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.

Holder's argument appears very similar to the legal rationale used by the Montana ALCU in its benefits lawsuit. ACLU attorneys and lawsuit supporters like Kaufmann say that because the Montana Legislature has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to grant the constitutional protections LGBT people are entitled to, the judiciary is obligated to step up.

"If we wait for the Legislature to change this, it's not going to happen for a hundred years," Kaufmann says.

Kaufmann, who served as Montana Human Rights Network director from 1992 to 2009 and was first elected to the Legislature in 2000, points to numerous instances in which state legislators exhibited the type of "moral disapproval" Holder discussed. For instance, in her affidavit, Kaufmann details a 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting when former Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, talked about why he opposes hate crime protections for LGBT people.

"This is not about love, this is about sex," McGee said. "Everything about the whole sexual orientation issue, the homosexual agenda, is a perversion... I'm normal, they're abnormal. This is a perversion."

As McGee's testimony makes clear, the debate over LGBT rights is often fraught with discussions about morality. However, the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) is asking Judge Sherlock to dismiss the ACLU lawsuit based solely on its interpretation of the law, says agency spokesman Kevin O' Brien.

click to enlarge There aren’t a lot of gay men raising kids in Bozeman, leaving Mike Long and Rich Parker to figure things out as they go. “We have no role models,” Long says. “We’ve had to forge our own trail to a degree with building our relationship.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • There aren’t a lot of gay men raising kids in Bozeman, leaving Mike Long and Rich Parker to figure things out as they go. “We have no role models,” Long says. “We’ve had to forge our own trail to a degree with building our relationship.”

"The state is making very mainstream arguments," he says.

The DOJ's case breaks down to three main points. The first holds that legislators are elected to craft law, not the judiciary.

"It is for the State Legislature, not the Court to decide whether to create a new category of benefits beyond spousal benefits," states DOJ in its legal filings.

DOJ's second argument maintains that a constitutional initiative passed by Montana voters in 2004 defining marriage as a union between a man and woman prevents the state from crafting legal protections sought by the ACLU.

Finally, DOJ says same-sex couples already have the necessary tools to overcome perceived legal obstacles—they can, for instance, make financial and health decisions for domestic partners regardless of the lawsuit's outcome.

"Plaintiffs seek no more freedom from government in the pursuit of life's basic necessities than they already possess," states DOJ's October brief. "Nor...is there any fundamental right to the array of spousal benefits plaintiffs would have this court extend to them."

Neither the ACLU plaintiffs nor Griffing buy the DOJ's arguments. They say the judiciary must act, and the current system unfairly burdens same-sex couples seeking the most basic benefits. Plus, just because marriage is defined as a heterosexual union, there's nothing stopping the state, specifically the Legislature, from creating a separate method for same-sex partners to attain equal legal footing alongside heterosexual peers. The marriage amendment, Griffing says, does not make the Legislature immune from upholding constitutional protections.

"It is not an exception to equal protection or the privacy clauses," she says. "It just isn't."

•••

Mike Long learned to hide growing up in Big Timber. His dad was a classic cowboy, a man who wore Wranglers, a 10-gallon hat and chewed tobacco. Long's older brothers fell in step with their father. The youngest son, however, never felt comfortable in the macho culture that marked his childhood.

"It was, and still is, a very constrained society in that there are a billion unwritten, unspoken rules of behavior. You need to conform, or you're ostracized," says Long. "Among that long set of rules is sexuality and there was no deviation from that...You couldn't be gay. It just wasn't done."

Long's transformation commenced shortly after he met Parker online in a gay chat room. He had moved to Glendive by then, and the rural Montana town was, like Big Timber, not exactly a hub of homosexual activity. The two found they both shared a love of Montana and good conversation, and they made a date to meet at a Billings steakhouse. When the men rendezvoused over dinner, Long, who had never been in a relationship with a man before, says he immediately succumbed to an array of new feelings. The two spent the weekend together. On Sunday, they kissed goodbye in the Costco parking lot as families walked by pushing carts and pulling children.

On his way back home, Long had to stop the car.

"I had just smooched a guy in the Costco parking lot," he says. "That bit of coming out to myself, that bit of public display of affection, allowing this whole flood of feelings that had been tamped down under acres of concrete my whole entire life—I had to pull over and stop before I could continue driving."

The couple took it slow at first. Parker, after recently coming out himself, understood Long's struggle. That said, he wasn't about to go back into hiding.

