Anytime between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Missoula County Courthouse, two straight people of complementary sexual orientation can purchase 1,049 legal federal rights (as inventoried by the General Accounting Office in 1997) for $30.25. Driver’s licenses or birth certificates are required, along with rubella test results for the women. Those who have professed devotion to sweethearts of the same gender, however (and in Montana, 1,218 households are headed up by same-sex couples, according to the 2000 U.S. census), need not apply.
Between now and June 18, the Montana Family Foundation will attempt to collect at least 41,020 signatures to place a constitutional initiative on November’s ballot that, if passed, would ensure that marriage continues to be the exclusive institution that, in Montana as in much of the nation, it currently remains.
“We have to assume that it will be on the ballot,” says Christopher Peterson, who is working with Montanans for Families and Fairness (terrible name, he says—much too similar to the opponents’) to discourage voters from signing the initiative petition.
The inability of gays to marry, says the former ASUM president, has broad implications.
“To us,” he says, “it’s a practical as well as an emotional issue.” Linda Gryczan, a Helena resident who successfully challenged Montana’s Deviate Sexual Conduct law in the Montana Supreme Court in 1997 in Gryzcan v. Montana, has dealt with some of the practical aspects of being in a lawfully unrecognized committed relationship.
A couple years ago, she tried to join a health club in Helena. The club, she says, had a history of discriminating against gays and lesbians. (Years earlier, she says, PRIDE, a gay and lesbian advocacy organization, had booked an event at the club, but the club had pulled its reservation and offered the space for a bachelorette party instead.)
The club offered a membership price break for families, but not for gay couples, Gryzcan says, so she helped the club change its mind.
“What it took,” she says, “was a letter from me and a letter from Karl [Olson, director of Montana PRIDE].”
“There are lots of different kinds of families,” she says, and the letter explained that the policy was unfair and discriminatory.
The club changed its rules.
Gryzcan recalls a second incident while working for a Helena library. Library employees, she says, commonly used one card for every member of the family.
“Parents used kids’, kids used parent’s” she says, spouses used each others’ cards.
“A librarian tried to insist that we couldn’t use our family card,” Gryczan says. The couple spoke to the director, who quickly rectified the problem.
Gryczan says she doesn’t let the discrimination demean her. “It’s just a hassle,” she says. “Your family does not count. Your spouse of 20 years is legally a stranger.”
There are times, though, when the discrimination moves past the mundane daily grind—events Peterson calls “hiccups”—to situations that are emotionally, legally or financially critical.
Olson tells of a family who legally exhumed a loved one’s body and moved it without ever telling, much less asking, the deceased’s partner. U.S. customs officers have separated couples, he says, because a U.S. citizen’s partner did not have the citizenship afforded by legal marriage. And, says Gryczan, widows have had to pay inheritance tax on half of a house that they already own.
Hospital visitation, says Peterson, is one of the more important rights denied same-sex couples. Peterson recently returned from Ohio, and tells of an Ohio man dying of AIDS in the hospital. His family refused to recognize his partner, says Peterson.
“He would sit outside the doors,” says Peterson, “[waiting] for any news that he could get.”
Eventually, the nurses learned who he was and recognized his sincerity, he says.
“They began sneaking him in at night,” says Peterson. After 2 a.m., when visiting hours were over, they would shepherd the patient’s partner into the room for the night, and rouse him out of bed before 5 a.m. in order to avoid family members.
Those nurses put their jobs on the line, says Peterson.
Some of the 1,049 rights married couples take for granted, like hospital visitations and inheritance rights, can be purchased via lawyers—though the cost is substantially more than a $30.25 marriage license.
Shane Vannatta, a general law practitioner with Worden Thane & Haines PC, says the cost of a typical set of wills and durable power of attorney can average anywhere from $500 to $2,000, depending on the complexity of the documents and the value of the estates.
“What’s sad, though,” he says, “is that even then, nothing is guaranteed.”
Wills, and most other legal documents, can be challenged, he says. Vannatta believes that many gay couples do not realize the precariousness of their legal position. And he believes the “sanctity of marriage” argument against same-sex unions may be exaggerated. Vannatta doesn’t exactly scoff at “the sanctity of marriage,” but he points to the recent spate of reality TV matchmaking. And he brings up the short-lived nuptials of Britney Spears.
“She had more rights in 24 hours,” he says, “than a same-sex couple that had been together for 24 years.”
Social values aside, the reality is that in terms of marriage, the law protects Spears-style shotgun weddings and excludes decades-long relationships such as that between Gryczan and her partner.
Despite polls showing support for the constitutional initiative that would ban gay marriage, Peterson is optimistic. He believes that Montanans’ penchant for being left alone will win out.
“It can be a libertarian-type state,” he says. “The government doesn’t have the right to interfere in our private lives.”
Olson, however, is more cautious.
“If it does make the ballot,” he says, “then we have to work really hard to educate people to vote against it.”
And, he says, “it will be hard.”