Advocates: Gay Rights Gain Ground
February 8, 2003
Box 8029, Missoula, MT 59801
By Ericka Schenck Smith of the Missoulian
The pace may sometimes seem glacial, but local and statewide advocates say
the movement for gay and lesbian civil rights is making forward progress.
"At some point, the last snowflake will fall, and the glacier will
slide," said Karl Olson, executive director of PRIDE, a statewide gay and
lesbian advocacy organization based in Helena.
"I can’t predict how long that’s going to take," he said.
But in the past year, Olson said, he’s seen a definite increase in
resolve among gays and lesbians working to speed things up.
Two things happened one year ago.
On Feb. 4, two lesbian couples sued the Montana university system and the
state, arguing that denying health and other benefits to the same-sex partners
of university employees is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
On Feb. 8, the home one of the two couples shared with their toddler son
was destroyed by an arson fire.
Police initially declared the fire an attempted triple homicide. But they
soon seemed to turn their attention toward the couple, Carla Grayson and
Adrianne Neff—although neither woman was ever officially called a suspect.
Grayson and Neff, who moved to Michigan for the year, have vehemently denied
having anything to do with the fire, saying they would have had nothing to
gain and everything to lose.
Several local and statewide organizations have joined to sponsor a rally
Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the fire and talk about the work
that remains to be done. It will take place at 4 p.m. at First United
Methodist Church, 300 E. Main St.
"We wanted to do something to mark the one-year point because it was
such a bad thing that happened and affected all of us very much," said
Mona Bachmann, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
"It was so dramatic, the fire, but meanwhile harassment and violence
is continuing, and education to stop that kind of violence is also
continuing," she said.
Windows in businesses and homes throughout Missoula still bear "Hate
Hurts" signs distributed after the fire.
And, at the University of Montana, where the lawsuit began, support remains
strong, said English professor Casey Charles, a member of the Outfield
Alliance, a UM-based group that has fought for same-sex benefits.
"There’s an amazing amount of support for gay and lesbian rights on
our campus," Charles said. "My sense is that in many ways our
support was solidified with the lawsuit."
Helena District Judge Thomas Honzel threw out the lawsuit in November, but
the American Civil Liberties Union will appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
Holly Franz of Helena, a cooperating attorney on the case, said she expects
the appeal will come soon.
"I know the lawyers are quite pleased to get it in front of the higher
court because I know that’s where they want it to be," Charles said.
At Big Sky High School, where the Gay Straight Alliance has a regular
attendance of at least 10 to 15 kids, faculty adviser David Wilson said
respect for gay students is improving.
"It’s OK to talk about those things, it’s not a taboo like it has
been in the past," Wilson said.
There are openly gay couples in the school who are harassed—but they also
survive as individuals, he said. And kids will ask him questions about his
life "as if there were never any barriers."
But there are also periodic setbacks.
Betty Kijewski, an organizer for the Montana Human Rights Network in
Helena, said most of the kids who come to her with a broken nose or jaw or
after having their head shoved in a toilet were attacked because they are gay
or because someone thought they were gay. Kijewski and her son Joseph recently
completed a 30-minute video of interviews with gay high school students from
across the state, a portion of which will play during the rally. She said the
stories kids tell can be horrifying.
"We weren’t prepared for the emotional toll it was going to take on
us listening to these stories," she said. "We’d get in the car and
just hang onto each other and sob, or we’d get in the car and be screaming
At the Legislature, three relevant bills appear to have failed. Two would
have added sexual orientation to the categories included in the state’s hate
crimes law. Another, sponsored by Rep. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, would have
repealed the portion of Montana’s deviate sexual conduct law that makes
homosexual sex illegal. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997,
but the Legislature has refused to officially remove it from the books.
Facey said he asked to have the bill tabled in committee Friday after an
amendment left the existing language in the law but said adults engaged in
private, noncommercial sex could not be prosecuted.
"The problem is that representatives and legislators are afraid of a
political backlash that I don’t think exists," Facey said, adding that
he sponsored a similar, unsuccessful bill in the 2001 legislative session and
will continue to sponsor legislation until the law is fully repealed.
Facey is also the sponsor of a bill to be introduced next week that would
legalize marriage for gay men and lesbians.
"My intention is that the marriage bill will reflect the current
practices in society and extend ... that same type of legal protection for all
our citizens," he said.
Olson concedes the bill doesn’t have much of a chance this time around
but supports it wholeheartedly.
"This bill is one of 2,000 that will be introduced this session,"
Olson said. "Many of those bills will not pass this session, but
nevertheless we are getting the issue into public conversations."
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