Law banning gay sex in Montana removed from the books

Linda Gryczon, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state's ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law's official removal Thursday

Linda Gryczan, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state’s ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law’s official removal Thursday

“I am not going to speak too long,” Governor Steve Bullock told the cheering crowd packed into the rotunda of the state capitol building. “Because frankly, the longer I talk the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on our books.”
Bullock shortly thereafter signed Senate Bill 107, which officially removes a law criminalizing homosexual sex in the state. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law 15 years ago, but state legislators kept the law on the books.
Helena lobbyist Linda Gryczan filed the original suit which led to the Supreme Court nullifying the ban. A gay woman, Gryczan said the Thursday ceremony to remove the defunct law meant a lot more than if the legislature would have dropped it shortly after the 1997 Supreme Court decision.
“Because (that) would have followed the normal course of what you’d expect, unconstitutional law, you take it off the books…it makes sense,” Gryczan said. “Unfortunately to a lot of people, prejudice got in the way and we had to fight that prejudice.”
A bill to toss the law failed every other attempt before the Montana Legislature before this year. This time, the Senate voted 38-11 to pass the law. The House passed it with a 64-35 vote.
Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby) was one of the 35 Republicans who opposed the bill. He says he’s against the bill on religious grounds, but it was not a hateful vote. “God says we’re to love one another…but I still have to remain true to my beliefs in God and what he asks of us and so balancing that is a very difficult thing at times.”

The final debate on the House floor was largely between Republicans, with many arguing to remove the law to recognize individual rights and privacy. Arguably the most passionate testimony in favor of SB107 came from Representative Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip), who has a gay daughter.
To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me. And for anybody that would feel that way—upsets me,” Ankney said, pointing at the other lawmakers. “I don’t think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of any one of you in here.”
Montana Human Rights Network Lobbyist Jamee Greer says the passage of SB107 is “the first explicit victory for the LGBT community through the (Montana) legislature in history.” He believes it may be a watershed moment for gay rights in the state.
Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.

Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.

Helena second Montana city to pass nondiscrimination ordinance

visitors pack into Helena's City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

visitors pack into Helena’s City Commission chambers to speak on the nondiscrimination ordinance Monday

Helena city commissioners have passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in the Capitol City.

The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination toward transgender individuals.

The measure extends to housing, employment, as well as use of public accommodations.

Helena stands as the second Montana city to pass a non-discrimination ordinance after Missoula. The process has taken about a year, and it’s been a contentious one.

“This is a very closely divided issue in this community,” said Helena City Commissioner Dan Ellison.

Supporters and opponents quickly filled the commission chambers, then packed into two overflow rooms showing audio and video of the meeting.

Each side was given a full hour for public comment.

“So I’m speaking up, for myself and on behalf of all those not in attendance for fear of repurcussions,” said Amy Ophus, a lesbian living in East Helena. She had been too afraid to speak during previous meetings, because she had seen her landlord among the opponents of the ordinance.

“He’s still here opposing the ordinance,” she said, but felt it was too important to sit silent this time.

“No one who lives, works or shops here should be afraid to hold hands with their loved ones in a public place,” Ophus said.

The ordinance reads existing state and federal laws do not clearly address all discriminatory acts reported by Helena’s diverse residents.

LGBT supporters of the ordinance told stories of a wide variety of verbal and physical abuse.

“I’ve been jeered at, I’ve been called names, I’ve been sworn at,” said transgender woman Roberta Zenker. “I’ve been told I’m an abomination and I should be put to death.”

Those speaking against the ordinance say it’s impossible to legislate kindness. Sometimes people are just going to be cruel to each other.

B.G. Stumberg approached the podium.

“I wasn’t really sure that I was going to speak this evening but I was prompted by one of my tenants, Amy Ophus,” he said. He says he is truly sorry for the supporters who have been discriminated against, but he’s been discriminated against too.

“on numerous occasions because I’m a fundamental Evangelical Baptist and people don’t often appreciate my stand on things.”

He says he’s known his tenant Amy Ophus was a lesbian for years and has never treated her with anything but respect.

“I treated her as a child of god, a person with dignity,” he said.

The majority of opponents spoke of their respect for the LGBT community. But some say the ordinance threatens traditional family and religious values. Others worry about costs to taxpayers from lawsuits prompted by the ordinance. The issue raised most often was a rather specific one—a worry about transgender people using public restrooms and locker rooms. Helena Resident Sharon Turner says she’s afraid for the community’s children, but not from the gay and lesbian population.

“The concern that I have is that this ordinance will allow for those with malicious intent to enter women only portions of facilities under the guise of being transgender,” Turner said.

