News » Features

Queer and present danger

Outing Montana's ambient homophobia

How do you feel about the word queer? How about dyke or fag? Does it depend upon whose mouth is saying them, and why? Or are they just pink triangles to you, archaic badges of oppression that you’ve turned on their heads and now wear as symbols of power?

Perhaps you’d prefer a more polite and government-sanctioned term. Try “deviate sexual relations.” That’s the language still on the books in Section 45-2-101 of the Montana Code Annotated, sandwiched between “indecent exposure” and “incest” and mentioned in the same breath as “bestiality.” That bit of statutory roadkill was struck down by the state Supreme Court back in the mid-’90s, but a majority of the Legislature is still too squeamish to do its job and clean it up. More likely, a number of those lawmakers would just as soon infuse it with new life.

It’s not so easy choosing a word that accurately, respectfully and succinctly refers to everyone whose sexual orientation falls outside the heterosexual mainstream, even for their allies. To some, “gay and lesbian” is not a big enough tent, and the more inclusive mouthful, “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender” results in a cryptic acronym—GLBT—that sounds more like something thought up by the Department of Transportation.

Why bother with these semantic calisthenics when to even speak of “the gay and lesbian community,” in Missoula or anywhere else, is to suggest a homogeneity where none exists? Because language is the metaphor we live by, and our choice of words reflects who is and who is not granted legitimacy, rights and power in society. In a nutshell, that’s identity politics, and presumably, that’s what last month’s arson fire was all about.

When Missoulians awoke on the chilly morning of Friday, Feb. 8 they learned that two Missoula mothers, Adrianne Neff and Carla Grayson, had in the wee hours of the night been forced to climb out a window with their 2-year-old son because someone had tried to erase not only them but the souls of every other gay and lesbian in Montana with the strike of a match and the universal emotion of fear.

This only days after the couple had filed suit against the Montana University System demanding that they be granted the same employee benefits given to heterosexual couples, including unmarried domestic partners, and following a fruitless four-year battle with an intransigent Board of Regents.

As the smoke cleared, we could see that the fire’s scars reached well beyond the confines of Neff and Grayson’s South Hills home, and that for many Missoulians, newcomers and lifelong residents alike, Missoula was not as safe and secure a place as they had once believed. Though this was an extreme act, it was not an isolated one, for it occurred in a larger, unspoken climate of institutionalized homophobia that pervades our schools, workplaces, government and the media.

The fire re-ignited the social activism of many lesbians and gays, some of whom undoubtedly had developed a false sense of security, even complacency, about their degree of acceptance in Montana’s most gay-friendly town. To others it reinforced the belief that institutionalized discrimination as well as hate crimes, though measurably different from one another, nonetheless fall on the same continuum of intolerance.

“It’s not just the violence. It’s easy to stand up and say violence is wrong. You have to go to the deeper level, which is discrimination,” says Spider McKnight of Missoula’s Queer Action, a group formed in the immediate aftermath of the fire. “Take the Board of Regents. When you sanction a culture of homophobia, you’re sanctioning a culture of violence. They’re tied together. There is no middle ground.”

Attempted murder is only the most extreme example of the daily risks involved in being “out” in Montana. A lesbian mother in this state is far more likely to lose her child in a custody battle than to an arsonist’s flames.

“Today all of us can get fired for being gay or lesbian or bisexual. You can be fired for being straight, for that matter,” says Jonathan Proctor, another member of Queer Action. “I can be kicked out of housing. I can be kicked out of my job. And there’s nothing I can do about it. When people refuse to acknowledge and address that, it’s homophobia.”

Terror, like fire, is a great leveler of status and power, and on that Friday morning, Missoula became a different place for Christopher Peterson, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana and an openly gay student leader in a university system in which other gay and lesbian organizations are virtually nonexistent. (Last year at Montana State University in Bozeman, an open door erected on campus to celebrate National Coming Out Day was torched the first night it was up. The following night, vandals turned the support ropes into nooses.)

