Out in Montana 

After a winter of fear and defeat, advocates renew their fight for same-sex rights

Linda Gryczan was afraid that someone might burn down her house.

The year was 1993, and Gryczan had just decided to talk to her neighbors in Clancy, a blink-of-the-eye community south of Helena. One by one, she told them the truth—that she was a lesbian, that she was suing the state over its laws against homosexuality, and that she was going to be in the news a lot. She was concerned about retribution.

But what she got was much the opposite. Soon after she made her rounds, her neighbors started plowing her driveway without being beckoned. They vowed to keep a protective eye on her property. And many of them pledged their support in her fight against the state.

“At the grocery store, people would pull me over and whisper, ‘Thanks for doing the lawsuit,’” she says now. “It was an overwhelmingly positive experience.”

Acceptance and persecution, a willingness to help and a quickness to condemn. Being openly homosexual in most parts of Montana is like climbing into a kaleidoscope—you’re surrounded by an entire spectrum of attitudes, but the spectrum is always shifting. Your neighbors might recognize and even accept your homosexuality, but your government never will. You might start to feel safe being out of the closet in Montana, but as this winter’s outbreak of anti-gay violence proved, you probably shouldn’t. And above all, while Montanans pride themselves on preserving their individual freedoms, the state’s political leaders have been trying their hardest to write laws that regulate individual behavior, refusing to offer even the most basic protections for homosexuals. They are all uneasy social paradoxes, but they are ones same-sex activists feel are slowly swinging their way.

“The level of public support [for same-sex rights] has increased,” says Rep. Chris Kaufmann, a Helena Democrat and the only openly homosexual member of the Montana Legislature. “Churches and editorial pages are talking about it in a much more positive way. The rhetoric is just more positive, but it still has a ways to go.”

Gryczan is partly responsible for that trend. In 1993, along with several fellow plaintiffs, she challenged the state’s so-called “deviate sexual conduct” law, a 1973 statute that makes it a felony for two people of the same gender to have sexual contact. Gay and lesbian activists had been lobbying the Legislature since 1991 to remove the outdated statute, which carries a maximum 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, but conservative lawmakers rejected the notion out of hand.

“We heard horrible abuse in the Legislature, the stuff we still hear,” says Gryczan, who was hired to direct the first repeal campaign and has been deeply involved with the issue ever since. “We saw we we’re getting nowhere, so we took it to the courts.” Gryczan signed on as the lead plaintiff.

Despite arguments from then-Attorney General Joe Mazurek that the plaintiffs couldn’t sue because prosecutors never enforced the 1973 law, District Court ruled that the statute violated the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy. A key argument from Gryczan and her fellow plaintiffs was that even if the law wasn’t enforced, gays and lesbians still feared prosecution. That winning argument followed the case to the Montana Supreme Court when the state appealed. In its 1997 ruling, the high court agreed with the earlier decision, ruling that the deviant sexual conduct law violates privacy provisions and should be thrown out.

Incredibly, though, the law still remains on the books. In the recently concluded 2001 session of the Montana Legislature, when legislation was again introduced to strike down the old code, conservative lawmakers trundled out the same arguments that have worked for them in the past—that gays and lesbians are a menace to children, that they spread disease, and their sexual activities are sinful. Rep. Verdell Jackson (R-Kalispell), a retired educator, even testified in January that the law “protects me from propositions on the street.”

Dallas Erickson, head of the Stevensville-based Montana Citizens for Decency Through Law, is an outspoken advocate of limiting same-sex rights. Along with representatives of the Christian Coalition of Montana, Erickson testifies at virtually every legislative hearing where sexual orientation is debated.

“In my opinion, [homosexuality] is an ultimate denial of God,” he says. “I think that’s what it amounts to—an ultimate denial of the Creator. Civilizations that go that way don’t last very long. It goes against God’s will.”

Erickson, like many of his counterparts, says he believes sexual orientation is a chosen phenomenon, not a natural trait. Therefore, he reasons, no special protections should be put into place.

“God directed us to be heterosexual-oriented, and I think there’s pretty good proof of that,” he says. “I believe our nation and our families are in danger because of sin, be that adultery, fornication or homosexuality.” Erickson has fought vehemently against having the deviant-conduct law removed. His graphic testimony about alleged sexual perversions prompted at least one committee chairman in the 2001 session to cut him off.

“I’ve never felt more verbally abused in any place in Montana than at the Legislature,” says Rep. Kaufmann. “I think there’s a small group of people that’s being fed a hateful rhetoric from national groups, and I don’t think it reflects what Montanans feel about the issue. That’s not to say there’s not prejudice and hatred in Montana. Yes, there is. But it’s not as prevalent as it might seem.”

