Queer and Present Danger: Outing Montanaís Ambient Homophobia
Independent, March 21, 2002
P.O. Box 8275, Missoula, MT 59801
Online Mailer: http://www.missoulanews.com/News/Letters/LetterTo.asp
By Ken Picard
How do you feel about the word queer? How about dyke or fag? Does it depend
upon whose mouth is saying them, and why? Or are they just pink triangles to
you, archaic badges of oppression that youíve turned on their heads and now
wear as symbols of power?
Perhaps youíd prefer a more polite and government-sanctioned term. Try
"deviate sexual relations." Thatís the language still on the books
in Section 45-2-101 of the Montana Code Annotated, sandwiched between
"indecent exposure" and "incest" and mentioned in the same
breath as "bestiality." That bit of statutory roadkill was struck
down by the state Supreme Court back in the mid-í90s, but a majority of the
Legislature is still too squeamish to do its job and clean it up. More likely,
a number of those lawmakers would just as soon infuse it with new life.
Itís not so easy choosing a word that accurately, respectfully and
succinctly refers to everyone whose sexual orientation falls outside the
heterosexual mainstream, even for their allies. To some, "gay and
lesbian" is not a big enough tent, and the more inclusive mouthful,
"gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" results in a cryptic
acronymóGLBTóthat sounds more like something thought up by the Department
Why bother with these semantic calisthenics when to even speak of "the
gay and lesbian community," in Missoula or anywhere else, is to suggest a
homogeneity where none exists? Because language is the metaphor we live by,
and our choice of words reflects who is and who is not granted legitimacy,
rights and power in society. In a nutshell, thatís identity politics, and
presumably, thatís what last monthís arson fire was all about.
When Missoulians awoke on the chilly morning of Friday, Feb. 8 they learned
that two Missoula mothers, Adrianne Neff and Carla Grayson, had in the wee
hours of the night been forced to climb out a window with their 2-year-old son
because someone had tried to erase not only them but the souls of every other
gay and lesbian in Montana with the strike of a match and the universal
emotion of fear.
This only days after the couple had filed suit against the Montana
University System demanding that they be granted the same employee benefits
given to heterosexual couples, including unmarried domestic partners, and
following a fruitless four-year battle with an intransigent Board of Regents.
As the smoke cleared, we could see that the fireís scars reached well
beyond the confines of Neff and Graysonís South Hills home, and that for
many Missoulians, newcomers and lifelong residents alike, Missoula was not as
safe and secure a place as they had once believed. Though this was an extreme
act, it was not an isolated one, for it occurred in a larger, unspoken climate
of institutionalized homophobia that pervades our schools, workplaces,
government and the media.
The fire re-ignited the social activism of many lesbians and gays, some of
whom undoubtedly had developed a false sense of security, even complacency,
about their degree of acceptance in Montanaís most gay-friendly town. To
others it reinforced the belief that institutionalized discrimination as well
as hate crimes, though measurably different from one another, nonetheless fall
on the same continuum of intolerance.
"Itís not just the violence. Itís easy to stand up and say
violence is wrong. You have to go to the deeper level, which is
discrimination," says Spider McKnight of Missoulaís Queer Action, a
group formed in the immediate aftermath of the fire. "Take the Board of
Regents. When you sanction a culture of homophobia, youíre sanctioning a
culture of violence. Theyíre tied together. There is no middle ground."
Attempted murder is only the most extreme example of the daily risks
involved in being "out" in Montana. A lesbian mother in this state
is far more likely to lose her child in a custody battle than to an arsonistís
"Today all of us can get fired for being gay or lesbian or bisexual.
You can be fired for being straight, for that matter," says Jonathan
Proctor, another member of Queer Action. "I can be kicked out of housing.
I can be kicked out of my job. And thereís nothing I can do about it. When
people refuse to acknowledge and address that, itís homophobia."
Terror, like fire, is a great leveler of status and power, and on that
Friday morning, Missoula became a different place for Christopher Peterson,
president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana and an
openly gay student leader in a university system in which other gay and
lesbian organizations are virtually nonexistent. (Last year at Montana State
University in Bozeman, an open door erected on campus to celebrate National
Coming Out Day was torched the first night it was up. The following night,
vandals turned the support ropes into nooses.)