“I think a lot has changed, basically, my freedom and my sense of safety in Missoula,” says Peterson. “Now when I’m walking around Missoula or going to bed at night, it’s much scarier than it ever was before. I never felt threatened in this community, but after the incident that happened to Professor Grayson and her partner, that sense of security is gone.”

Peterson, a transplant from the Boston area, is probably more open about his sexuality than many gay and lesbian students at UM, especially those who come from small towns in Montana where being out was never an option. For them, he says, “just being open is a new experience. To take that next step into political activism is really a large one from just simply saying, ‘I’m out, I’m gay.’”

Further along the spectrum is K.D. Dickinson, a Missoula real estate agent who has lived in Montana since 1976. Though she’s been out for the last 30 years, it’s not hard to appreciate her initial reluctance to being interviewed for this story. As Grayson and Neff discovered, there’s a big difference between being out and being in the spotlight.

“My first reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want to do that because of the fear factor of being a target,’” Dickinson says. “But then I also feel like, I’ve got a rainbow sticker on my car, I advertise in Pride [an LGBT publication] and I’m as out as out can be. So my second reaction was, ‘No, that’s exactly what they want us to do, go back in the closet.’ I’ve never been in the closet so I’m not going to go in the closet now out of fear.”

In some respects, Dickinson is more fortunate than most. Being a lesbian has helped her financially, as she’s carved out a niche for herself serving gay and lesbian clients as well as straight clients who don’t care that she’s gay. Still, she recognizes that the nature of her job as an independent contractor affords her a level of freedom not enjoyed by many other gay professionals here.

“As far as other lesbian businesswomen I know who feel the same way I do, I’m way in the minority,” she says. “It is a challenge to the university people because they don’t have health insurance, but they’re not going to get fired because they’re queer over there. A high school teacher, a grade school teacher? Yeah, it’s still not OK because of the ‘influence on the children’ that straight people often worry about, which is ridiculous.”

As for her safety concerns, Dickinson’s words echo the sentiments of gays and lesbians throughout Missoula.

“I’m locking my doors now,” she says. “I’m fearful for a brick being thrown through my window.”

Closeted violence

If numbers told the whole story, folks like Peterson and Dickinson would have little reason to fear. According to the Missoula Police Department, there were only three reported cases of crimes against a person for reasons of sexual orientation between 1999 and 2001: one case in 1999, two in 2000 and none in 2001. Statewide, the Montana Board of Crime Control documented only five hate crimes against homosexuals reported by all law enforcement agencies in 2000; eight others in 1999, and only one in 1998.

But it would be naïve to assume that the statistics reflect the true frequency of those crimes. Nearly all the gays and lesbians interviewed for this story could relate incidents involving themselves and/or people they know who have been the targets of vandalism, verbal or physical harassment, or assault.

Queer Action’s Jonathan Proctor says that he’s been threatened and assaulted on the streets of Missoula plenty of times, and knows several gay men who have been brutally beaten here. For years, he says, verbal and physical harassment were a regular occurrence every time he and friends left AmVets, a popular gay and lesbian bar in town. In many cases, the incidents were never reported to police. Those that were, he says, rarely if ever led to arrests. Even if they had, Montana’s Malicious Intimidation and Harassment Act does not recognize hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation.

Ruth Vanita, a UM professor of Liberal Studies and a founding member of Outfield Alliance, a GLBT organization for UM students, faculty and staff, knows of at least one such case. “A person was beaten up and the cops did come and then didn’t make any arrests. They just treated it as a Friday night bar fight, which it wasn’t,” she says. “It was clearly a gay-bashing, but because it happened on a Friday night, they treated it as just a fight and didn’t do anything about it.”

National studies by the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reveal that the vast majority of gay and lesbian hate crimes—by some estimates more than 80 percent—go unreported to the police, mostly because the victims fear being “outed” and suffering further harassment, discrimination, violence or other indignities.

Missoula police acknowledge that the circumstances of each incident can complicate the reporting process, but say that they’re careful to screen each report of a hate crime to ensure there were not other reasons why the offense was committed.

