In 1989, Linda Gryczan and a handful of other gay rights advocates first asked Montana legislators to repeal the state’s “deviate sexual conduct” law, which classified gay sex as a felony prosecutable by 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. A Democratic lawmaker responded to her testimony by calling her “slime.”
Despite the Montana Supreme Court’s 1997 declaration that the provision was unconstitutional, lawmakers refused to scrub the law from the books until just last year. At a ceremony in the Capitol, gay rights activists celebrated the hard-fought win. “It’s a very powerful symbol,” Gryczan told the Independent.
But the repeal was just that: symbolic. Despite the victory, it remained legal in most parts of the state to, based on sexual identity, deny employment and housing. Similarly, Montana’s 2004 constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples remained firmly intact.
In light of the fact that it took gay rights activists so long to secure a symbolic win, recent victories seem to be occurring at a breakneck pace. In 2012, the state’s Democratic Party endorsed gay marriage for the first time. Days later, the GOP repealed an official platform plank that called to re-criminalize gay sex. Then, last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to repeal the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The ACLU maintains in the lawsuit that the ban “cannot be squared with the State’s history or with its culture.”
The plaintiffs—Sue Hawthorne and Adel Johnson of Helena, Ben Milano and Chase Weinhandl of Bozeman, Shauna and Nicole Goubeaux of Billings and Angie and Tonya Rolando of Great Falls—seek to “challenge any and all Montana statutes that refer to marriage as a relationship between a ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ or ‘man’ and ‘woman.’”
The effort to contest the Montana’s ban comes amidst a wave of successful challenges to similar prohibitions at the state and federal level. That wave started last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages are entitled to federal recognition.
Moments after the ACLU filed the lawsuit in federal court, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock expressed support for the plaintiffs. The Montana Democratic Party quickly followed. There’s a legal fight looming, but already the tenor of the conversation has changed. Momentum is clear. Progress is at hand. Nobody has been called “slime.” And Montana will soon be a better place for it.