Rome didn’t fall in a day. Rather, the decline was made up of small changes that slowly swung the pendulum from the order of Caesar to the decadence of Caligula. When conservative organizations like the Citizens Network and the Montana Family Coalition look at Montana they worry about campaigns that would swing the pendulum from order to chaos: efforts to extend benefits to the same-sex partners of employees of the Montana University System and the city of Missoula; an attempt in the state Legislature to add sexual orientation as a criteria of protection under the state’s hate crime act; and as of last week, a proposed bill that would legalize same-sex civil marriages.
The same-sex marriage bill, which is being carried by Rep. Tom Facey (D–Missoula) and was instigated by statewide gay rights organization Montana Pride, hopes to make Montana the second state, after Vermont, to legalize same-sex marriage. But representatives from the Citizens Network and the Montana Family Coalition say that the proposed legislation undermines what the organization calls the “traditional family,” and will never pass.
“For the last decade we’ve been fighting these kinds of bills,” says Montana Family Coalition executive director Julie Millam. “We believe that our foundation since the dawn of civilization has been [marriage] between a man and a woman.”
Bill proponents find this rhetoric antiquated. They point to changes that the institution of marriage has undergone during the past 2000, 100 or even 50 years—when blacks and whites couldn’t legally marry. But the supporters anticipated that their opponents would take this tack.
“I could imagine that the opponents of this bill would be very aggressive and they would literally frighten people not to vote for this bill,” says Rep. Facey. “It’s not in my nature to be that aggressive. I will be asking people to make a decision from a fairness standpoint.”
Facey says his logic is based on the idea of equal rights. He believes that rights that are granted by the state to married couples—like health insurance benefits, the power to make deathbed decisions and inheritance rights—shouldn’t be denied to Montanans who choose to partner with someone of the same sex.
“I think it’s about discussing the rights of adults in Montana,” he says. “Discussing the rights of our neighbors, discussing the rights of people we work with, people we go to church with, people we see in public places.”
While both the proponents and opponents of the bill think it has little chance of being passed into law, Montana Pride executive director Karl Olson doesn’t think the bill needs to pass to put a chink in the armor of conservative organizations like the Montana Family Coalition and the Citizens Network.
“We are not simply trying to get a bill passed, but we are trying to familiarize the people at the Capitol with the issue,” says Olson. “It’s about continuing momentum that’s been built.”
In 2002, Montanans saw gay and lesbian issues dominate the headlines like never before. The ongoing lawsuit against the Montana University System that seeks benefits for same-sex domestic partners of university employees garnered front-page stories around the state. Then four days after the suit was filed, on Feb. 8, 2002, an arson at the home of two of the plaintiffs, Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff, reaped international coverage.
In the wake of the arson and lawsuit, Missoula Councilman Jim McGrath began investigating the possibly of offering health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees, including same-sex couples. Although McGrath’s effort seems stuck in a holding pattern and the lawsuit is still pending, Olson believes working to advance gay rights, whether it’s in Darby or Arlee or Helena, builds momentum.
“The way I look at all of these issues is that there is one ideal that we are all working towards and there are many different angles from which to come at this,” says Olson. “It all needs to be happening.”
But Millam sees Olson’s “momentum” argument as disingenuous, invoking a decade of work by the Montana Family Coalition in lobbying against gay rights issues.
“The Legislature has said no over and over and over again to the homosexuals, so what’s the point?” she asks. “Quite frankly I think it’s premature for them to even bring this bill. I think it’s ridiculous and I’m not even going to spend much time worrying about this. We like our traditional marriages here in Montana.”
While Millam maintains that the idea of same-sex marriages infuriates most Montanans, Olson sees a more tolerant Big Sky country. This summer Olson crisscrossed the state visiting state fairs and talking with regular, small-town citizens about the possibility of same-sex marriages.
“When we go out into Montana there really isn’t a backlash against gay marriage. The backlash really comes out of religious extremist rhetoric,” he says. “I talk to all kinds of people, even crusty old farmer types and I love them. And they tell me, ‘hey, what the hell.’”
Even if Montanans aren’t ready to allow same-sex marriages, Facey and Olson say discussion about the issue needs to begin. They predict that as time goes by, and the issue is presented each session, it will gain more support. Facey says that they’re good bills that need to be presented two, three and four times before they finally pass. He adds that often a bill needs a few runs before the kinks can be worked out.
“Sometimes in legislatures people only need one reason to vote against a bill,” he says. “They might say, ‘Well those gay folk should have those rights but I’m not going to vote for it because of this little thing over here.’ For those legislators on the fence it might be that technical thing that puts them off.”
But no amount of technical tinkering can cure a bill that is inherently immoral, says Jenny Dodge of the Citizens Network, once again invoking the image of a fallen empire.
“Rome fell apart because they lost sight of the traditional family and sexual chaos took over,” she says. “[Homosexuality] is all based on sex and not something sacred.”