Stepping Out 

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

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"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."

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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