FLORENCE – Heidi and Kara Kestrel know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of intolerance.
And they know what it’s like to be afraid because people disagree with the way you choose to live your life.
The month just past brought something new to the same-sex couple, who were first married in 2002 but had to wait 12 years for their commitment to be recognized by the state of Montana.
The Kestrels were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Ravalli County, on the first day following a historic court ruling that struck down Montana’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional.
The outpouring of support they’ve received since has been a pleasant and welcome surprise.
On Nov. 19, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris permanently blocked Montana from enforcing its constitutional ban on gay marriage. His ruling said the state’s ban violated the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation.
The judge said weddings could begin immediately.
So as soon as Kara was finished with work the next day, the couple packed up their 6-year-old son and headed to Hamilton.
“We were all nervous when we went to the courthouse,” Heidi said. “We’ve been asked to leave church and what-not in the past. We had no idea how people were going to react.”
Unlike a few other places in the state where clerks refused to fill out a marriage license, the couple was met with smiles at the Ravalli County Courthouse.
“The clerks were happy to see us and they kind of stumbled a little bit,” she said. “We were the first and only ones that I think they had that day. … They wanted to take our picture through the glass. They just seemed happy and excited.”
It was a far different experience than in 2002, when they first decided to marry.
Their engagement photograph ran in the Missoulian on the same weekend that another gay couple’s home burned in what many at the time considered a hate crime.
“We were a little bit scared,” Heidi said. “We had sort of put ourselves out there. No one was ever held accountable for the fire.”
The first pastor they asked to marry them was told no by her superiors. The person who did step forward to perform the ceremony faced a backlash from hers.
Through most of their married life, Heidi was not able to receive health coverage through the company that employed Kara due to their legal status. There were other financial hurdles that had to be addressed along the way.
But they persevered as a couple.
“Our relationship has not been easy,” Heidi said. “We have our ups and downs just like everyone. We deal with a sick parent or something happens within our extended family. We face challenges with Luken at school. ...
“All of it is just what families do,” she said. “They remain committed to each other and work through it together.”
They know that being legally married will help their financial situation, but it goes much deeper than that.
“It does something to you psychologically when you’re not supported by society,” Heidi said. “Everything we do, we do as a married couple. Obviously, we’re raising our child together. We bought this house together. If I were in the hospital, I know Kara would be there to support me, just like anyone’s spouse.”
“It’s hard when you do things as a married couple when you know that you’re not recognized as such or supported by society,” she said.
But part of that hurt has been softened over the years by a neighborhood and community that has opened its arms and accepted the couple.
“Here we are living on a dead-end street in the middle of Hicksville and we’re surrounded by neighbors who are truly supportive of us,” Heidi said.
The couple knew that something was different about their Florence neighborhood when a man came up to their door early on and told them: “I know what you two are doing here.”
Heidi remembers being a little worried about what was coming next.
“He told me then: ‘I won’t throw rocks through your window, if you don’t throw rocks through mine.’”
She went on to serve 10 years as a volunteer with the local fire department. There was only one time that someone offered an off-color comment and after that was dealt with, she never heard another thing.
Today, most of the couple’s neighbors have a key to their home. They watch out for one another. One neighbor even offered to take the needed coursework to be ordained if the local judges refused to marry them.
“Here is not where I expected to find the support that we’ve found,” she said. “It’s been remarkable. I just couldn’t ask for more supportive or better neighbors.”
Last month, they found that support extended far beyond their neighborhood when they put their son in the car and made the trip to Missoula to officially tie the knot.
“I’m still surprised by how I feel,” Kara said about the marriage ceremony. “I’m surprised at how happy it made me, even with the fact we’ve been married for 12 years.”
Their first ceremony was like many wedding celebrations.
There was a lot of worry about who would come and who wouldn’t or what someone might forget to do.
“At this ceremony, it was just us and Luken,” Kara said. “I felt giddy. I laughed. I was just really surprised at how light it was.”
Both remembered that Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech seemed genuinely pleased to marry them.
But the surprises didn’t end in the judge’s chamber.
As soon as they stepped out the door, they were met by a cheer from the people standing in the hallway. All were complete strangers to them.
And then when they left the building and began to walk down the sidewalk, a random man came walking up to them with a smile on his face.
“I was pretty sure he was drunk,” Kara said.
“He looked at us and said: ‘You look really happy. Did you just get married?’ ” Heidi remembered. “When we said yes, he asked if he could shake our hands.”
“He was very sincere,” Kara said.
“I will always consider my wedding anniversary to be June 16, 2002,” Heidi said. “That’s when I was married before God and anyone else who bothered to show up. What happened Friday was just the cherry on top.
“It’s sort of like when Luken was born. Kara adopted him one week after he was born. It didn’t change the way we felt about him. It was just paper.
“It just feels now like we’ve come full circle.”
Following the court ruling – and their subsequent nuptials – both are cautiously optimistic about their future.
“Interracial marriage didn’t kill racism, but it helped,” Kara said. “It might be that the people who don’t approve have just become less vocal as the more accepting community has added its own voice. We hope that it’s leading toward a culture of acceptance.
“We really hope that will give him (Luken) that sense,” she said. “There was a kid in his class last year who liked to tell everyone that Luken has two moms.”
“And now he says: ‘Yeah, I have two moms and now they are married,’ ” Heidi said, with a smile.