Out in Montana
After A Winter of Fear and Defeat, Advocates Renew Their
Fight for Same-Sex Rights
Independent, May 31, 2001
P.O. Box 8275, Missoula, MT 59801
Online Mailer: http://www.missoulanews.com/News/Letters/LetterTo.asp
[***There are several accompanying photos on this site.***]
By Ron Selden
Linda Gryczan was afraid that someone might burn down her house.
The year was 1993, and Gryczan had just decided to talk to her neighbors in
Clancy, a blink-of-the-eye community south of Helena. One by one, she told
them the truth that she was a lesbian, that she was suing the state over
its laws against homosexuality, and that she was going to be in the news a
lot. She was concerned about retribution.
But what she got was much the opposite. Soon after she made her rounds, her
neighbors started plowing her driveway without being beckoned. They vowed to
keep a protective eye on her property. And many of them pledged their support
in her fight against the state.
"At the grocery store, people would pull me over and whisper, Thanks
for doing the lawsuit," she says now. "It was an overwhelmingly
Acceptance and persecution, a willingness to help and a quickness to
condemn. Being openly homosexual in most parts of Montana is like climbing
into a kaleidoscope-youre surrounded by an entire spectrum of attitudes,
but the spectrum is always shifting. Your neighbors might recognize and even
accept your homosexuality, but your government never will. You might start to
feel safe being out of the closet in Montana, but as this winters outbreak
of anti-gay violence proved, you probably shouldnt. And above all, while
Montanans pride themselves on preserving their individual freedoms, the states
political leaders have been trying their hardest to write laws that regulate
individual behavior, refusing to offer even the most basic protections for
homosexuals. They are all uneasy social paradoxes, but they are ones same-sex
activists feel are slowly swinging their way.
"The level of public support [for same-sex rights] has
increased," says Rep. Chris Kaufmann, a Helena Democrat and the only
openly homosexual member of the Montana Legislature. "Churches and
editorial pages are talking about it in a much more positive way. The rhetoric
is just more positive, but it still has a ways to go."
Gryczan is partly responsible for that trend. In 1993, along with several
fellow plaintiffs, she challenged the states so-called "deviate sexual
conduct" law, a 1973 statute that makes it a felony for two people of the
same gender to have sexual contact. Gay and lesbian activists had been
lobbying the Legislature since 1991 to remove the outdated statute, which
carries a maximum 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine, but conservative
lawmakers rejected the notion out of hand.
"We heard horrible abuse in the Legislature, the stuff we still
hear," says Gryczan, who was hired to direct the first repeal campaign
and has been deeply involved with the issue ever since. "We saw we were
getting nowhere, so we took it to the courts." Gryczan signed on as the
Despite arguments from then-Attorney General Joe Mazurek that the
plaintiffs couldnt sue because prosecutors never enforced the 1973 law,
District Court ruled that the statute violated the Montana Constitutions
right to privacy. A key argument from Gryczan and her fellow plaintiffs was
that even if the law wasnt enforced, gays and lesbians still feared
prosecution. That winning argument followed the case to the Montana Supreme
Court when the state appealed. In its 1997 ruling, the high court agreed with
the earlier decision, ruling that the deviant sexual conduct law violates
privacy provisions and should be thrown out.
Incredibly, though, the law still remains on the books. In the recently
concluded 2001 session of the Montana Legislature, when legislation was again
introduced to strike down the old code, conservative lawmakers trundled out
the same arguments that have worked for them in the past - that gays and
lesbians are a menace to children, that they spread disease, and their sexual
activities are sinful. Rep. Verdell Jackson (R-Kalispell), a retired educator,
even testified in January that the law "protects me from propositions on
Dallas Erickson, head of the Stevensville-based Montana Citizens for
Decency Through Law, is an outspoken advocate of limiting same-sex rights.
Along with representatives of the Christian Coalition of Montana, Erickson
testifies at virtually every legislative hearing where sexual orientation is
"In my opinion, [homosexuality] is an ultimate denial of God," he
says. "I think thats what it amounts to - an ultimate denial of the
Creator. Civilizations that go that way dont last very long. It goes
against Gods will."
Erickson, like many of his counterparts, says he believes sexual
orientation is a chosen phenomenon, not a natural trait. Therefore, he
reasons, no special protections should be put into place.
"God directed us to be heterosexual-oriented, and I think theres
pretty good proof of that," he says. "I believe our nation and our
families are in danger because of sin, be that adultery, fornication or
homosexuality." Erickson has fought vehemently against having the
deviant-conduct law removed. His graphic testimony about alleged sexual
perversions prompted at least one committee chairman in the 2001 session to
cut him off.
"Ive never felt more verbally abused in any place in Montana than
at the Legislature," says Rep. Kaufmann. "I think theres a small
group of people thats being fed a hateful rhetoric from national groups,
and I dont think it reflects what Montanans feel about the issue. Thats
not to say theres not prejudice and hatred in Montana. Yes, there is. But
its not as prevalent as it might seem."
