Nobody, not even Rep. Duane Ankney himself, anticipated the Colstrip Republican's emotional April 9 testimony on the floor of the House of Representatives. The retired coal miner choked up when talking about why lawmakers should repeal a portion of the state's deviate sexual conduct code, which, until this week, classified gay sex as a crime akin to bestiality.
"I didn't think about TV cameras, I didn't think about a goddamn thing like that," Ankney says. He simply thought, "Enough is enough."
Since first elected to serve in the Montana Legislature in 2007, Ankney's plainspoken and frequently off-color language has earned him a reputation as a straight shooter. His bushy mustache, trademark wide-brimmed hat and pro-resource development policies only add to the Republican's conservative appeal.
Last week, however, Ankney broke ranks from Montana GOP tradition when he came out in favor of Senate Bill 107. Sponsored by Missoula Democratic Sen. Tom Facey, the bill aims to strike the homosexual acts provision from the deviate sexual conduct code. It mirrors similar bills that failed to pass the legislature during previous sessions.
Linda Gryczan is among the gay rights activists who have worked for decades to repeal the homosexual acts provision. In 1991, Gryczan and a handful of others tried for the first time to persuade lawmakers to eliminate the language. Back then, Gryczan says, even progressives wanted nothing to do with their efforts. Lawmakers called homosexuals who testified before them "slime."
"We have faced session after session of that kind of abuse," she says.
Though the Montana Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional in 1997, thereby prohibiting courts from prosecuting homosexuals, Republicans have steadfastly refused to strike it from the books. Social conservatives argued the provision could still be used in some circumstances, such as when gays try to lure heterosexuals into a relationship. Members of the GOP also expressed worry that eliminating the language would open the door to teaching homosexuality in public schools.
The Senate passed SB 107 in February. However, on April 4, a Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee tabled the bill. Four days later, Missoula Democratic Rep. Bryce Bennett, the state's first openly gay male lawmaker, successfully "blasted" the motion out of committee. The procedural maneuver required 59 votes. It garnered 60.
Gay rights activist Jamee Greer, who has aggressively lobbied the legislature the past two sessions to repeal the homosexual acts provision, felt paralyzed during the moments leading up to Bennett's motion. "When they went to vote on the blast motion, I stopped breathing," he says. "When it got to 60, I started crying."
The vote was historic, Greer says, because it marked the first time both chambers of the Montana Legislature voted to strike the homosexual acts language.
It was the next day, during the second reading of the bill, that Ankney explained to his colleagues why he felt so strongly about it. His voice shook when he announced to them that his daughter is a lesbian.
"To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me. And for anybody that would feel that wayupsets me," Ankney said, pointing at the other lawmakers. "I don't think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of any one of you in here."
After testifying in favor of SB 107, Ankney told the Independent that 20 years ago, when he first found out that his daughter was gay, he wasn't happy about it. But he's a religious man and, as such, has since come to believe that a higher power placed his daughter here to fulfill a special purpose.
"I think the good Lord put her on earth to make a better person out of me," Ankney says.
SB 107 passed second reading in the House by a 64-36 margin. During the third vote, it garnered 64 of 99 "ayes."
On April 18, Gov. Steve Bullock is slated to sign the bill inside the Capitol Rotunda. Greer and Gryczan will be there, as will many of their supporters.
It's time to celebrate, Gryczan says. SB 107's passage marks a hard-fought win. No longer can anti-equality proponents use the deviate sexual conduct law as fodder to perpetuate discrimination. "It's a very powerful symbol," she says. "It's a barometer of social change."
That's not to say everyone is pleased. Ankney has received hate mail, including one letter that called him "no more than a liberal, deviate plant of the socialist Democrat agenda, or some goddamn thing," Ankney says.
The lawmaker shrugs off such criticisms. That's in part because the hate mail doesn't represent the full spectrum of feedback. Members of the LGBT community have sent him thank you notes, as have parents with gay and lesbian sons and daughters. Similarly, Ankney says that some of his Republican colleagues thanked him for standing up when they, fearing constituent backlash, didn't feel comfortable doing so themselves.
In the end, Ankney is pleased to become an unlikely champion furthering Montana's gay equality movement. "We all come up here wanting to make a difference," he says. "I really think I helped make a difference. If this was all I ever did, I think I'd go home and hang up my hat and look myself in the mirror every morning."