“If that’s the reason that a crime was committed, because the victim was a homosexual, we will document that, but there has to be something obvious to indicate that’s truly what happened,” says Lt. Gregg Willoughby of the Missoula Police Department. “Oftentimes we’ll see cases come through where someone will say, ‘The only reason I got beat up was because I’m gay,’ but you’ll find out there was another motivating factor.”

But Queer Action’s McKnight says the problems run much deeper.

“You have to realize that historically, police are some of the worse violators of bias against the queer community,” she says. “Often you go to the police, you get disparaged, you get ignored, you get harassed. Sometimes you even get beaten.”

A few of the gays and lesbians I spoke to did emphasize that Missoula cops are better than those they’ve dealt with elsewhere, noting that Missoula’s Citizens Advisory Board includes a representative from the gay community. There have also been informal discussions about improving the lines of communication on both sides.

When placed in a larger historical context, the attempt on the lives of Grayson and Neff is consistent with the experiences of other oppressed groups who have openly challenged the status quo, only to be met with increased violence. Consider the experiences of gays and lesbians in the Portland, Ore. area in the early 1990s, when the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, a far-right Christian group, proposed two ballot measures (in 1992 and again in 1994) that would have legalized various forms of discrimination against gays in housing and employment. During that period hate crimes against gays more than tripled.

Meanwhile, as our nation charges ahead in its crusade against terrorism and fundamental extremism, the climate of “tolerance” is growing rather frigid even for those who are serving their country. A report released just last week by the Human Right Campaign reveals that anti-gay harassment and discharges from the U.S. military reached a record level in 2001, with 1,250 gay or lesbian servicemembers discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass” policy, the highest number since 1987. Since the policy was first implemented in 1994, the number of gays and lesbians discharged from the military has more than doubled.

Likewise, more than a dozen gays and lesbians who lost life partners in the Sept. 11 attacks have also been denied compensation from the airlines. Whether or how much the federal Victims Compensation Fund will recognize their losses remains to be seen.

Blaming the victims

If the fire sent a wave of fear through Missoula’s lesbian and gay community, it was an article on the front page of the Feb. 16 Missoulian that stoked their outrage. Beneath a headline that read, “Police narrow focus in arson investigation,” the lead sentence suggested that investigators were focusing on two possible scenarios, “one that someone sneaked into their Rimrock Way house and set the fire or that the women set it themselves.”

Reaction from gays and lesbians was loud and swift. An e-mail list of more than 100 names was hastily compiled and plans were made to picket outside the newspaper. Only after Missoulian Editor Mike McInally agreed to meet with members of the gay and lesbian community to discuss their grievances was the protest canceled. Still, many left that meeting dissatisfied and disheartened.

“The attempts to blame the queer community for their own victimization is homophobia in and of itself, because it’s an attempt to deny the fact that our community is treated unfairly by the general public in our laws and in general daily life,” says Proctor. “If we did it to ourselves then it’s not homophobia.”

“Many people in the gay community are not at all reassured that the police will deal fairly and respectfully with them, even when they are victims of a crime,” says Mona Bachmann, a member of Outfield Alliance and the Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Equality, a loosely-knit group of organizations and individuals. “We can see that now when Carla and Adrianne’s house was burned down and they were attacked in a murder attempt, they’re being actively investigated as possible perpetrators of this.”

There’s more to this anger than the natural instinct of an oppressed group to circle the wagons. Nationwide, it’s not uncommon for gay and lesbian hate-crime victims to come under suspicion from police and the media. Consider the case of Sylvia Lugo, a lesbian in Brooklyn, N.Y. who was shot and killed in a break-in robbery in 1995. Despite the fact that her partner, who was also wounded but survived the attack, provided the police with a detailed description of her assailant, it took police months to prepare a sketch for distribution, and then they did little to warn other women in the area. Shortly after the shooting, reports began leaking to the press that Lugo’s partner was a suspect, with the result that she was denied benefits from New York’s Crime Victims Board. For a year and a half many people, including plenty in the gay and lesbian community, believed that the woman had killed her partner, until the real killer was caught and confessed to the crime, but not before he had victimized other women in the interim.

