Montana's GOP wrestles with same-sex politics 

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It wasn't just Montana Republicans who were dead set against gay rights. Gryczan remembers the day an elected official called her "slime" at a public meeting. "This was by a Democrat. We had to first work with the Democrats, who didn't want to touch us."

The impasse prompted Gryzcan and five other gay and lesbian Montanans to file a suit in 1993 arguing that the deviate sexual conduct law violated their constitutional rights to privacy and dignity. The state argued that the statute reflected "a legitimate exercise of legislative authority to vindicate societal views concerning appropriate forms of sexual activity."

The Montana Supreme Court found otherwise. In 1997, Justice James C. Nelson wrote the majority opinion, explaining that Montana's constitutional right to privacy ensured adults could engage in all types of consensual sex behind closed doors. "It is hard to imagine," Nelson wrote, "any activity that adults would consider more fundamental, more private and, thus, more deserving of protection from governmental interference than non-commercial, consensual adult sexual activity."

The decision was a turning point in the fight for gay rights in Montana. "A lot of us were holding our shoulders just a little bit higher," Gryczan says.

click to enlarge Kalispell State Sen. Verdell Jackson - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Since then, gays and their allies have worked during successive legislative sessions to persuade lawmakers to remove the law from the books. Republicans have refused. Today it lingers, a powerful reminder that gays are still not yet recognized as equal under Montana law.

"Unfortunately, a lot of folks thought, 'Well, because this law has changed, then it's illegal to discriminate,'" Gryczan says. "The reality is, it's still perfectly legal to discriminate."

Like animals

Kalispell state Sen. Verdell Jackson knows that God is real. He feels him. "When I pray for some people, I feel the healing take place," Jackson says. "Once you experience that, you're a hundred-percent sure that God exists."

Jackson, a former educator, testified for the first time about homosexuality at the capitol, in Helena, in 1999. It was his first year as a freshman representative and one year after the Montana Supreme Court declared the state's deviate sexual conduct law unconstitutional. Jackson cited scripture that condemns homosexuality. After his testimony, opinion columnists and citizens called Jackson a bigot and a homophobe. There were threats, he says; afraid to worry his wife, he didn't let her read the letters. "It got very nasty," he recalls.

Jackson is 71 now. When he's termed out of the legislature in 2015, he'll have served 16 years, eight in the House and eight in the Senate. When it comes to fending off attempts to further gay rights, he's among the most outspoken Republican lawmakers. Like Gryczan, he's a regular at legislative debates about homosexuality.

Jackson agrees that people have a right to privacy, but he doesn't want to sanction what he sees as immoral behavior, and he worries that gay people, if given a chance, will try to convert his children and grandchildren. Leaving the deviate sexual conduct law on the books ensures there's a way to punish proselytizing homosexuals, he says. "If all of this is repealed," Jackson told the House Judiciary Committee in 2011, "the gay rights community can teach this in school, because it's perfectly alright."

During the same hearing, Rep. Bob Wagner of Harrison was questioning Larry Epstein of The Montana County Attorneys Association on the rationale for removing the language. The proposed bill, Wagner said, "strikes sexual conduct, sexual intercourse, between two persons of the same sex. But it doesn't strike any form of sexual intercourse with animals. And you talked about the difficulty of enforcing the law in a situation like that, between two adults. I would ask, how would you enforce the law between a consenting animal or a non-consenting animal—how would you determine that?"

"I've never had that case," Epstein said. "Bestiality is what you're talking about."

Once again, the House Judiciary Committee tabled legislation that would have removed the deviate sexual conduct law from Montana code. Only one Republican, Rep. Liz Bangerter of Helena, voted to strike the language. Rep. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula and the first openly gay legislator to serve in the Montana Legislature, subsequently tried to pry the bill out of committee but fell short with 51 of the needed 60 votes.

click to enlarge State GOP convention delegate H. Elwood English - PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

In the upcoming session, Jackson says, he'll stand firm against attempts to remove the language—unless prohibitions against homosexual proselytizing are put in place. He still takes heat for his stand on homosexuality, he says, but not as intensely as that first time. "Maybe it's because people know me now," he says. "They know what to expect."

'It's so offensive'

H. Elwood English remembers the first time he realized he knew someone who was gay: his best friend from Park County High School, in Livingston. In 1973, the friend outed himself to English and everyone else at their 10-year class reunion. "It was quite a shock," English says. "If I hadn't already been moderate on that issue, I came to be a moderate that night."

English went on to run former Senator Conrad Burns's campaign in 1987 and 1988. He also served as the state Republican Party secretary in the mid-1980s. He caught the "political bug" when he was 7, he says, and helped campaign for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

On the second day of the GOP convention in Missoula, English wears a "Hill-Sonju 2012" sticker on the right lapel of his blazer, just above a button that portrays a massive pachyderm squishing a small donkey, the logo for this year's GOP convention. English says he spoke up first in the crime committee about removing the GOP's homosexual acts plank because he feels the government, especially Republicans, has no business policing sexuality. "The Republican Party is the party of freedom," he says, "not the party of making rules about how people run their businesses or how they run their personal lives. ... Religious moral values are so personal, the government shouldn't be deciding those for us."

Instead, English says, government ought to focus on national security and the economy. "Those issues have kept me a Republican even as the Republican Party has drifted into being so controlling in the social issues. Most of us Republicans believe that Democrats are dangerous economically for Montana."

By Republican standards, English is a radical when it comes to social issues. He also supports gay marriage. "Marriage is either a holy sacrament or it's a civil action," he says. "If it's a civil action, it's got to be due process and equal protection of the laws. Americans who want to marry should have the right to do that."

At the convention, the Montana GOP reaffirmed its stance that marriage is solely a heterosexual union. High-profile state Republicans such as Rehberg, Hill and Tim Fox, who's running for attorney general, have all said they believe marriage should be off-limits to gays. Even so, English says the crime committee's unanimous vote to remove the homosexual acts plank is progress. "For the people on that committee to say, 'Yeah, it's a good thing to get rid of that,' when I don't think their personal views have changed," he says, "is an evolution about what government should be doing and shouldn't be doing."

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