"I get frustrated every time the Legislature tell us no, but its a
chess game," Gryczan explains. "They play their part, we play ours.
But I m absolutely convinced well eventually win."
A State of Denial
Remove the typically ugly talk at the statehouse, and throw away Montanas
image as a breeding ground for roughnecks, racists and blow-dried rodeo
queens. Is there any room left under the Big Sky for gays, lesbians, bisexuals
and the transgendered?
"I think theres competing Montana mystiques, one that can say, Who
gives a shit? and the other that says, Men are men and women are women,"
says Kaufmann. "We may have the cowboy image in the rest of the world,
but its not exactly a cowboy place anymore. There are gay cowboys, you
know? But I certainly didnt come to Montana because I thought it was the
best place to be a lesbian."
"The closets fairly large in Montana, so that makes it hard to do
our work," adds Karl Olson, executive director of PRIDE, a statewide
advocacy group. "Theres a perception that homophobia is really
entrenched in Montanas history. I think to some extent thats a
misconception perpetrated by the far right. Theyve found Montana to be a
fertile breeding ground for more organized forms of discrimination and bias.
There are pockets of acceptance across the state, but thats not
"Missoula and Helena are certainly different places than Glendive or
Cut Bank," Gryczan says. "It depends on the local culture. Its a
very different situation for someone who is out and living in Podunk. But the
lack of legal rights affects everyone."
As in most of the nation, injustices abound. Gays and lesbians in Montana
cannot be legally married; they have no legal recourse if fired from a
private-sector job for their sexual orientation; survivorship, child-rearing,
and health-care issues remain daunting for many couples; and even getting a
joint library card or checking account can be a hassle.
Gryczan, for example, always carries a power-of-attorney document with her
in case her partner is unexpectedly rushed to the hospital. Otherwise, she
says, she might not be allowed to visit or help make crucial decisions. As a
couple, Gryczan and her partner have drawn up wills, even though the states
probate system is geared toward single people and heterosexuals. Theyve
also been denied public services because agencies say theyre not legally
married. Gryczan, 47, cant get on her partners state employee health
plan because administrators refuse to recognize gay or lesbian partners. They
cant even get the same homeowners insurance that a man-and-wife team
In the 2001 Legislature, the only measurable progress made for same-sex
rights was that House Speaker Dan McGee (R-Laurel) was forced to withdraw a
bill to rescind an order from former Gov. Marc Racicot that prohibits state
agencies from dismissing employees over their sexual orientation. Other bills
that aimed to add sexual orientation to the state s Human Rights Act and to
prevent private employers from discriminating against gay and lesbian workers
died quick deaths.
"Legally, we are strangers," Gryczan laments. "Im a legal
stranger to my spouse of 18 years. My spouse isnt a family member under the
law. My spouse wont get fired for being a lesbian, but I cant be sure of
that. If there were a Y chromosome in the mix, it would be a very different
Casey Charles, a gay professor of English at The University of Montana in
Missoula, has been leading a fight to get the states university system to
allow same-sex partners to share employee health benefits. The proposal was
approved 19-1 by a union board in 1998, but Commissioner of Higher Education
Richard Crofts rejected the deal as being politically unfeasible. An appeal
last year to the state Board of Regents was also turned back. Charles says UM
faculty and staff are now looking at legal options, even though they know that
wont end the larger battle.
Charles and his partner, David Wilson, a Spanish teacher at Big Sky High
School, say even Missoula, with its reputation for open-mindedness, has back
alleys of resistance when it comes to same-sex rights.
"Its kind of a contradictory situation because the myth of Missoula
is its acceptance and openness," says Charles, a co-founder of the
Western Montana Gay and Lesbian Community Center. "But within that we
have professors who are afraid to come out because theyre afraid they wont
get tenure. And you think of the university as the most open place in an open
town. Theres a lot of internalized homophobia. We have a lot of gays and
lesbians who are content to stay in the closet."
Wilson, who initiated Big Sky Highs first Gay-Straight Alliance student
group in 1998, says homosexuals must build a "basis of proximity" to
more heterosexuals throughout the state in order to gain further acceptance.
Once straight people understand that homosexuals are an integral - and
pervasive - part of society, adds Charles, "thats where well see
the geography of change."
"If everybody gay and lesbian I know suddenly wore pink and purple
stripes one day, the community would be surprised whos serving them in
government, whos playing at the ballgame, whos teaching their children,
whos serving them communion," Kaufmann adds. "I do think there is
a learned revulsion in too many people toward gays and lesbians that needs to
be rooted out. It doesnt get rooted out by gays and lesbians being silent.
Just the opposite."
