Stepping Out 

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

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"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.

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