"I think a lot has changed, basically, my freedom and my sense of
safety in Missoula," says Peterson. "Now when Iím walking around
Missoula or going to bed at night, itís much scarier than it ever was
before. I never felt threatened in this community, but after the incident that
happened to Professor Grayson and her partner, that sense of security is
Peterson, a transplant from the Boston area, is probably more open about
his sexuality than many gay and lesbian students at UM, especially those who
come from small towns in Montana where being out was never an option. For
them, he says, "just being open is a new experience. To take that next
step into political activism is really a large one from just simply saying,
ĎIím out, Iím gay.í"
Further along the spectrum is K.D. Dickinson, a Missoula real estate agent
who has lived in Montana since 1976. Though sheís been out for the last 30
years, itís not hard to appreciate her initial reluctance to being
interviewed for this story. As Grayson and Neff discovered, thereís a big
difference between being out and being in the spotlight.
"My first reaction was, ĎNo, I donít want to do that because of
the fear factor of being a target,í" Dickinson says. "But then I
also feel like, Iíve got a rainbow sticker on my car, I advertise in Pride
[an LGBT publication] and Iím as out as out can be. So my second reaction
was, ĎNo, thatís exactly what they want us to do, go back in the closet.í
Iíve never been in the closet so Iím not going to go in the closet now out
In some respects, Dickinson is more fortunate than most. Being a lesbian
has helped her financially, as sheís carved out a niche for herself serving
gay and lesbian clients as well as straight clients who donít care that sheís
gay. Still, she recognizes that the nature of her job as an independent
contractor affords her a level of freedom not enjoyed by many other gay
"As far as other lesbian businesswomen I know who feel the same way I
do, Iím way in the minority," she says. "It is a challenge to the
university people because they donít have health insurance, but theyíre
not going to get fired because theyíre queer over there. A high school
teacher, a grade school teacher? Yeah, itís still not OK because of the Ďinfluence
on the childrení that straight people often worry about, which is
As for her safety concerns, Dickinsonís words echo the sentiments of gays
and lesbians throughout Missoula.
"Iím locking my doors now," she says. "Iím fearful for a
brick being thrown through my window."
If numbers told the whole story, folks like Peterson and Dickinson would
have little reason to fear. According to the Missoula Police Department, there
were only three reported cases of crimes against a person for reasons of
sexual orientation between 1999 and 2001: one case in 1999, two in 2000 and
none in 2001. Statewide, the Montana Board of Crime Control documented only
five hate crimes against homosexuals reported by all law enforcement agencies
in 2000; eight others in 1999, and only one in 1998.
But it would be naÔve to assume that the statistics reflect the true
frequency of those crimes. Nearly all the gays and lesbians interviewed for
this story could relate incidents involving themselves and/or people they know
who have been the targets of vandalism, verbal or physical harassment, or
Queer Actionís Jonathan Proctor says that heís been threatened and
assaulted on the streets of Missoula plenty of times, and knows several gay
men who have been brutally beaten here. For years, he says, verbal and
physical harassment were a regular occurrence every time he and friends left
AmVets, a popular gay and lesbian bar in town. In many cases, the incidents
were never reported to police. Those that were, he says, rarely if ever led to
arrests. Even if they had, Montanaís Malicious Intimidation and Harassment
Act does not recognize hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation.
Ruth Vanita, a UM professor of Liberal Studies and a founding member of
Outfield Alliance, a GLBT organization for UM students, faculty and staff,
knows of at least one such case. "A person was beaten up and the cops did
come and then didnít make any arrests. They just treated it as a Friday
night bar fight, which it wasnít," she says. "It was clearly a
gay-bashing, but because it happened on a Friday night, they treated it as
just a fight and didnít do anything about it."
National studies by the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reveal that
the vast majority of gay and lesbian hate crimesóby some estimates more than
80 percentógo unreported to the police, mostly because the victims fear
being "outed" and suffering further harassment, discrimination,
violence or other indignities.
Missoula police acknowledge that the circumstances of each incident can
complicate the reporting process, but say that theyíre careful to screen
each report of a hate crime to ensure there were not other reasons why the
offense was committed.
