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Is Montana in denial about gay rights?

The state of gay rights

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For any Montanan with a political pulse, the notion that our state is inhospitable to gays may just seem like a tired civic bromide, a mere commonplace in the landscape of public life. After all, with Montana’s famous propensity for interpreting the Bible as if it were case law and skipping over the First Amendment in a rush to get to the Second, it hardly seems surprising that our hardbitten political atmosphere would be welcoming to something as polemical as homosexuality. But even moderate onlookers might be disturbed to learn that intolerance in Montana is getting worse, and fast.

Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group known as People for the American Way issued a 350-page report on anti-gay activity in America, including no small indictment of Montana. Called “Hostile Climate 2000,” the study outlines a three-fold failure of the 1999 Legislature in the field of gay rights: the stricken effort to repeal Montana’s sodomy law; the defeat of proposed gay rights legislation; and the downfall of a bill to include sexual orientation under the state’s existing hate crimes law.

If these issues sound familiar, it’s because they have all surfaced again in 2001, and their fates remain just as bleak as they did two years ago. But this time, according to one observer, the problems are even worse.

“My sense is it’s much more hostile in this session than last,” says Mary Anne Guggenheim, former representative from House District 55 and the only openly gay legislator in the 1999 session. During her last term, she says, debate on gay issues ranged from “limited discussion” of civil rights to some more “discouraging” religious rhetoric. But in the current session, she says, the forensics on the House floor have been colored by a distinct tinge of denial. “Virtually at the same time that representatives are saying on the floor that there is no such thing as hate crimes, those crimes are occurring. It seems more blatant.”

Montana has already seen two outbreaks anti-gay violence during this year’s session—one at Carroll College, in which a gay student was knocked unconscious and then beaten, another outside a bar in Billings in which two assailants attacked a man after yelling anti-gay epithets.

“They’re saying there are no such things as crimes against gays as a group,” Guggenheim says of gay-rights opponents. “That’s like people saying there were never crimes against blacks as blacks.”

As of this writing, bills pertaining to gay rights, anti-gay hate crimes and employment discrimination against gays have all been tabled.

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