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A civil matter

Reactivating the push for same-sex benefits at UM

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It’s time to get back on the bus, says Mona Bachmann of the Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality. It’s time to remind the community of the lawsuit against the Montana University System that seeks benefits for same-sex domestic partners of university employees, and it’s time to remind the Board of Regents of broad-based support for the suit, she says. To that end, Bachmann and a coalition of co-sponsors have planned a demonstration to coincide with the board’s Thursday, Nov. 21 meeting on campus.

When Bachmann uses the get-on-the-bus metaphor, she invokes classic civil rights images—Martin Luther King and the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott, Brown v. the Board of Education, the forced busing of public school students, and civil rights advocates riding hundreds of miles to rallies on the Washington mall. For Bachmann the metaphor makes perfect sense.

“This is a civil rights issue,” she says. “It’s actually one of the major civil rights issues of our time.”

Civil rights issue or not, it’s wrapped up in a lawsuit. And lawsuits just aren’t glamorous.

The suit, which was filed last February by lead plaintiffs Nancy Siegel, Carol Snetsinger, Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff along with the Montana American Civil Liberties Union, has faced a Hydra of obstacles that have continuously forced the de-emphasis of the seminal issue in the media.

“Unfortunately, lawsuits crawl slowly through the courts and just aren’t as compelling as a really tragic thing like the arson” says Karl Olson, executive director of the statewide gay rights organization Montana Pride. “Nevertheless we do want to try to motivate people to have an interest in what’s happening with the lawsuit.”

On Feb. 8, 2002, four days after the suit was filed and the four plaintiffs had appeared at a press conference, the home of Grayson and Neff was gutted by an arson fire. Grayson and Neff and Siegel and Snetsinger also received letters filled with a white powder with the words “Die Dykes Anthrax” on them. The letters did not contain anthrax.

The arson made the front pages and TV and radio news across the state and nation. But the event that precipitated it, the suit, wasn’t widely covered.

“The arson is dramatic and big news naturally,” says Bachmann. “But it’s pretty easy for this [lawsuit] to get lost in arson and the investigation.”

No arrests have been made in the investigation, but in August police focused much of their attention on Grayson and Neff as potential arsonists, a move that kept the couple in the spotlight and again shifted media coverage away from the issue of same-sex partner benefits.

Then on Oct. 19, the Missoulian printed a headline announcing “Benefits discrimination lawsuit dismissed.”

“A lot of people saw that and thought the lawsuit was dismissed, that that was it,” says Bachmann. “But it wasn’t, not at all.”

The headline, which Bachmann feels was misleading, referred to the case being dismissed not by the district court but by the Montana Human Rights Commission. In discrimination cases, the law requires plaintiffs go through the Human Rights Commission as well as the courts. Because the Montana Human Rights Act doesn’t mention sexual orientation as an area in which one can be discriminated against, the commission dismissed the case.

The crucial decision now is in the hands of District Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena. Honzel has heard oral arguments from both sides and is in the midst of deciding what to do with the case. Even with the confusion and lack of coverage over the past months, Bachmann admits that gay issues have received more Montana press recently than they have in the past.

“Interestingly enough, all these gay issues have been really important in Missoula and in Montana over the last year,” she says. “There’s this unfair insurance policy and the lawsuit, and then there’s been the arson, the homophobia, the Mike Taylor incident and Joey Jayne and Josh King, the two representatives in Lake County that were smeared with that postcard campaign.”

Bachmann refers to Mike Taylor’s decision to drop out of the senate race after complaining that attack ads portrayed him as a gay hairdresser, and a mailing that targeted King and Jayne, both of whom were running for house seats in Lake County, as being pro-homosexual. There is also a stalled effort to allow for same-sex partner benefits for city and county employees.

Olson regrets that the lawsuit and other gay issues haven’t been covered with more depth, but even he is too busy to give any one issue his full attention.

“We have a lot of irons in the fire, but that’s how we like it,” he says. “We’re very busy working on some really good stuff and tangible stuff. And it’s been my particular interest and goal [to make] the issue of equality and discrimination as tangible as possible.”

Too many people don’t realize that equality is not an abstract theory, says Olson, and that the result of the lawsuit will have real impacts on people. This is why it is so important to remind and reenergize people who have seen the issue fall beneath the community radar, say organizers.

“It’s just a chance to express to the regents and community that the regents’ decision [to not extend same-sex benefits] was unjust and we hold them responsible for it even though time has gone by, even though we are going to the court system for justice,” says Bachmann.

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