The Montana Code defines "deviate sexual relations" as "sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex or any form of sexual intercourse with an animal." The crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Though the Montana Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in 1997, the language remains in Montana statutea prejudiced slur scrawled into Montana's governing text.
Such injustice for so many Montana women and men is difficult to talk about in a way that might make the dissenters listen. It's difficult to give a law so unreasonable the gift of reasonable debate.
But on April 8, on the floor of the Montana House, Missoula Democrat Bryce Bennett did just that when discussing Senate Bill 107, the latest effort to repeal Montana's most incendiary anti-equality statute. He said:
"Members of this body, my colleagues and my friends, under this law I'm considered a felon. I'm not your equal. In fact, this law puts me in the same category as people who rape animals. Under this law I can be imprisoned for up to 10 years for being part of a loving, caring relationship.
"I know this law is unconstitutional, and it's not being enforced. I'm not worried about being arrested and taken into jail, but I feel the sting of this law still. Because words are important and they matter. The fact that years later, this language is still on the books means that our state still sees me as a criminal ... I am a second-class citizen in a state I was born in and have called home my entire life.
"Members of the body, this law is about me, but it's not just about me. Gay and lesbian Montanans are your neighbors, your co-workers, the soldiers who defend our nation, and for many of us, our family ... We're not strangers. We're the people in your life that you love and respect. This bill is about honoring that basic respect for our fellow Montanans. This bill is about offering basic dignity to everyone in our state."
Bennett spoke for four minutes to a crowded chamber of fellow lawmakers. The room was silent and respectful throughout, and no opponents rose in response. Testament, perhaps, to the fact that words really do matter.