"I definitely knew that I didn't want to be involved in a relationship with somebody who was going to be in a closet for the rest of their life," says Parker. "You see that constantly, relationships filled with fear."

click to enlarge The license plate references “Two fat gays” and highlights the fact that Rich Parker and Mike Long are, after hiding their sexuality for years, at the center of the gay rights movement. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The license plate references “Two fat gays” and highlights the fact that Rich Parker and Mike Long are, after hiding their sexuality for years, at the center of the gay rights movement.

Long initially kept the relationship quiet, even from his family. When he eventually told his brothers, they worried most about Long's then 9-year-old son, Kevin, and him suffering the indignity of a gay dad. Long says coming out to Kevin was the hardest part.

"Stewing over it was a nightmare," he says.

Oblivious to his dad's anguish, Kevin didn't care. The Glendive community, in the end, didn't care so much, either.

"Within 2.3-nanoseconds the entire county knew," Long recalls. "The news, it was like a meteor going across. It was very bright, very dramatic and very short. After that, no one cared."

Long and Parker may have had great neighbors, but not everyone supports the family's nontraditional makeup—nor, for that matter, its legal agenda. The couple and, in fact, each of the plaintiffs in the ACLU case, signed on to the lawsuit knowing they could become targets of intimidation and violence.

With that in mind, Parker keeps a watchful eye out for cars he doesn't recognize driving down their street. The couple also advised their neighbors not to hesitate calling police if they see unusual activity.

"It still is a little bit of a concern," Long says.

While Long and Parker remain alert to potential threats, they're certainly not scared. The two get angry when they hear about intimidation directed at LGBT people and when they witness individuals preaching fire and brimstone as a reason to deny them equal rights.

One of the most vocal enemies of LGBT equality in Montana is Big Sky Christian Center Pastor Harris Himes. He publicly testified against a Missoula anti-discrimination ordinance, passed in April, which protects individuals from being denied housing, services or employment based on sexuality or gender expression. Missoula is now the only Montana city to make it illegal to fire someone from a job for being gay.

Himes testified again last month before a House Judiciary Committee meeting as it discussed House Bill 516, which aims to overturn Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance and prevent other communities from implementing similar protections. He believes Missoula's law could, among other things, make churches and religious organizations vulnerable to unjust and frivolous claims if they deny services, employment or membership to LGBT people.

"They should be able to discriminate," Himes said at the hearing. "They should be able to choose to whom they rent based upon religious reasons. That goes to employment that goes to Sunday schools that goes to all of those issues."

Those gathered during the committee hearing—roughly 50 LGBT community members and their allies—collectively gasped when Himes' later cited passages from the Bible saying that God deems homosexuality a sin so great that it's punishable by death.

"It is God himself who says that homosexuality is an abomination," Himes said.

Veterans of the legislative process say it's not all that unusual to hear testimony like Himes' in Helena.

"That shows you something of the attitude that is still up here in the legislative halls," says Kaufmann.

For Parker, it's people like Himes who helped motivate him to fight so publicly for equal rights. He gets frustrated when he hears someone else try to impose his own ideas of moral and sexual behavior on Parker and his family. He says he's tired of paying taxes, shoveling snow from his sidewalk and going to work every day just like everyone else only to be told by people like Himes that he's an abomination deserving of God's wrath. He doesn't care about the consequences or risks.

click to enlarge When Mary Anne Guggenheim, 75, and Jan Donaldson, 68, first moved to Montana in 1983, the couple could have been prosecuted for their relationship. Until 1997, homosexual behavior was considered a felony punishable with a 10-year jail term and a $50,000 fine. “This is the civil rights issue of your generation,” Guggenheim says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • When Mary Anne Guggenheim, 75, and Jan Donaldson, 68, first moved to Montana in 1983, the couple could have been prosecuted for their relationship. Until 1997, homosexual behavior was considered a felony punishable with a 10-year jail term and a $50,000 fine. “This is the civil rights issue of your generation,” Guggenheim says.

"I'll fight to the frigging death against that kind of mentality," Parker says.

•••

History proves Long and Parker have a reason to worry about backlash.

On Feb. 8, 2002, Adrianne Neff and Carla Grayson awoke to a wall of fire and smoke inside their Missoula home. The couple grabbed their 22-month-old son and escaped through a window.

As they watched their house smolder, it seemed obvious to them that the blaze was payback for a high-profile lawsuit filed just days before. The couple, along with Carol Snetsinger, Nancy Siegel, Pride, Inc., and the ACLU, sued the Montana University System to secure benefits for same-sex partners.