“I get frustrated every time the Legislature tell us no, but it’s a chess game,” Gryczan explains. “They play their part, we play ours. But I’m absolutely convinced we’ll eventually win.”

A State of Denial

Remove the typically ugly talk at the statehouse, and throw away Montana’s image as a breeding ground for roughnecks, racists and blow-dried rodeo queens. Is there any room left under the Big Sky for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered?

“I think there’s competing Montana mystiques, one that can say, ‘Who gives a shit?’ and the other that says, ‘Men are men and women are women,’” says Kaufmann. “We may have the cowboy image in the rest of the world, but it’s not exactly a cowboy place anymore. There are gay cowboys, you know? But I certainly didn’t come to Montana because I thought it was the best place to be a lesbian.”

“The closet’s fairly large in Montana, so that makes it hard to do our work,” adds Karl Olson, executive director of PRIDE, a statewide advocacy group. “There’s a perception that homophobia is really entrenched in Montana’s history. I think to some extent that’s a misconception perpetrated by the far right. They’ve found Montana to be a fertile breeding ground for more organized forms of discrimination and bias. There are pockets of acceptance across the state, but that’s not enough.”

“Missoula and Helena are certainly different places than Glendive or Cut Bank,” Gryczan says. “It depends on the local culture. It’s a very different situation for someone who is out and living in Podunk. But the lack of legal rights affects everyone.”

As in most of the nation, injustices abound. Gays and lesbians in Montana cannot be legally married; they have no legal recourse if fired from a private-sector job for their sexual orientation; survivorship, child-rearing, and health-care issues remain daunting for many couples; and even getting a joint library card or checking account can be a hassle.

Gryczan, for example, always carries a power-of-attorney document with her in case her partner is unexpectedly rushed to the hospital. Otherwise, she says, she might not be allowed to visit or help make crucial decisions. As a couple, Gryczan and her partner have drawn up wills, even though the state’s probate system is geared toward single people and heterosexuals. They’ve also been denied public services because agencies say they’re not legally married. Gryczan, 47, can’t get on her partner’s state employee health plan because administrators refuse to recognize gay or lesbian partners. They can’t even get the same homeowner’s insurance that a man-and-wife team can.

In the 2001 Legislature, the only measurable progress made for same-sex rights was that House Speaker Dan McGee (R-Laurel) was forced to withdraw a bill to rescind an order from former Gov. Marc Racicot that prohibits state agencies from dismissing employees over their sexual orientation. Other bills that aimed to add sexual orientation to the state’s Human Rights Act and to prevent private employers from discriminating against gay and lesbian workers died quick deaths.

“Legally, we are strangers,” Gryczan laments. “I’m a legal stranger to my spouse of 18 years. My spouse isn’t a family member under the law. My spouse won’t get fired for being a lesbian, but I can’t be sure of that. If there were a Y chromosome in the mix, it would be a very different legal situation.”

Casey Charles, a gay professor of English at The University of Montana in Missoula, has been leading a fight to get the state’s university system to allow same-sex partners to share employee health benefits. The proposal was approved 19-1 by a union board in 1998, but Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts rejected the deal as being politically unfeasible. An appeal last year to the state Board of Regents was also turned back. Charles says UM faculty and staff are now looking at legal options, even though they know that won’t end the larger battle.

Charles and his partner, David Wilson, a Spanish teacher at Big Sky High School, say even Missoula, with its reputation for open-mindedness, has back alleys of resistance when it comes to same-sex rights.

“It’s kind of a contradictory situation because the myth of Missoula is its acceptance and openness,” says Charles, a co-founder of the Western Montana Gay and Lesbian Community Center. “But within that we have professors who are afraid to come out because they’re afraid they won’t get tenure. And you think of the university as the most open place in an open town. There’s a lot of internalized homophobia. We have a lot of gays and lesbians who are content to stay in the closet.”

Wilson, who initiated Big Sky High’s first Gay-Straight Alliance student group in 1998, says homosexuals must build a “basis of proximity” to more heterosexuals throughout the state in order to gain further acceptance. Once straight people understand that homosexuals are an integral—and pervasive—part of society, adds Charles, “that’s where we’ll see the geography of change.”

“If everybody gay and lesbian I know suddenly wore pink and purple stripes one day, the community would be surprised who’s serving them in government, who’s playing at the ballgame, who’s teaching their children, who’s serving them communion,” Kaufmann adds. “I do think there is a learned revulsion in too many people toward gays and lesbians that needs to be rooted out. It doesn’t get rooted out by gays and lesbians being silent. Just the opposite.”

And the best strategy for advocates to employ in Montana’s traditional, often-backward political arena?

“You let the opposition speak,” says Gryczan. “They’re wonderful for recruiting our allies. After some of these people speak I’ve had a lot of people say, “You’re really being discriminated against,’ and then they’re on our side.”

