Nicole Clawson proposed to her girlfriend Sally Lowe in 2001 at a Circle K gas station in California. Clawson was a manager, Lowe a clerk. A move to Missoula and 12 years later, however, they had yet to exchange vows. That's part of the reason Clawson welcomed the news of Missoula's Citywide Domestic Partnership Registry.
"I was excited, because (Lowe) finally decided to do it," Clawson says.
On Oct. 2, the day after the registry opened, Clawson and Lowe signed up to become the first couple recognized by the city of Missoula as domestic partners. They also became the first same-sex partnership to be sanctioned by any Montana municipality.
As of Jan. 2, the Citywide Registry listed 10 couples. The recognition does not confer legal rights, such as tax breaks and inheritance, as government-sanctioned marriage does; Montana offers no legal recognition for same-sex couples. But Clawson and Lowe say the small registry cards they carry with them in their wallets demonstrate that the city of Missoula, at least, acknowledges their relationship.
"I just felt really good about being able to be recognized," Lowe says.
Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple says that when she proposed the registry to the lawmaking body last fall, she intended for it to bolster the status of same-sex relationships.
"It sends a message to the state that, even though the state of Montana has really antiquated and unjust laws, the city of Missoula is committed to doing everything that we can to try to do the right thing," Copple says.
In November, the new registry helped Missoula earn a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Municipal Equality Index, which graded 291 cities on LGBT inclusiveness. The Garden City also scored points for its anti-discrimination law and for having responsive city leaders. In July, the Missoula City Council created a volunteer LGBT liaison position that's staffed by Copple.
Copple notes that Missoula's HRC score of 100 is notable in contrast with communities such as Helena, which scored a 48, and Great Falls, with just 22.
"(It) hopefully sends a message, especially to our young people and creative types out there, that they don't have to leave Montana, that they can come here, that they can build a business, do their artwork, live the kind of life they want to live, and that they'll be embraced as a full member of our community," she says.