At the time, Grayson worked as a professor in UM's psychology department. She and the other plaintiffs were angry that the university system offered health insurance benefits to non-married heterosexual partners, yet denied them to same-sex partners. Grayson wanted Neff, who was staying home to care for their young son, to be insured under her plan. The couple also saw an opportunity to remedy what they perceived as a clear injustice.

"There are a few times when you get a chance to do something that will make a difference for other people," says Grayson in a phone interview from the couple's new home in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It felt like that was our moment to do that."

Two days after filing suit, and after their names had been published and televised in local and national media, each set of plaintiffs received letters in the mail claiming to contain anthrax. The letters read, "Die dykes."

click to enlarge Four days after Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff in 2002 filed a lawsuit asserting their right to partnership benefits through the Montana University System, their South Hills home was burned down. One day after the arson, nearly 700 people came out to support the couple in a rally at First United Methodist Church. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Four days after Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff in 2002 filed a lawsuit asserting their right to partnership benefits through the Montana University System, their South Hills home was burned down. One day after the arson, nearly 700 people came out to support the couple in a rally at First United Methodist Church.

Forty-eight hours after those letters arrived, someone set Grayson and Neff's house on fire. While the couple thought the arson was a direct result of their lawsuit, law enforcement wasn't so sure. Missoula police brought in an arson investigator from North Carolina who stated that, in his expert opinion, the fire was intentionally set to maximize exposure and/or sympathy to the couple's legal battle.

Grayson and Neff angrily denied the allegations. They, along with many LGBT community leaders, maintained the suggestion of their involvement was fueled by homophobia.

"I still feel like, for some people, when they think of people who are lesbian or gay or bisexual, to them, that evokes craziness," Grayson says. "They already think that it's a mental health issue. I think, then, they lead into thinking that you're a little bit crazy, so, maybe, you do something really crazy."

It was a roller-coaster year for the couple. On February 9, one day after the arson, roughly 700 people carrying candles and rainbow flags rallied in downtown Missoula to support them. Similarly, while the couple took on thousands of dollars in attorney fees, locals created a relief fund.

"We just feel a sense of thankfulness and gratefulness to that community for helping us through that difficult time," Grayson says.

Despite the community support, Grayson and Neff no longer felt safe in Montana, and they left the state at the end of the 2002 school year. The women decided to return to Ann Arbor, where Grayson had earned her doctorate. When they arrived, they were greeted with a new level of celebrity.

"We had a lot of young lesbians helping us move," Grayson says, referring to the publicity generated by their Montana lawsuit. "We're like the famous old lesbians."

Many of those young lesbians speak admiringly about the couple's legal fight. However, Grayson sees her efforts in the context of a broader history. There was a time not all that long ago when gay people were jailed for who they were, she says. Only through the efforts of people willing to sacrifice their own physical wellbeing has the movement gotten where it is today.

"I think I wouldn't have what I have now if those people hadn't done that. I wouldn't live in a nice house and have two children," she says. "That all is possible because other people were willing to step up in very scary times."

In December 2004, the Montana Supreme Court found in favor of the Snetsinger plaintiffs. Because of the suit, domestic partners of Montana University System employees now may receive benefits.

Though the police never solved the arson investigation, the court's decision served as a vindication of sorts for Grayson and Neff.

"We were like, 'Yay, something good came of this,'" Grayson says. "We were glad justice was done."

•••

Grayson and Neff may not have personally benefited from the Montana lawsuit, but the couple takes pride in the fact that they helped attain a historic victory in Montana's LGBT equality movement.

Similarly, Mary Anne Guggenheim, 75, and her partner of nearly 30 years, Jan Donaldson, 68, agreed to sign on as lead plaintiffs in the current ACLU benefits suit not because they stand to gain personally from what will likely be a drawn out legal battle, but rather because they know it will help others throughout the state.

"We've had all sorts of good fortune," Guggenheim says on a recent February morning from the couple's Helena home. "Maybe this is a little payback."

Guggenheim is a former professor and retired pediatric neurologist who carries herself with the confidence of someone accustomed to being listened to. Donaldson is a registered nurse and works for a nonprofit. After building a successful medical practice together, raising children together—they have four children from previous relationships—and now growing old together, the women often complete each other's sentences during casual conversation.

The medical practice meant money was never a concern for Guggenheim and Donaldson. The couple is also politically connected, as Guggenheim, after retiring from the practice at 60, was elected in 1998 to serve in the Montana House of Representatives.

