get bitter about [marriage equality], because ultimately, with enough time and information, they’ll join the 56 percent,” he said. “I am continually reminded by … how generous … Iowans are [in their support of marriage equality].”

Iowans are particularly good at handling it, he said, because they often demonstrate a “live and let live” mentality. As for the remaining bigotry, McCoy said, he has adopted a “really thick skin” and keeps his eye on the positives.

“Iowans, when they change their hearts and position on this issue, it’s always toward equality,” McCoy said.

In his experience, it works the same way with religion and church leaders. He fully supports the right of religious leaders not to marry same-sex couples, because “[he] doesn’t support someone forcing their beliefs on other people.”

McCoy’s personal struggle with sexuality was complicated by alcoholism and additional compounding factors.  He said he wants his battle to help others get through their own process of self-discovery by providing them with an example and maybe even a little guidance.

“If I can [come out] as a state senator while dealing with re-election, then they can, too,” McCoy said.

McCoy and Ferguson will continue traveling to public libraries across Iowa to promote the book and its message. McCoy said he may even try touring across the country after the current legislative session ends.

“I hope this book will provide hope to young people coming to terms with their sexuality while showing them there is a place for them,” he said.

Sen. Matt McCoy and Jim Ferguson
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque
Admission: Free

Real messages from Iowans featured in McCoy and Ferguson's book.

“I hope Sen. McCoy never complains about the hot Iowa summers, cause where he’s going it’s gonna be a HELL of a lot hotter. Try all you want, homes, God will still descend upon you in judgment.”

“Dear Legislator, Strong families are the backbone of Iowa’s strong communities … Iowa has a long tradition of and commitment to equality, fairness, and ensuring that all families are protected. As an Iowan committed to fairness, I support marriage equality.”

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