"If thatís the reason that a crime was committed, because the victim
was a homosexual, we will document that, but there has to be something obvious
to indicate thatís truly what happened," says Lt. Gregg Willoughby of
the Missoula Police Department. "Oftentimes weíll see cases come
through where someone will say, ĎThe only reason I got beat up was because Iím
gay,í but youíll find out there was another motivating factor."
But Queer Actionís McKnight says the problems run much deeper.
"You have to realize that historically, police are some of the worse
violators of bias against the queer community," she says. "Often you
go to the police, you get disparaged, you get ignored, you get harassed.
Sometimes you even get beaten."
A few of the gays and lesbians I spoke to did emphasize that Missoula cops
are better than those theyíve dealt with elsewhere, noting that Missoulaís
Citizens Advisory Board includes a representative from the gay community.
There have also been informal discussions about improving the lines of
communication on both sides.
When placed in a larger historical context, the attempt on the lives of
Grayson and Neff is consistent with the experiences of other oppressed groups
who have openly challenged the status quo, only to be met with increased
violence. Consider the experiences of gays and lesbians in the Portland, Ore.
area in the early 1990s, when the Oregon Citizenís Alliance, a far-right
Christian group, proposed two ballot measures (in 1992 and again in 1994) that
would have legalized various forms of discrimination against gays in housing
and employment. During that period hate crimes against gays more than tripled.
Meanwhile, as our nation charges ahead in its crusade against terrorism and
fundamental extremism, the climate of "tolerance" is growing rather
frigid even for those who are serving their country. A report released just
last week by the Human Right Campaign [sic: it was released Servicemembers
Legal Defense Network] reveals that anti-gay harassment and discharges from
the U.S. military reached a record level in 2001, with 1,250 gay or lesbian
servicemembers discharged under the "Donít Ask, Donít Tell, Donít
Pursue, Donít Harass" policy, the highest number since 1987. Since the
policy was first implemented in 1994, the number of gays and lesbians
discharged from the military has more than doubled.
Likewise, more than a dozen gays and lesbians who lost life partners in the
Sept. 11 attacks have also been denied compensation from the airlines. Whether
or how much the federal Victims Compensation Fund will recognize their losses
remains to be seen.
Blaming the victims
If the fire sent a wave of fear through Missoulaís lesbian and gay
community, it was an article on the front page of the Feb. 16 Missoulian that
stoked their outrage. Beneath a headline that read, "Police narrow focus
in arson investigation," the lead sentence suggested that investigators
were focusing on two possible scenarios, "one that someone sneaked into
their Rimrock Way house and set the fire or that the women set it
Reaction from gays and lesbians was loud and swift. An e-mail list of more
than 100 names was hastily compiled and plans were made to picket outside the
newspaper. Only after Missoulian Editor Mike McInally agreed to meet with
members of the gay and lesbian community to discuss their grievances was the
protest canceled. Still, many left that meeting dissatisfied and disheartened.
"The attempts to blame the queer community for their own victimization
is homophobia in and of itself, because itís an attempt to deny the fact
that our community is treated unfairly by the general public in our laws and
in general daily life," says Proctor. "If we did it to ourselves
then itís not homophobia."
"Many people in the gay community are not at all reassured that the
police will deal fairly and respectfully with them, even when they are victims
of a crime," says Mona Bachmann, a member of Outfield Alliance and the
Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Equality, a loosely-knit group of
organizations and individuals. "We can see that now when Carla and
Adrianneís house was burned down and they were attacked in a murder attempt,
theyíre being actively investigated as possible perpetrators of this."
Thereís more to this anger than the natural instinct of an oppressed
group to circle the wagons. Nationwide, itís not uncommon for gay and
lesbian hate-crime victims to come under suspicion from police and the media.
Consider the case of Sylvia Lugo, a lesbian in Brooklyn, N.Y. who was shot and
killed in a break-in robbery in 1995. Despite the fact that her partner, who
was also wounded but survived the attack, provided the police with a detailed
description of her assailant, it took police months to prepare a sketch for
distribution, and then they did little to warn other women in the area.
Shortly after the shooting, reports began leaking to the press that Lugoís
partner was a suspect, with the result that she was denied benefits from New
Yorkís Crime Victims Board. For a year and a half many people, including
plenty in the gay and lesbian community, believed that the woman had killed
her partner, until the real killer was caught and confessed to the crime, but
not before he had victimized other women in the interim.