And the best strategy for advocates to employ in Montanas traditional,
often-backward political arena? "You let the opposition speak," says
Gryczan. "Theyre wonderful for recruiting our allies. After some of
these people speak Ive had a lot of people say, "Youre really being
discriminated against, and then theyre on our side."
Living with Fear
When Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man living in Laramie, Wyo., was
viciously murdered in 1998, most of the nation was shocked and ashamed. For
many heterosexuals, however, the images of a beaten and bloody Shepard
abandoned on a cold and lonely fencepost have grown fuzzy. Not so for the gays
and lesbians who reside just north of the state line.
This past winter, two disturbing attacks on gay men in Montana helped keep
fear alive. One victim was severely injured after being jumped by two other
males while leaving a gay bar in Billings. The other incident involved a
student at Helenas Carroll College, a Catholic institution, who dropped out
and returned to Spokane after getting hit in the head with a bottle, being
beaten into unconsciousness, and then being beaten further. Still another
incident involving death threats to a gay man in Kalispell, where PRIDEs
annual meeting will be held in early June, has just been reported.
As in the Wyoming case, investigators say the Helena and Billings men were
singled out for their sexual orientation. At the same time the beatings were
publicized, the Montana Legislature, for the fifth consecutive time, was
considering a bill to add gender, disability and sexual orientation to the
states hate crimes law. But even violence at the doorstep failed to sway
the Republican majority.
"I think Matthew Shepard cases do happen here, [the victims] just don
t die," says teacher David Wilson, adding that verbal and physical
harassment are common for many gays and lesbians, even in public school
systems where zero-tolerance policies are often in place. "Casey and I
show affection wherever we are, but Im probably more paranoid about it
because I grew up here. I know the potential of what could happen."
"The purpose for bias-motivated crime is to put people in their place,
and I know those incidents have had that effect," PRIDEs Olson
explains. "I know people have withdrawn from greater participation in the
community because of that. On the other hand, Ive had people call and say,
I cant be silent anymore. That happens too. When youre talking
about being out of the closet, youre dealing with a lot of perception. The
fear is usually very disproportionate to the reality, but its very
"I certainly think about being out and open and being a public
figure," says David Herrera, director of the Yellowstone AIDS Project and
a high-profile member of the Montana Gay Mens Task Force in Billings.
"I certainly recognize theres an element of risk to the work I do. For
many gays and lesbians, the threat of assault is very real." While
Billings is the states largest city, an uncomfortable air of intolerance
against homosexuals still permeates the social and political atmosphere,
"In Billings, I would say there is still a tremendous amount of fear,
a fear of being rejected by family, co-workers and the community," he
explains. "Theres a perception that the Billings community is very
unaccepting. Ive also had incredibly positive responses from people I never
expected. Hopefully, well continue to change attitudes one person at a
time. I just hope that happens before all the gay men in Montana leave the
An Unnatural Fascination
Seattle attorney Jeff Coop lived in Missoula for seven years, graduated
from the University of Montana School of Law, and worked at a Billings law
firm for three years before leaving with his gay partner last year. Coop says
he stayed in the closet during most of his time in Montana, especially at
work. Now that hes in a more supportive environment, Coop feels he can
speak out more freely.
"I cant understand why certain Montana and national politicians
have an unnatural fascination with gays and lesbians and why they are tireless
and relentless in their efforts to ensure that we are forever denied
privileges and rights enjoyed by others," he says. "On that note, I
think its high time that homophobes have to justify their irrational fear
or hatred of gays and lesbians and explain why we should be denied basic human
rights afforded to all others, instead of gays and lesbians having to justify
their mere existence."
A big part of changing attitudes, Coop believes, is encouraging other gays,
lesbians, and bisexuals to go public.
"If you are not out, come out," he says. "Put a face to the
words gay or queer or dyke or fag or any of the other
words used to describe us. What people forget or do not understand is that we
are everywhere, whether we are out or not. We have to do what we can to
disabuse people of their stereotypes, and the only way to do that is to live
openly and with integrity."
"The law tells the story of our lives," PRIDEs Olson explains.
"It defines how we live, and the law reflected in Montana lives portrays
a tragedy for gays and lesbians. Thats what concerns us. We want to close
the gaps. We have to be involved in public-education efforts to get that
middle majority of people, who I think are tolerant, to be a little more
active in our civil rights efforts."
Charles, the UM professor, says he sometimes gets frustrated with the pace
of change in Montana. As a result, he and other activists put a lot of effort
into trying to get gays and lesbians more involved.
"The community needs to be more political," he says.
"Somehow were not getting our message across. We really feel weve
got to reach out to Montanans. Were here, were queer, but we have to
"What has happened over the years is a real change in people coming
out as supporters," Gryczan observes. "We lose at the Legislature,
but we are gaining the hearts and minds of Montanans. Theres a lot more of
us out publicly, out to our neighbors, at our work. And thats where the
real change happens, not in a law book."
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