Commissioners affirmed an amendment inserted into the statute from an earlier meeting. The amendment does make it legal for a business with a locker room or changing room to require a transgender person use the restroom of their original, anatomical, sex.

Many supporters of the overall ordinance were outraged. The Montana Human Rights Network is calling it a harmful and offensive amendment. The only commissioner to vote against the locker room amendment was Katherine Haque-Hausrath. Commisioner Haque-Hausrath originally brought forward the nondiscrimination ordinance for consideration.

The full ordinance passed unanimously.

Applause could be heard from one side of the issue, yet some on both sides were shaking their heads.

Commissioner Haque-Hausrath said it was a bittersweet victory because of the locker room amendment she opposed.

“But I think it’s important to focus on what we are accomplishing with this,” She said with tears in her eyes. “Being LGBT is part of being human, it is something that is immutable, something that cannot change….We hear your concerns but we just believe there is discrimination and unfair treatment that’s worth addressing in the city of Helena.”

Most churches and religious organizations are exempt from the Nondiscrimination ordinance. The city say it will become effective next month.

Greer returns from White House visit, VP Biden Bar-B-Q

Leaders of the gay rights movement around the country are returning home following a series of discussions with top Washington D.C. officials, including the Obama Administration.

The White House invited one Montanan to the one-day roundtable–Montana Human Rights Network Organizer Jamee Greer.

The Seattle-based Pride Foundation recommended Greer for the D.C. visit. Pride says Greer’s advocacy through the Montana Human Rights Network makes him a national leader in the LGBT movement. Greer helped establish a community-wide nondiscrimination ordinance in Missoula..

He visited the White House with LGBT leaders from more than 30 other states, discussing gay-rights issues with the Obama Administration before attending a Bar-B-Que at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence. Greer feels humbled to be chosen—and saw this kind of national exposure as a unique opportunity for him to talk about Montana.

“I feel like the national discussion can largely center around same-sex marriage, which is important but in Montana we have some significant disparities,” Greer said. He faults what he calls Montana’s patchwork of legal protection for LGBT residents. It’s a patchwork that he says confuses people.

“It confuses, I think, well-meaning people who just assume LGBT Montanans are covered by the Civil Rights Act or the Montana Human Rights Act and don’t understand that we’re not,” Greer said.

Greer says problems faced by gay Montanans are similar to a few other northwestern states, namely Idaho and Alaska. Still, Greer says there have been many improvements in gay rights in Montana over the last few years.

“As an LGBT American, as a gay Montanan I can say that at all levels, local statewide and federal my life is certainly much better,” Greer said.

He says the Montana Human Rights Network will be promoting a bill to create a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to Missoula’s for the whole state.

Click here for a White House blog about the LGBT event.

Yellowstone Park Rangers marching in Montana Pride Parade

Montana’s Pride week parade kicks off this weekend in Bozeman. The state’s Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (or LGBT) community puts on the event coinciding with LGBT Pride Month. Representatives from Yellowstone National Park will be marching in the parade–in uniform.

This will be the second year Yellowstone is showing support for gay rights at the parade. Yellowstone National Park Spokesman Dan Hottle says it’s like many events the Park does throughout the year to celebrate the country’s diversity.

“So just like African American History, Women’s History, Asian Pacific American Heritage month, We are taking part in Gay and Lesbian pride month,” Hottle said.

Last year was the first time Yellowstone took part in the parade. The decision was not top down. Hottle says park staff received word that organizing something for Pride month would be OK.

“When employees got together and they realized they have the support of not only Yellowstone’s Superintendent but all the way up as far as the Secretary of the Interior I think that gave them the confidence that they could stand up take part as employees in Uniform,” he said.

Gay and straight Yellowstone Park Rangers will be marching in the parade, holding a banner and several rainbow flags. After the parade, the rangers will set up a booth to speak to people about the park and pass out information.

Yellowstone Administrative Support Assistant Kevin Franken is gay. He describes marching in the parade in uniform as an empowering and energizing experience.

“This is a great opportunity to show people that we are their friends, their co-workers, neighbors and the Park Rangers  that educate them about National Parks like Yellowstone,” Franken said.

Montana Human Rights Network Organizer Jamee Greer will be also be marching in the parade tomorrow and giving a speech. He calls the participation of Yellowstone an encouraging sign of solidarity—and not just because of the park’s proximity to Bozeman.

“Also the message it sends to LGBT people that we’re welcome,” Greer said, “we’re valued and the National Park Service has members of its staff that are clearly supportive of LGBT equality.”

 The Montana Pride Parade begins at 11 tomorrow morning, marching down Main Street in Bozeman.