Living with Fear

When Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man living in Laramie, Wyo., was viciously murdered in 1998, most of the nation was shocked and ashamed. For many heterosexuals, however, the images of a beaten and bloody Shepard abandoned on a cold and lonely fencepost have grown fuzzy. Not so for the gays and lesbians who reside just north of the state line.

This past winter, two disturbing attacks on gay men in Montana helped keep fear alive. One victim was severely injured after being jumped by two other males while leaving a gay bar in Billings. The other incident involved a student at Helena’s Carroll College, a Catholic institution, who dropped out and returned to Spokane after getting hit in the head with a bottle, being beaten into unconsciousness, and then being beaten further. Still another incident involving death threats to a gay man in Kalispell, where PRIDE’s annual meeting will be held in early June, has just been reported.

As in the Wyoming case, investigators say the Helena and Billings men were singled out for their sexual orientation. At the same time the beatings were publicized, the Montana Legislature, for the fifth consecutive time, was considering a bill to add gender, disability and sexual orientation to the state’s hate crimes law. But even violence at the doorstep failed to sway the Republican majority.

“I think Matthew Shepard cases do happen here, [the victims] just don’t die,” says teacher David Wilson, adding that verbal and physical harassment are common for many gays and lesbians, even in public school systems where zero-tolerance policies are often in place. “Casey and I show affection wherever we are, but I’m probably more paranoid about it because I grew up here. I know the potential of what could happen.”

“The purpose for bias-motivated crime is to put people in their place, and I know those incidents have had that effect,” PRIDE’s Olson explains. “I know people have withdrawn from greater participation in the community because of that. On the other hand, I’ve had people call and say, ‘I can’t be silent anymore.’ That happens too. When you’re talking about being out of the closet, you’re dealing with a lot of perception. The fear is usually very disproportionate to the reality, but it’s very powerful.”

“I certainly think about being out and open and being a public figure,” says David Herrera, director of the Yellowstone AIDS Project and a high-profile member of the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force in Billings. “I certainly recognize there’s an element of risk to the work I do. For many gays and lesbians, the threat of assault is very real.” While Billings is the state’s largest city, an uncomfortable air of intolerance against homosexuals still permeates the social and political atmosphere, Herrera says.

“In Billings, I would say there is still a tremendous amount of fear, a fear of being rejected by family, co-workers and the community,” he explains. “There’s a perception that the Billings community is very unaccepting. I’ve also had incredibly positive responses from people I never expected. Hopefully, we’ll continue to change attitudes one person at a time. I just hope that happens before all the gay men in Montana leave the state.”

An Unnatural Fascination

Seattle attorney Jeff Coop lived in Missoula for seven years, graduated from the University of Montana School of Law, and worked at a Billings law firm for three years before leaving with his gay partner last year. Coop says he stayed in the closet during most of his time in Montana, especially at work. Now that he’s in a more supportive environment, Coop feels he can speak out more freely.

“I can’t understand why certain Montana and national politicians have an unnatural fascination with gays and lesbians and why they are tireless and relentless in their efforts to ensure that we are forever denied privileges and rights enjoyed by others,” he says. “On that note, I think it’s high time that homophobes have to justify their irrational fear or hatred of gays and lesbians and explain why we should be denied basic human rights afforded to all others, instead of gays and lesbians having to justify their mere existence.”

A big part of changing attitudes, Coop believes, is encouraging other gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to go public.

“If you are not out, come out,” he says. “Put a face to the words ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ or ‘dyke’ or ‘fag’ or any of the other words used to describe us. What people forget or do not understand is that we are everywhere, whether we are out or not. We have to do what we can to disabuse people of their stereotypes, and the only way to do that is to live openly and with integrity.”

“The law tells the story of our lives,” PRIDE’s Olson explains. “It defines how we live, and the law reflected in Montana lives portrays a tragedy for gays and lesbians. That’s what concerns us. We want to close the gaps. We have to be involved in public-education efforts to get that middle majority of people, who I think are tolerant, to be a little more active in our civil rights efforts.”

Charles, the UM professor, says he sometimes gets frustrated with the pace of change in Montana. As a result, he and other activists put a lot of effort into trying to get gays and lesbians more involved.

“The community needs to be more political,” he says. “Somehow we’re not getting our message across. We really feel we’ve got to reach out to Montanans. We’re here, we’re queer, but we have to fight.”

“What has happened over the years is a real change in people coming out as supporters,” Gryczan observes. “We lose at the Legislature, but we are gaining the hearts and minds of Montanans. There’s a lot more of us out publicly, out to our neighbors, at our work. And that’s where the real change happens, not in a law book.”

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