Patricia Nell Warren

Big Sky Country Gets Bigger

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | April 21, 2008 10:46 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Fundie Watch, Media, Politics
Tags: banned books, LGBT rights in Montana, Montana, Montana Human Rights Network, National Library Week

I just got back from book-touring in my home state, Montana, and can report that the world-famous "big sky" is getting a little bigger for LGBT issues. It's springtime in the Rockies, with cottonwood trees coming into bud. The chinooks -- those sudden warm winds so loved by people who live there -- are coming along to melt a late-winter arctic freeze in hours.

These are welcome signs for a state that went into a political ice-age back in the Reagan era. The Montana Militia and religious righters had emerged as powerful forces in a once-Democratic state, pressuring the legislature to pass the ugliest anti-gay law in U.S. history, making it a felony to merely be an LGBT person (the governor had the courage to veto the bill). Stiffened censorship policy made ominous snowdrifts over some areas, prompting free-speech lawsuits by the Montana ACLU. The militia, who were openly armed, promised that all homos would be run out of the state. In short, that vigilante rage that has now and then overrun Montana social policy ever since gold-rush days was back in full force.

During this period, I was grand marshal of Montana Pride the year it was held in Helena, the state capital, where I was born. The celebration was picketed by the Christian Coalition, and viewed as wildly controversial by many Montanans. Eggs were thrown at cars in the Pride parade. In my home town, the word was that local militia were being armed with Chinese-made AK-47s being sold through a local gun shop. Eventually some of the Montana Militia had their big stand-off with the FBI over in eastern Montana, in the town of Jordan. It all sent a chill down my spine.

However, Montana always had a strong humanist and progressive streak as well -- one that made the state an occasional Democratic leader in better days. That grassroots liberalism saved Montana from meltdown at critical moments -- as in 1972, when voters compelled the Helena legislature to rewrite the state constitution because the 83-year-old document had allowed too much abuse of people and resources by big industry. So the human-rights organizations and the small but gallant Montana LGBT community have been fighting back, to call those badly needed spring thaws into Montana political and cultural life.

Missoula has always been a comparatively liberal city, owing to the presence there of the University of Montana. Last week, to honor National Library Week and banned books, the Missoula Public Library launched a history-making literary festival called "Out at the Library." It will be part of an ongoing series. The library invited me, child of a Montana pioneer family, to do the kick-off lecture on "Why Gay Culture Matters." Organizing the event was Montana Pride's former director Karl Olson, who now works at the library, along with his library colleagues Honore Bray and Molly Kliss. Adding depth to the event, the James Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library sent their colorful traveling historical display that showcases LGBT literature. The Missoula library staff put it up right in their front lobby.

On opening night, April 17, the library's main meeting room was packed with people, many standing in the back, to hear my talk. Many attendees were non-gays -- supporters, library patrons, and friends and family of people in the local LGBT community. Local print and broadcast media covered the event, and it was videotaped to be shown later on local cable. The Missoula Men's Chorus performed piquantly, and the documentary film "Gay Pioneers" was shown.

This event was a big step for the state. As I told the crowd, "In my opinion, this is right up there with the discovery of gold and Montana statehood in 1889." Outside the library, a few lonely pickets stood shivering in the blustery winter weather with their signs, but it was nothing like the Christian Coalition ruckus of some years ago. Clearly the rightists are not getting the long-term leverage over policy and people's minds that they had hoped to gain.

The next day, April 18, Karl drove me the 80 miles to my home town, Deer Lodge, where the William Kohrs Memorial Library held a noontime author event. Again the place was packed, and the library ladies had laid out a spread of coffee and juice and home-made goodies. Sure, that library deals with me because my greatgrandparents built it a century ago and I practically grew up there when I was little. But the present staff couldn't have been more respectful of my outness, and they keep my LGBT fiction titles in their collection along with my non-gay novels about Montana. The local radio station, KQRV, interviewed me, as did a woman reporter from the Silver State Post.

That evening, I met with a big writer's group organized by Deer Lodge author Kayo Fraser. The participants came from as far away as Butte and Anaconda with burning questions about writing and publishing, and we put away more coffee and cookies.

There in Deer Lodge, in the long-familiar setting of a wide wintery mountain valley dotted with cattle and horses, and a Main Street showing strains of economic ups and downs, and weathered Victorian mansions side by side with 1980s double-wides, and back yards where you can find the occasional mid-1800s log cabin now serving as a garage or tool shed, it came home to me that we are making some progress -- that growing numbers of people in Middle America are getting our message. No, I don't kid myself that every one of the town's population of 3200 approves of me. But a paradigm shift is happening, as slow but sure as the ice melting on the windshield of a pickup truck.

The people who hate us as a matter of belief will never change their views...unless they happen to lose their religion. But there are others, who may be needing more information about us, but who have good hearts and horse sense and convictions about fair play, and they are the ones who are going to "get it." They are people who vote, who attend local churches and sit on local school boards and hold local political office, who follow the issues. We just have to keep our cool, and our dignity, and keep on keeping on with trying to reach them, and doing the best of what we've been doing.

As I left Montana on Saturday morning, flying out of Missoula, a last winter storm was bearing down on the northern Rockies. As I write this, six inches of snow is blanketing southwest Montana. But spring is definitely on the way -- the brakes along the rivers are suddenly silvery with pussy willows. The grass is up everywhere, on the cattle ranges and in the hayfields and small-town lawns. Songs of the first meadowlark -- sitting on a fencepost somewhere, pouring its musical announcement of spring onto the wind -- can be heard in the distance, along with the faint echo of show tunes by the Gay Men's Chorus.

Mother Montana does have a big sky, and she's making it clear that the bad guys won't have the right to say how big that sky will be...or who will get to live beneath it.

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ken spencer | April 21, 2008 2:52 PM

Patricia - great article. I just returned from a speaking engagement at MSU (Bozeman). I represented the GLBT community's recovery movement. Bozeman is making strides - we now have an active GLBT 12-step meeting. We have an online resource center. A gay speed-dating business. A cafe (Nova) owned by two proud, out lesbians. The university had its first drag show on Saturday, attended by more than 150 people. You can drive down Main Street and see the occasional equality/rainbow/bear or other pride bumper stickers. As a Geraldine Mont. boy, I never thought I'd see this in my home state. The Big Sky is big, but we're getting bigger.
BTW, Missoula is home to the University of Montana (go Griz) while here in Bozeman, we have Montana State University (Poor Bobcats).

Thanks for filling in on central Montana, Ken. This is really good news. I'll fix my oops on the school name. No offense meant to the Bobcats.

Hi Patricia - another great piece, as usual. Thanks for the historical context about Montana. it really puts the whole Brokeback story into context.

Isn't it wonderful? It's marvelous how writers coming from rural areas often develop a knack for nature imagery accompanied by these quite thoroughly reverent, imaginative, and reminiscent tones.

Patricia's writing reminds me of Ronald Donaghe's Common Sons series; it gives off such a sense of hearth.

No, I don't kid myself that every one of the town's population of 3200 approves of me. But a paradigm shift is happening, as slow but sure as the ice melting on the windshield of a pickup truck.

I completely agree. It's the same thing here in Indiana. Hoosiers have been a little slower than the average about accepting LGBT people, but the tide is changing quickly.


As a child of neighboring Idaho, former resident of Livingston, Montana, trans woman and long time admirer of the heart of Montana that is best shown through its literature, I want to thank you for letting us know that things are changing for us in the northern Rockies. If it can happen in Montana, it can happen anywhere.

Abby (now in Arizona)