With such social, educational and financial resources, the couple is equipped to navigate the myriad legal and institutional challenges that go hand-in-hand with growing old while gay in Montana. But that doesn't mean it's easy.

Each woman carries copies of the other's medical and financial powers of attorney in the glove box of her car. Another set of documents—dated, signed and notarized—is always in Donaldson's travel bag.

"If I lose that black bag I'm in bad trouble," Donaldson says. "It's not just one paper, it's a packet of papers."

Legal counsel recently suggested that Guggenheim adopt Donaldson to avoid paying inheritance tax when she dies. Since married couples share joint property and resources, they don't have to pay such a tax when their spouse passes away.

The couple opted not to do the adoption. They'd rather pay the Internal Revenue Service.

"That kind of unfair legal burden when you have such an obvious, committed, long-term domestic partnership, it is not fair," Guggenheim says.

While Guggenheim and Donaldson have, through expensive and time-consuming legal maneuvering, been able to adapt to their circumstances, they recognize other LGBT couples may not have the resources to follow their lead. Like Grayson and Neff before them, the couple says they joined the current ACLU suit as much for the next generation of gay Montanans as for their own benefit.

"That's our major goal, to take it one more notch," Guggenheim says.

Specifically, she thinks of her grandchildren. When they grow up, Guggenheim wants them to be free to form relationships with whomever they choose, regardless of gender.

"In their generation, hopefully," Guggenheim says, "it will not be an issue."

•••

Kevin Long recalls the time his dad first talked to him about being gay.

"I remember he was sitting in the chair," says Kevin. "We were watching TV and Rich was coming down and he wanted to tell me before he got there. And he did. And all was fine. I had no problem with it."

click to enlarge Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, is one of three openly gay Montana legislators. She says institutionalized homophobia prevents the lawmaking body from enacting legal protections for gay and lesbian people. “If we wait for the Legislature to change this, it’s not going to happen for a hundred years,” she says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, is one of three openly gay Montana legislators. She says institutionalized homophobia prevents the lawmaking body from enacting legal protections for gay and lesbian people. “If we wait for the Legislature to change this, it’s not going to happen for a hundred years,” she says.

Kevin says he might have been too young at the time to really understand the difference between gay and straight. It doesn't much matter now. Having two gay dads has actually worked out pretty well for him. Parker teaches him how to work on his car, and both Parker and Long attend his football games. Plus, the ACLU lawsuit gave him a compelling subject to write about in college application essays. That said, he probably doesn't need to lean too heavily on his non-traditional upbringing in order to woo colleges. Kevin starred as an offensive lineman for the Bozeman Hawks, carries a 3.5 grade point average and last year was a state weightlifting champion.

Kevin's buddies from the football team and other friends haven't been spooked by the fact that he has two gay dads. In fact, he's found support throughout the community. For instance, when Bozeman commissioners unanimously voted to pass a resolution in support of the ACLU same-sex benefits suit last September, Mayor Jeff Kraus played a pivotal role in persuading his colleagues. Kraus' son plays football with Kevin.

In the family living room sits a picture from last year's Bozeman Hawks' "parent night." Parker and Long stepped from the crowd for the photo op, standing arm-in-arm with Kevin. There was no hesitation and Long says the crowd cheered for them, just as they did for other parents.

"It was a situation that was devoid of interest," Long says.

Despite their normally low-key lifestyle, the couple appreciates the spotlight these days. Long says it's an opportunity for them to show that they're really no different than their neighbors.

"Every time there's a gay character on television in an otherwise mainstream television show, every time there's a Sunday magazine article about a gay couple, the general public, people who might, because they were taught to think this way, might push back against same-sex relationships, are going to push back just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit less," Long says.

Parker is younger then Long, a bit fiery, and less patient than his partner. He's insistent on change, now.

But Long, like Guggenheim and Donaldson, as well as Grayson and Neff, takes a broader view of their ongoing legal battle. He sees their work as part of a slow journey.

"What I equate this to is the creation of the Grand Canyon," Long says. "That happened one grain of sand at a time. That's how it happened for African Americans. That's how it happened for women. You name it. This lawsuit is a part of that one grain of sand at a time. Now once in a while, if you watch the Grand Canyon, there will be enough erosion that a big hunk of rock may fall in the river. Hopefully, this lawsuit can be a big hunk of rock falling in the river and digging the canyon deeper. We're just a part of that."

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