Dean Genth and Gary Swenson, Walking Hand and Hand

Dean Genth and Gary Swenson, Walking Hand and Hand

In anticipation of the day the state of Iowa would legalize same-gender marriage, Dean Genth and Gary Swenson of Mason City, having had a Holy Union Ceremony in 2004, planned on simply appearing at the courthouse, signing the papers, being wed by a judge, then going on back home. However on April 3, 2009, the day the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the Iowa legal code’s 1998 One Man/One Woman law, Dean and Gary’s expansive list of friends asked to be in on the historic wedding celebration. Gary and Dean realized their ceremony plans would need expanding too, so they began indulging in ideas for a May 31st wedding in Music Man Square, a 1912 River City Streetscape, reminiscent of the movie “The Music Man,” and home to “Music Man” composer Meredith Willson.

But Dean and Gary also had another, perhaps more vital reason for their change of plans. In their wedding program, the couple explained their personal heartfelt goal to their guests. “If one young man or young woman attending, who has been told by society, church, or even family that they are ‘less than,’ could come away from our ceremony with a hope for the future, a hope that includes love, companionship, and recognition that they too are of value, then we’ve been successful.”

For these two men to choose to include the inspiration of others as a priority for their Wedding Day was not unexpected, as Gary and Dean are considered the North Iowa “Poster Boys” for same-gender relationships. “We have worked with One Iowa (an advocacy group dedicated to supporting full LGBT equality) since its formation,” Dean says. “...And also with Executive Director Brad Clark on the State's Anti-Bullying legislative efforts.”  Dean and Gary co-founded PFLAG-North Iowa, and Dean is president of the Iowa State PFLAG Council of Chapters and Chair of the Iowa Stonewall Democrats Caucus.

Dean and Gary’s History

As part of their ceremony, Dean, a retired business executive, and Gary, a radiologist, made use of their 27-page written program in part to tell guests about their life together, including how they met when their careers took them individually to Chicago 6½ years before. Soon thereafter, Dean joined Gary in Mason City, Iowa, and the couple celebrated a Holy Union Ceremony at First Presbyterian Church on November 27, 2004 in front of almost 200 friends, family and community members.

But to make their May 31st wedding truly inspirational, Dean and Gary also told the story of their lives before they met. “The story,” they detailed in their program, “of two boys who grew up in unfriendly times and sometimes hostile circumstances.”For Gary, those circumstances included growing up the sixth of eight children in a traditional Mormon household.  He says that when he was old enough to realize he was “different” and began to discuss his feelings and questions with church leaders, he was advised to pray, read scripture, and marry a “good woman,” and those awful feelings would go away.

Likewise, Dean was raised in a conservative environment, a rural Indiana farm. In the wedding program he explained how in his youth he also had followed what society, church, and family dictated as the “recipe for happy living.”

Both men married, had children, and established themselves in their respective churches and communities, but there were consequences, which they explained candidly in the program to their wedding guests. “The dissonance and heartache grew in the hearts of two men who were living what they considered ‘irrational roles’ - roles society created, had created for them. And all the while, they lived in fear, living false lives.”  Both recall being obsessed with certain thoughts. “What if my family and church members found out who I really am?”  In their wedding program, the couple further explained, “It took many years before we could realize we are indeed beautiful, and that God means for us to be happy.”

That day arrived, unexpectedly, in 2002. “It was destined. Our souls had to fly, and that flight began on December 2, 2002 when we met in Chicago and fell in love.”

But the doubts remained. “Let’s give it a year,” Dean recalls saying. “If we still feel the same, we can make arrangements to merge our lives.” However, it was only three weeks later that he proposed to Gary.  “Will you marry me?” he asked.

The couple shared the mix of thoughts and emotions that they then faced, considering their prospective future together. “It couldn’t be,” they concluded at the time. “It couldn’t work.” Gary lived in Iowa; Dean lived in Ohio, but most importantly, they believed that all they’d worked for – jobs, families, community standing -  would be sacrificed for what they felt was “an insane proposition.”  There was no logic! There was no common sense!

But there was love, and Gary answered Dean’s proposal in just five words:  “Dear Dean. Yes. Love, Gary.”

However, the fears continued. “We had difficulty shedding the years of conditioned self-loathing and shame that accompanied our situation,” the couple acknowledged in their wedding program. They felt as if they should retreat to a “safe” place, somewhere larger than Mason City, and bought a house in Cincinnati. “Cincinnati was a big enough city that we felt we could become anonymous,” they explained, “and live our lives quietly, giving us a chance to adjust to the concept of being a gay couple in straight America.”

But those plans, like their eventual May wedding plans, were transformed by friends. When Gary gave his medical partners notice with little explanation, one of them took him aside and asked, “Why do you have to move?”

Gary’s many excuses didn’t work and he recalls, “Finally, I simply came out with the truth.” Then he told all his partners about Dean, and each one had the same response: “If you think it matters, it doesn’t, so please don’t move away.”

After eventually telling others too, the couple was still concerned. “We were reeling from the immediate psychological trauma of coming out to families, friends, churches, and our communities,” they explained to their wedding guests. “We felt the loneliness and isolation that comes with internalizing all the negative opinions of society.  The trauma was real.  Wives and children were no longer a part of our daily lives.  Excommunication and expulsion from lifelong church affiliations had just been endured.”  In addition, they were facing what they believed would be the town’s potential negative reaction to a gay couple living in its midst.