“It’s been disappointing, the response from the community—for me anyway, I don’t know about anyone else—seeing the dwindling interest in the straight community and the resistance to putting up the ‘Hate Hurts’ signs,” says Dickinson. (A number of business owners have told her that they won’t put up the signs out of fear of alienating some of their customers.) “In the beginning I was really impressed and really proud at the rally. Since then, especially since the newspaper article in the Missoulian about the accusation of suspecting Carla and Adrianne, I think a lot of the community, both the GLBT and the straight community, have backed off some because it’s like, ‘Oh! Maybe they did do it.’”

Proctor contrasts the community’s response in Missoula to that of Billings a decade ago after someone threw a brick through the window of a Jewish home with a menorah in the window. Following that incident, nearly 10,000 homes in Billings posted paper menorahs in their windows, sparking a made-for-TV movie, “Not In Our Town,” a nationwide anti-hate campaign, and even an ongoing “Not in Our Town” Web site. Though Proctor commends that tremendous show of support, he wonders aloud why the same thing hasn’t happened here.

“Somebody was almost murdered in this town and where is the similar reaction from the general community?” he asks. “You’ve got to wonder, what’s it going to take to rally people behind changing the way the queer community is treated in this state?”

Phoenix rising
It’s noon on a Thursday, and the upstairs meeting room of the Union Club is filling with people, women mostly, who have gathered to hear what legendary singer/songwriters Holly Near and Cris Williamson have to say about the role of music in social activism. Like the crowd that will fill the Wilma Theater for their concert later that night, there’s a large contingent of Missoula’s lesbian elders in the room, those women of a certain age with salt-and-pepper hair and that regal air of strength and purpose about them. They’re the kind women for whom the word “lesbian” says far more about their identity than just who they love and who they choose to live with. They’re the ones who know how to build things and fix things, who own their own businesses, plant gardens, deliver babies. The kind of women who remember to replace the batteries in the smoke alarm.

Near starts by asking everyone in the room to join her in an old Appalachian traditional, “Mountain Song.” It’s about a woman who, in a vain attempt to save her land from being strip mined, finally throws herself in front of the heavy equipment and has to be carried off by her wrists and ankles. Still, she does not go willingly:

“I have dreamed on this mountain since I first was my mother’s daughter, and you can’t take my dreams away.”

The song has the desired effect of uniting the room, much the way black civil rights activists in the 1950s would take up a song and form a “circle of power” just before they marched into protest against the police, knowing full well that they were about to get their heads beat in.

Later that night Missoula folk singer Amy Martin opens the Near/Williamson show with a song she wrote about the fire, “Phoenix (Letter to an Arsonist).” She’s barely strummed two chords before Carla begins to cry and puts her head on Adrianne’s shoulder. Music may not be a uniquely lesbian response to violence, or even one exclusive to women, but its healing influence soothes what might have otherwise become a suffocating cloud of despair. And as Martin sings, “Is there really love enough to squander, can we afford to throw any love away?” it’s clear that on this night, in this company, the only label that matters is not “queer” or “lesbian” but “loved one.”

Music is a potent tool for social activism because it resonates for us at such a visceral level. Many of the traditional lullabies still sung to children today are filled with violent imagery because years ago, mothers feared that if they kept their anger and frustrations bottled up inside, they would sour the milk and poison their nursing babies. It was music that protected the children from the bitterness of their mothers’ oppression.

Hate is not an inborn, but a learned behavior, one that disproportionately infects the young. A report several years ago by the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project found that nationally 75 percent of the people who commit hate crimes are under the age of 30; one in three is under 18. It’s a tragedy not lost on Near, who acknowledges that all too often she and Williamson are singing to the converted.

“Even to Eminem, I have to say, ‘Thank you. I’d forgotten there are people in the world like you,’” she says, referring to the popular rap singer whose lyrics are riddled with misogynistic and violently homophobic references. “Had you not surfaced, I wouldn’t have seen how many tragically uncared-for young white men there are in our society. They’re very hurt, and as long as we continue to let them be hurt and remain hurt, they will grow up and kill us.”

Add a comment