Stepping Out 

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

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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.

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