The recent installation of a rainbow-striped crosswalk in downtown Missoula —and its subsequent vandalism — is both a reminder of how far Montana has come in terms of rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and how far it still needs to go.
It's a history that stretches back nearly a half-century, to 1969 when the Stonewall riots broke out in New York City, sparking the beginning of the gay civil rights movement.
It took a few years for the movement to arrive in Montana.
In the midst of what Bryan Spellman, a former University of Montana administrator, considered the “dark ages,” Montana’s first documented gay service and social organization was formed in 1975. LAMBDA continues today at the University of Montana.
LAMBDA was an outgrowth of a course taught by doctoral candidate Bob Kus called The Gay American: An Introduction to Gay Studies. According to various news articles published at the time, around 40 students were enrolled in the course, with dozens more attending each week.
Within the group’s first year it offered counseling services, a hotline and a weekly social meeting. LAMBDA opened a library, started a newsletter, and led workshops, brown bag lectures and panels, offering services to Montana’s LGBTQ community during a time when Joe Gough, a decades-long Missoula resident, said it wasn’t safe for lesbians, bisexuals and gay men to be out, disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Still, during that year the group welcomed Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, an inclusive church that welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. According to LAMBDA budget request materials, 1,000 people attended Perry’s lecture in 1976.
The group’s progress was not without push-back. LAMBDA applied to be a recognized student group by the Associated Students of the University of Montana. ASUM’s executive committee voted against funding LAMBDA and some members called it dangerous. Eventually, the group received funding from the student government's central board.
A few years later a much quieter organization formed in Missoula, Gay Males Together, which aimed to provide “bisexual and homosexual men of western Montana a comfortable atmosphere in which to get acquainted with members of the gay community,” according to a March 6, 1978, advertisement in the Missoulian.
For awhile, Spellman was in charge of screening new people by telephone because of safety concerns. One day Spellman, who had been a substitute teacher in Stevensville for a few years, received a call from a former student who wanted to know the address of the Gay Males Together meeting. Because he knew the caller, Spellman gave him the address without going through the typical vetting process.
The former student and a few of his friends showed up to “beat up the queers,” and one attendee ended up with a concussion, Spellman recalled. At the next meeting, Spellman said, women from the Montana Lesbian Coalition showed up with chains and bats to “protect their boys.”
The two organizations came together in the late '70s to form Out in Montana, a statewide gay rights organization. The group was based in Missoula, but its meetings moved among cities.
“What do you do when you’re in a place like Cut Bank when you realize you’re completely different from everyone you know?” Spellman asked. He wanted Out in Montana to be there for those who felt isolated and alone in their communities. He said he knew too many people who died by suicide because they were gay and couldn’t see a future for themselves in their community.
AIDS came to Montana in 1983 along with the headline “‘Gay plague’ in state,” which ran in the Missoulian over a story by the Associated Press. Three years later, in June of 1986, AIDS became personal for Spellman when his partner, Richard Donovan, was diagnosed.
When Donovan died a short 13 months later, Spellman wrote his obituary. Spellman had written “survived by his lover” in the obituary. But Missoulian editors at the time wouldn't print that. After conversations in the newsroom and with Ellen Leahy, from the health department, the Missoulian printed “life’s partner.”
Spellman said he expected to be the target of violence after the paper ran the obituary and a follow-up story on Donovan’s death. Instead, he received an outpouring of support in the form of letters and phone calls. Spellman, who was working for the University of Montana at the time, said a few people went to the dean of his department and the UM president, asking for him to be fired. The university kept Spellman on.
Montana's gay rights movement made its way to the Legislature in the 1990s, when activists took aim at Montana’s sexual deviancy code, which made consensual sex between two people of the same gender a felony. The law, even though rarely enforced, was like “an ax hanging over everyone’s head,” Spellman said.
In 1991, Rep. Vivian Brooke brought a bill to the House Judiciary Committee when Democrats “didn’t want to touch homosexuals,” said Linda Gryczan, who was with the Montana Lesbian Coalition at the time.
After many revisions, Gov. Stan Stephens signed a bill on March 7, 1991, that said seeking treatment for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases could not be the basis of or admitted into prosecution under the sexual deviancy statute.
But Brooke continued to push for the decriminalization of consensual sex between two people of the same gender. Those who showed up to support her effort did so at their peril, given that people could lose their jobs, family and friends if word got out that they were gay or lesbian.
“You could lose your life,” Spellman recalled of the fears at that time.
Official minutes of a committee hearing chaired by state Sen. Richard Pinsoneault, D-St. Ignatius, show the legislator said he was "bothered by what goes on behind closed doors, and the slime that leaks out into the community.”
Spellman remembered being so upset after the hearing he wouldn’t have been safe to drive home.
In 1993, Brooke made another attempt to revise the sexual deviancy law, only to see her bill tabled.
Pride Inc. was founded to join the fight for equality after the second failed attempt to change the sexual deviancy definition, said Diane Sands, who became the organization’s first co-chair, along with David Herrera.
In December 1993, Gryczan and five other plaintiffs selected by the Northwest Women’s Law Center, filed a lawsuit against the state challenging the constitutionality of the deviate sexual conduct statute. Four years later, in 1997, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision ruling the statute unconstitutional.
Sands, who was elected to the Montana House a year before the court's ruling, said the decision meant a lot to her as she had taken an oath upon election to uphold the state’s Constitution.
“It was the most moving experience of my life to be recognized as a full citizen by the Constitution,” she said, getting goosebumps as she reflected on the experience.
The Montana Supreme Court weighed in again in 2004, ruling the state must provide lesbian and gay employees of the University of Montana System with the option of purchasing health insurance and other employee benefits for their domestic partners.
“It was the culture we changed on the road to changing the law,” Gryczan said recently.
One of the biggest victories in recent years was when same-sex marriage became legal, once and for all, in Montana thanks to the United States Supreme Court decision in June 2015.
Gryczan had proposed to her now-wife 31 years before they could legally marry. She’d always said they’d get married the first day it was legal and they did just that. Gryczan was thankful she no longer had to carry around papers granting her power of attorney in case she needed rights — such as access to a hospital room — typically only granted to family members recognized under the law.
Over the past five decades a lot of battles have been won in the fight for LGBTQ equality in Montana and the United States, but Claire Michelson, Empower Montana's youth programs director, said recently that many still do not feel safe being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Everyday people who identify as queer have to navigate the microaggressions, erasure, violence, hate speech, vandalism and stigma our society holds us down with,” said Michelson at the ribbon-cutting ceremony last week for the rainbow crosswalk along Pine Street.
The crosswalk was a project led by Empower Montana’s youth program, Youth Forward, as a way to express themselves.
Instead, the dialogue around the crosswalk has been dominated by vandalism — a reminder that change remains a challenge.
A University of Montana student who’s involved with Youth Forward, Julia Burkhart, said the crosswalk was “slapping a rainbow gauze pad on a gunshot wound that won’t stop bleeding,” in a poem she wrote, and recited at the ceremony.
“This is great, but there’s still so much we have to do,” Burkhart said, noting the fact that LGBTQ people can still be fired or denied housing simply because of their identity.
David Herrera, with the Western Montana LGBT Center and Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, said while Missoula often feels accepting, “it’s 2018 and there are people that still hate us."
The center is working on a variety of educational programs, including a support group for family members of transgender people, which also will help to educate people on trans issues.
Herrera said he hopes programs such as these help dispel the multitude of myths and stereotypes persist about LGBTQ people.
For Herrera, the future means continuing to fight for the rights of all LGBTQ Montanans.
“Until we have the same rights as everyone else, we won’t be equal.”