STORIES: John & Lowell

John & Lowell: Visibility is Key to Acceptance

Although it took John and Lowell Oliver-Shaw years to become a couple, once they got together, they knew marriage wasn’t far off.

“John proposed, and we thought we’d get married on a trip to California,” Lowell said. “But then they passed Prop 8, so we decided to wait. Then I had a conference coming up in Boston, we talked about marrying there.”

But as the conference grew closer, so too did a decision in Varnum v. Brien, a marriage equality case before the Iowa Supreme Court. John and Lowell decided to put their plans on hold again until the court ruled.

“We’re so glad we waited so we could get married at home,” Lowell said. “After the court ruling, we looked at a calendar and realized the ruling anniversary would be on a Saturday. And we thought, ‘How perfect is that?’

“Once the court ruling came down, we were determined to have the wedding in Pella. We didn’t want to go running away, and we didn’t care if people were picketing or voicing outrage or if people were coming from Kansas to protest.”

But the wedding at the Pella Opera House went off without a hitch. The couple found out later from friends and family that people walking by did ask who was getting married.

“We were downtown being pretty obvious with our photographer taking photos of us outside, so people were asking about it,” Lowell said.

“Or they would just wander into the opera house and see our picture there by the door,” said John.

The couple says they were also very careful about whom they invited to the wedding, not sending invitations to family members they thought would not be supportive. They made it very clear that if guests were not going to be affirming, they should ignore their invitations.

One uncle wrote and said he and his wife would not be attending because they didn’t support the marriage, but the guests who did end up packing the opera house — more than half from Pella –showed just how much they did support the couple.

The wedding experience is indicative of the couple’s life in Pella. Lowell says he is especially happy with his coworkers at Central College where he works as conference coordinator.

“It’s amazing how many people come up to me on the street, on campus, or at church and say, ‘I heard you got married, and that is so great! We are so happy for you,'” Lowell said. “These are people I never realized were supportive. I’ve not had anyone come up to us and say anything negative.”

Lowell said he was worried about coming out while growing up in Pella, but he’s seen acceptance growing over the years. John, who works for Iowa Diabetes & Endocrinology Center in Des Moines, was less sure and thought Pella might be too conservative. Both agree their visibility as entrepreneurs (they have a home business making and selling mulling spices called Bisschopswijn) and community volunteers helps people accept them as a couple.

“It’s definitely the fear of the unknown,” John said. “Once you break that barrier, there’s no need for the fear.”

“They know you and respect you, and then they learn this other part about you, and it’s not so scary,” Lowell adds.

Work with Pella’s community food shelf, welcoming committee, tulip festival and chamber of commerce definitely add to the respect they earned from the community.

“Don’t forget the wedding extravaganza,” John said.

“Oh yes,” Lowell said. “I got them to change the name from the Pella Bridal Fair to the Pella Wedding Extravaganza.”

Another icebreaker is John’s two children from a previous marriage.

“People are like, ‘Whose kids are these?” John says with a laugh. “I think it’s important for people to see the interaction between us. They are older, and are involved by their own choice.

“They were involved in our wedding: Benn stood up for us and my daughter walked me down the aisle. They were very excited to do it.”

“I can see Shiann being an activist one day,” says Lowell. “She talks about us with all of her friends. When we were getting married, she told everyone at her church, ‘My dads are getting married, so I won’t be here this weekend.'”

The couple attends a Dutch Reformed church in Pella. Their denomination has been discussing how they will care and support their gay members, and if they will allow openly gay clergy. An elder told John and Lowell the church is struggling to decide if they will perform same-sex weddings, and a group called Room For All was formed by members of the church who support LGBT membership.

Both ministers attended the couple’s wedding, even though John and Lowell were married by a close friend who is a minister in Newton.

“Definitely it’s being discussed in our church,” Lowell says. “People see us attending with our kids, and people are recognizing us, coming up and congratulating us. I feel very comfortable there even though it’s supposedly very conservative.”

Lowell says some of the change has come from “imports,” people who moved to the area to work at companies like Pella Windows and Doors, a company known for their progressive policies.

John and Lowell know there’s still some work to do gaining acceptance though, like with the uncle who wouldn’t attend the wedding.

“We just received an invitation from that uncle to a family reunion, and we plan to be there in force,” Lowell says with a laugh. “Husbands, kids — be there and be the normal family we are. Just like everybody else.”




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