With social barriers falling like dominoes, Montana's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Intersex, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) community have a lot to celebrate at this week's Pride events in Bozeman.
President Obama's May 9th statement in favor of same-sex marriage rode the coattails of a skillfully executed series of plays which include repealing the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy and instructing the Department of Justice to not defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, challenging that the law is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, individual states have taken up the question of gay marriage by making it altogether legal or engaging in protracted court battles for that cause. With a recent rise in public opinion supporting same-sex marriage and an increasingly crowded Supreme Court docket, the time is ripe for extending civil rights to LGBTQ people.
Here in Montana last April, the state supreme court convened publicly in Missoula to hear arguments about whether same-sex domestic partnerships should be treated as equal to marriage in the eyes of the State. A ruling for the plaintiffs would recognize domestic partnerships and protect their rights regarding inheritance, burial decisions, workers' compensation benefits, tax exemptions, and health care decisions. In fact, the list of state laws implicated in the case would be “eight pages long when printed in five point type.” An amendment to the Montana Constitution, which was ratified by voter referendum in 1996, prohibits same-sex marriage and was used by the district court to dismiss the case as an “inappropriate exercise of this court's power.” The court suggested a better way to go about changing the laws would be to take them on one-by-one. While current Attorney General and democratic candidate for governor Steve Bullock continues to defend the constitutional amendment, the ACLU and Bozeman's own Jim Goetz argue that the Montana Constitution guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law. The amendment in no way precludes the state from providing other forms of recognition for same-sex couples.
An ACLU press release from last August cites 2,295 same-sex households in Montana. Many of these families will be here this week. Shaun Phoenix, a psychotherapist who lives near Belgrade with her partner Stormi, thinks of the Pride festivities as an opportunity not just for herself and others to “go back to their home country” for the week, but for straight allies to “step inside queer space.” “Think of it as a cultural exchange!" she says, "It may make you uncomfortable, may raise questions, may answer questions—and this experience of being in the minority for a few hours can stretch you to be more compassionate as your awareness grows for what my world is like."
"I want to be seen, heard, understood, and celebrated for who I am and for the unique gifts my queer sensibilities bring to the world," Phoenix said. "Just like in a garden, monoculture puts everything at risk. I don't want to be tolerated or patronized. I am healthy, vibrant, balanced and that's not in spite of being a lesbian, it's because of it.” Indeed, queer identity challenges some of our most basic cultural assumptions. Fear of this unknown can feel unsafe from both sides of the closet door.
Phoenix spoke of the coming-out process as a “crucible” that requires addressing not just sexuality, but spiritual questions about meaning and belonging. This year's lead organizer, Tom Marsh, knows a lot about that. After he came out to his evangelical Christian parents, Marsh was sent to “conversion therapy.” He tried to behave as his parents wished: “I did the whole thing—I got married and had a child. But I am still gay.” Commonly, the most vocal opponents of civil rights for LGBTQ people are Christians who lean on ancient Hebraic laws to bolster their argument. “We don't follow all of the other laws in Leviticus,” says Phoenix, “Why that one?”
Kathy Baldock, a straight, evangelical Christian minister from California, will offer a talk on Tuesday that addresses just this topic. Her mission is to heal the breach between the Christian church and LGBTQ people maintained by representatives like Pastor Charles Worley of North Carolina and the Westboro Baptist Church. “If you're like most Christians," she said, "you're growing increasingly disgusted with the public representation of Jesus that does not resonate with how you express or live your faith.” Her intelligent theology will give tools for taking on the lies that even “well-meaning” Christian leaders are propagating.
Baldock will spend the week in Bozeman, making herself available to faith communities as well as offering her “#str8apology” to LGBTQ people who have been hurt by church doctrines. It should be noted here that many of our local clergy have signed either a brief amici curiae or a statement of support for the Donaldson Guggenheim plaintiffs. Other Pride events include two nights of drag shows and dancing, (Friday's music will be provided live by Jessie and the Toy Boys), a performance by Katie Goodman, and a parade at 11 AM on Saturday (participants should be there by 10 AM). New this year will be alcohol-free entertainment for the under 21 crowd.
“I think conservative thinkers look at the extremes of any culture that isn't theirs and stereotype the whole," Marsh said. "I feel like they only see the hyperbole of the gay community. They don't think about guys like me... with a 5-year-old son, a career, a boyfriend, with responsibilities, bills, involved in the community... the more that they really see the gay community as a whole... the less threatened they'll be about what family looks like, and more aware that we're all just getting there together. Being there for our kids, our friends, working hard, and playing hard. There's less of a divide than they've ever been willing to see. And each year, that divide gets more transparent, and less relevant.”
Attending Pride events can be as filled with revelation and celebration for straight folks as it is for the LGBTQ community. It's an open invitation, and organizers expect a record turn out. Bring the kids for an experiential civics lesson, gather information about relevant topics (like AIDS education), then get a sitter so you can party into the wee hours. Next year, you'll have to travel to participate.
“There is a sea change happening in our culture,” Phoenix says, “It's inspiring some people to think more deeply and others to come out and be known. The more people are known, the easier it is to see how common and human we all are. Having you come to Pride will help me and my queer pals have a sense that although we are different, we still belong here, and our contributions are valued by our community.” Marsh agrees, “I think Bozeman is becoming more 'gay-friendly' each year. Something happened, though, in the last 5 years. This community tipped from being on the line, to being welcoming, regardless of background.” -TBM
Author's Note: If you would like to sign an online petition in favor of equal rights for all Montanans, follow this link:
For more info on the Montana Pride events: montanapride.org/