A recent beating near downtown Missoula yielded more than a wired-shut jaw and fractured face bones for its victims.
The assault that began with a car full of men yelling anti-gay threats at Wally Catton and Marcus Chebul has also revived a call for the inclusion of anti-gay violence in Montana’s hate crimes law. In the aftermath of the Oct. 15 beating, as well as a reported uptick in anti-gay harassment on UM’s campus, a petition drive is now underway that calls on Gov. Brian Schweitzer to tackle the issue at a special legislative session.
Also in the wake of the attack, the Missoula Police Department created a new GLBTI Liaison Officer position Oct. 20 to improve relations with the local gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersex community. Though Officer Scott Oak says the new position has been in the works for a while, he says Police Chief Rusty Wickman fast-tracked it in light of the assault and subsequent fears about anti-gay violence in Missoula.
Oak says the goal is to strengthen relations between law enforcement and the gay community. He’ll report to Wickman about safety and law-enforcement issues in the gay community, field concerns and help educate fellow officers.
“I want to just be visible, to let people know that I’m here as a sounding board,” he says. “I’m here to take their report [if a crime is committed against them], or just to be a bridge to the police department.”
The new position holds special meaning for Oak, who’s gay. He thought long and hard about stepping into the role because it “really puts [him] out in the open,” but he concluded he was just the person to take it on.
“I had to take the risk and say, ‘I’m in a position where I can make change, and I need to step up and do it,’” he says.
Oak researched the idea over the last few months and modeled the position on a similar program in Washington, D.C. He couldn’t find any smaller cities with similar programs, and he’s proud Missoula is leading the way: “It’s progressive and it’s really awesome,” he says.
Oak introduced himself and the new position Oct. 24 at the first meeting of the Missoula Coalition Against Hate Crimes, which drew about 30 people from a wide range of community groups dedicated to women’s and gay rights.
Much of the discussion centered on the petition drive, which is being spearheaded by PRIDE, a statewide gay-rights group. Executive Director Karl Olson says the petitions started circulating in Missoula Oct. 21, but he hopes to branch out into other Montana communities soon.
Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network and a state senator from Helena, says he’s worked unsuccessfully the past six legislative sessions to amend the state’s Malicious Intimidation and Harassment Act, which penalizes violence motivated by racial, ethnic, religious or political bias but doesn’t include anti-gay or gender-based crimes.
Olson says Missoula’s recent assault proves wrong one of the main arguments for excluding anti-gay violence from hate crime laws.
“One of the things we’ve been told by legislators is that anti-gay crimes don’t happen in the Big Sky,” says Olson, who hopes that having a specific incident like Catton’s and Chebul’s assault on people’s minds might swing a few votes.
Catton and Chebul, who are both 21 and happen to be heterosexual, say they were walking north along Higgins Avenue just south of the bridge when men in a red SUV drove by yelling that Chebul’s hat and glasses looked gay and that they were “fags.” Chebul says it’s not the first time the friends have heard similar things on the strip on weekend nights, and they blew it off as “drunk guys doing drunk-guy things.” But then the car pulled over and two men made a beeline for them. One man pulled off Chebul’s glasses and said, “Now you look less like a fag,” he recalls, and “Why don’t you go suck some dicks instead” when Chebul asked for them back. Then they began punching Catton and Chebul, and Catton ran to the Holiday gas station across the street to call the police. When he came back, a dark-colored sedan had arrived and more men were beating Chebul. When they saw Catton trying to take down their license plates, they punched him down into a bush, he says, and then took off in their cars. Police arrived a few minutes later, they say, and their parents later took them to the hospital. Catton, whose jaw was fractured twice, now has a metal plate in his jaw and his mouth is wired shut for six weeks. Chebul received a concussion and three breaks in his cheekbone. Officer Oak said Oct. 24 that the department had strong leads on suspects and expected to make an arrest within the week.
Both Catton and Chebul say they hope for, and are working toward, inclusion of anti-gay violence in Montana’s hate crime law. Molly Madden, Catton’s girlfriend, began circulating petitions Oct. 21 and says several hundred were collected that day.
Meanwhile, on campus, Lambda Alliance President Ryan Knobloch says the UM gay rights group has received several recent reports of anti-gay harassment, the most extreme being the treatment student Xavier Old Chief received in his dorm. Old Chief says a handful of men persistently harassed him, slipping messages under his door that said “The only good fag’s a dead fag,” and pounding on his door late at night while saying things like “You fucking fag, we’re going to get you.” Old Chief says he moved into a new dorm Oct. 22. Knobloch says several others have reported recent harassment as well: One gay student’s dorm door was vandalized with “Fuck Fags,” and a gay couple holding hands on campus was verbally abused. In response, Lambda and Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL) are planning Stop Hate Week for Nov. 7–11 to draw attention to recent incidents.
Besides recent reported events, Oak worries about harassment and anti-gay crimes that aren’t reported, and he hopes his new position will encourage better communication. Like Olson and Toole, he also thinks changing the law would help.
Toole says Oak’s new position should be an encouragement to all.
“It’s a huge step forward for a department to actually say this is important enough to have someone responsible for keeping the lines of communication open,” he says.