Stepping Out 

Why "boringly normal" families are waging an extraordinary legal fight for equality

Mike Long lives with Rich Parker in a blue house with white trim on a quiet Bozeman street. A slightly effeminate 57-year-old with dark hair and a graying goatee, Long likes to cook, and counts homemade macaroni and cheese, chicken and dumplings, and chili among his specialties. Household and automotive repairs are usually left to Parker, 40, a Navy veteran and engineer, who spent a recent Saturday afternoon lying in the garage replacing a brake line under a friend's Ford Escort. The couple's son, 18-year-old Kevin Long, plays football at Bozeman High School and is an accomplished competitive weightlifter.

The family's routine is fairly predictable: work, school, family dinners, sports on the big-screen TV, homework for Kevin—the usual.

"We're boringly normal," Long says.

It may be unremarkable, but while most Americans take this lifestyle for granted—9-to-5 jobs, household chores, mortgage payments and the like—it's taken Parker and Long a lifetime to get here. Before building this comfortable home and loving family, both men spent decades agonizing over their sexuality. They hid it from colleagues, friends and family—even themselves.

Long, a Montana native raised in the agricultural community of Big Timber, didn't come out as a gay man until 2004. By then, he was already in his late 40s and a divorced father.

Parker also grew up in a small town, the youngest of nine children in a community of about 5,500 outside of Utica, N.Y. Like Long, Parker says a socially conservative upbringing prompted him to keep his romantic interest in men under wraps. He focused instead on perfecting stereotypical testosterone-fueled exploits like fixing cars and making household repairs. He eventually joined the Navy, traveled around the country, drank a lot of beer and avoided substantive romantic entanglements with anyone. After first toying with the idea that he was a bisexual, Parker finally gathered his courage to come out as a gay man in 2002. He was 30.

"This feeling of fear was pretty overwhelming the first time I said to somebody other than myself that I was gay," he says. "You just take this deep breath and go, 'Whew, that Pandora's box just got opened.' It was overwhelming how good it felt to finally say, 'No more lies, no more hiding, no more not being myself. I'm just going to be myself, period.'"

It's been just more than 10 years since Parker opened that Pandora's box. During that time he's gone from hiding his sexuality to suddenly standing front and center amid Montana's gay rights movement.

Last July, Long and Parker joined a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of six same-sex couples who aim to secure benefit rights for homosexuals like themselves who have built long-term committed relationships.

The case, Donaldson and Guggenheim v. State of Montana, filed in Helena District Court, asserts that gay people are constitutionally entitled to, yet unlawfully denied, the same privileges afforded to married people. Specifically, the suit targets equal tax benefits, inheritance rights and the power to make financial and health decisions for domestic partners. Judge Jeffrey Sherlock's ruling is imminent, and his decision is expected to set the stage for future debates in Montana courts, at the Legislature, and among residents about the legal, institutional and social entitlement of gays and lesbians in the state.

click to enlarge Rick Parker and Mike Long don’t understand why people oppose their attempts to gain domestic partnership benefits. “How are we a threat?” Long asks. “How can our relationship hurt anyone else’s?” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Rick Parker and Mike Long don’t understand why people oppose their attempts to gain domestic partnership benefits. “How are we a threat?” Long asks. “How can our relationship hurt anyone else’s?”

The suit's central goal calls for breaking down barriers to legal equality, but the plaintiffs hope it will also trigger wider social ramifications. For instance, it could chip away at the institutional homophobia responsible for building closets like the ones Long and Parker lived in for so long.

"Once the law ceases sanctioning discrimination, it becomes much more difficult for individuals to do so," says Christine Kaufmann, an openly gay Montana legislator from Helena who filed an affidavit in support of the ACLU case. "When it becomes against the law, it changes things for both the group that is experiencing that discrimination, as well as the culture at large who now has less permission to believe that their own personal biases are worthy of acceptance."

•••

Montana's legal battles over LGBT equality in many ways mirror fights taking place across the nation. Since 2003, five states and the District of Columbia have granted gay and lesbian people the right to marry. Gay couples may register as domestic partners in seven other states. Those count as victories for gay rights activists. But their work is far from finished. Five other states—Maryland, Colorado, Rhode Island, Indiana and New Hampshire—are in the process of debating partnership legislation that would further clarify same-sex benefits. And in California, a voter-approved ban of gay marriage known as Proposition 8 passed in November 2008 and continues to get batted around in and out of the state's court system.

For Montana plaintiffs and their ACLU attorney, Betsy Griffing, it's clear that equality won't come overnight, especially in a largely conservative state like Montana.

"It's very difficult," she says. "It's a difficult road."

LGBT rights proponents did receive a promising boost last month when the Obama administration announced the federal government will no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The law, crafted by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, bars recognition of same sex marriage.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder explained in a Feb. 23 statement to Congress that the administration has found DOMA unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection guaranteed to all Americans. Holder says the administration based its decision, in part, on congressional testimony presented while drafting DOMA.

"The record contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships—precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against," Holder said.

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