Last edited: December 31, 2004

Advocates: Gay Rights Gain Ground

The Missoulian, February 8, 2003
Box 8029, Missoula, MT 59801
Fax: 406-523-5221

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 Transgender Equality.

"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 angry."

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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