But then, they heard the song that changed their lives. “Quite by accident,” Dean explains, “we found ourselves on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.  As we walked along, we saw a sign announcing “Gay Men’s Chorus Concert, tonight in the chapel.  That evening, feeling as if we were the only gay couple in all of the rural Midwest, we timidly entered the chapel and saw 100 members of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus.” The couple watched hundreds of people filter into the chapel. “Young, old, gay couples, straight couples, students and professors,” Dean recalls.  “All smiling,” Gary adds, “welcoming, and happy.  It was an epiphany! We weren’t alone!”

For the first time, Dean and Gary held hands in public, unafraid, and at the evening’s end, they grasped the hands of those around them too as the 29 year-old Chorus sang what had always been its signature song, ‘Walk Hand In Hand.’  Dean and Gary were in awe. “The choir and audience sang together words that would forever change the hopes and dreams of two frightened men from Iowa.” 

On November 27, 2004, Gary’s business partners, and nearly 200 other guests joyously witnessed the couple’s Holy Union Ceremony at First Presbyterian Church, right there at home, in Mason City.

The Wedding Ceremony

On April 27, 2009, the day marriage licenses could be legally provided to same-gender couples in Iowa, Dean and Gary were first in line. By this time, their initial plan - a simple visit to the judge-  was just a laughable memory, and the preparations for the larger event, for 400 friends, relatives, co-workers, and community members, were in place. They had decided that this time when they donned their tuxedos, they wanted the day’s meaningfulness to extend beyond a wedding. “Our event was a day of Marriage Equality Celebration,” Dean explains. “We envisioned this being a teachable moment for the community here in Iowa.”

To accomplish this goal, they wished to create a multi-faceted and relevant ceremony, beginning with pianist Brian Snell’s renditions of songs including “I Am What I Am,” “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Somewhere My Love,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Impossible Dream.”

Then several narrators, including Rev. Paul Collier and Mr. Allen Burch, began telling the story of Dean and Gary’s lives.  As part of their story includes their families, standing alongside the grooms were Dean’s nieces, Lynne Utterback and Deb Baker, and Gary's son, Adden Swenson,  Gary's youngest brother, Mark Swenson and his husband Craig Coburn, and Gary’s nephew, Aaron Swenson.

As the narrators spoke, The Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, directed by Dr. Stan Hill, accompanied by Timothy De Prey, performed songs related to Dean and Gary’s story. “Once I Had a Secret Love,” they sang. Also intertwined within the story were the songs “If You Only Knew,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Can Fly,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Vocalists Beth, Jennifer, Kristen, and Stephanie Ehlers sang “Somewhere.”

Also interspersed were the narrators’ readings of several significant pieces including Edmund O’Neill’s classic work, “Marriage Joins Two People In The Circle Of Its Love.”

But in addition to being informative and inspiring, Dean and Gary’s wedding was also designed to be very personal. “Our vows this time,” Dean says, “were more secular than the Holy Union Ceremony, but were written by us to be extremely personal and meaningful for us.”

It was personal to them on another level too: the inclusion of Reverend Mel White, internationally known author and founder of Soulforce, an organization focused on obtaining freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the use of nonviolent resistance.

The choice to have Rev. White officiate at their wedding stemmed from Dean’s appreciation for Rev. White’s book, Stranger At The Gate - To be Gay and Christian in America, which Dean says enabled him to "come out" and live life honestly and authentically.  Dean then served as Director of Logistics for Soulforce’s 2007 East Bus Equality Ride, and having struck up a friendship, Rev. White was happy to officiate at the couple’s wedding.

After the vows, the ceremony closed with the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus singing the song that had so positively impacted Dean and Gary’s lives several years before. “Walk hand in hand with us,” Dean and Gary invited their guests. Guests grasped each others’ hands as the Chorus sang its signature song.  

The Reception

The Chorus also entertained at the reception, as did Kirk’s DJ & Sound. The reception theme, the Music Man Square Streetscape décor, featured rainbow flags of all sizes and floral displays, centerpieces, corsages, and boutonnières, created by Randy Black of Hy-Vee Floral, including tulips, roses, daisies, and irises in bright rainbow colors.Gail Schurtz of Hy-Vee Catering provided the Casual Cuisine menu including gourmet ham, turkey, and roast beef tortilla snack wraps; a fresh fruit bouquet featuring melon, grapes, and strawberries; lemon-limeade slush, and wine bar. The three-tier wedding cake had an Asian influence, square with draping apple blossoms and the Cantonese symbol for Happiness on top.  Three additional sheet cakes were decorated with rosebuds and rainbow colors in keeping with the wedding theme. Photographers Matty Smith and Ed Lynn recorded the day in pictures, and videographer Jeff Platt captured the fun and festivities as well.

Cherishing the Day

But amid the celebration, Dean and Gary invited their guests to also seek the deeper meaning of the day. “Look around you,” they told their 400 friends and family members. “Here is a cross-section of Iowa.  In this room are folks at all levels of the income spectrum.  We have well-dressed fashionistas and those whose clothes reflect the care of long-term repair, conservation and thrift.  We have gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and straight individuals.  We have those who were born male and are now female, and those who were born female and today sport beards and dapper masculinity.  We have all flavors of religion represented, as well as those who profess no religion or belief whatsoever.  We have Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.  We have pastors and priests, doctors and lawyers, those who serve us sandwiches at the counter and those who clean up after us when we are long gone from work or business.

“No one here is unacceptable.  No one here is ‘less than.’  You will be hard-pressed to find a gathering in the United States as diverse as this group of people in this room today.  And you will be hard-pressed to find a moment in time when you are as accepted for who you are, than this moment right now.  Cherish this moment.”

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