"Itís been disappointing, the response from the communityófor me
anyway, I donít know about anyone elseóseeing the dwindling interest in
the straight community and the resistance to putting up the ĎHate Hurtsí
signs," says Dickinson. (A number of business owners have told her that
they wonít put up the signs out of fear of alienating some of their
customers.) "In the beginning I was really impressed and really proud at
the rally. Since then, especially since the newspaper article in the
Missoulian about the accusation of suspecting Carla and Adrianne, I think a
lot of the community, both the GLBT and the straight community, have backed
off some because itís like, ĎOh! Maybe they did do it.í"
Proctor contrasts the communityís response in Missoula to that of
Billings a decade ago after someone threw a brick through the window of a
Jewish home with a menorah in the window. Following that incident, nearly
10,000 homes in Billings posted paper menorahs in their windows, sparking a
made-for-TV movie, "Not In Our Town," a nationwide anti-hate
campaign, and even an ongoing "Not in Our Town" Web site. Though
Proctor commends that tremendous show of support, he wonders aloud why the
same thing hasnít happened here.
"Somebody was almost murdered in this town and where is the similar
reaction from the general community?" he asks. "Youíve got to
wonder, whatís it going to take to rally people behind changing the way the
queer community is treated in this state?"
Itís noon on a Thursday, and the upstairs meeting room of the Union Club
is filling with people, women mostly, who have gathered to hear what legendary
singer/songwriters Holly Near and Cris Williamson have to say about the role
of music in social activism. Like the crowd that will fill the Wilma Theater
for their concert later that night, thereís a large contingent of Missoulaís
lesbian elders in the room, those women of a certain age with salt-and-pepper
hair and that regal air of strength and purpose about them. Theyíre the kind
women for whom the word "lesbian" says far more about their identity
than just who they love and who they choose to live with. Theyíre the ones
who know how to build things and fix things, who own their own businesses,
plant gardens, deliver babies. The kind of women who remember to replace the
batteries in the smoke alarm.
Near starts by asking everyone in the room to join her in an old
Appalachian traditional, "Mountain Song." Itís about a woman who,
in a vain attempt to save her land from being strip mined, finally throws
herself in front of the heavy equipment and has to be carried off by her
wrists and ankles. Still, she does not go willingly:
"I have dreamed on this mountain since I first was my motherís
daughter, and you canít take my dreams away."
The song has the desired effect of uniting the room, much the way black
civil rights activists in the 1950s would take up a song and form a
"circle of power" just before they marched into protest against the
police, knowing full well that they were about to get their heads beat in.
Later that night Missoula folk singer Amy Martin opens the Near/Williamson
show with a song she wrote about the fire, "Phoenix (Letter to an
Arsonist)." Sheís barely strummed two chords before Carla begins to cry
and puts her head on Adrianneís shoulder. Music may not be a uniquely
lesbian response to violence, or even one exclusive to women, but its healing
influence soothes what might have otherwise become a suffocating cloud of
despair. And as Martin sings, "Is there really love enough to squander,
can we afford to throw any love away?" itís clear that on this night,
in this company, the only label that matters is not "queer" or
"lesbian" but "loved one."
Music is a potent tool for social activism because it resonates for us at
such a visceral level. Many of the traditional lullabies still sung to
children today are filled with violent imagery because years ago, mothers
feared that if they kept their anger and frustrations bottled up inside, they
would sour the milk and poison their nursing babies. It was music that
protected the children from the bitterness of their mothersí oppression.
Hate is not an inborn, but a learned behavior, one that disproportionately
infects the young. A report several years ago by the New York Gay and Lesbian
Anti-Violence Project found that nationally 75 percent of the people who
commit hate crimes are under the age of 30; one in three is under 18. Itís a
tragedy not lost on Near, who acknowledges that all too often she and
Williamson are singing to the converted.
"Even to Eminem, I have to say, ĎThank you. Iíd forgotten there
are people in the world like you,í" she says, referring to the popular
rap singer whose lyrics are riddled with misogynistic and violently homophobic
references. "Had you not surfaced, I wouldnít have seen how many
tragically uncared-for young white men there are in our society. Theyíre
very hurt, and as long as we continue to let them be hurt and remain hurt,
they will grow up and kill us."
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