Editor's Note: Guest blogger Caitlin Copple, 30, was the first openly LGBT person to win election to the Missoula City Council in 2011. Copple has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Montana and owns a consulting business where she helps nonprofits with strategic fundraising and communications solutions. A fourth-generation Idahoan, Copple fell in love with Big Sky Country and she enjoys spending time in the outdoors (especially skiing and SUP-ing) and volunteering with social justice organizations.
It's beyond hard to come back to a place with leaders who make it clear they don't want me, or people like me, to exist. Especially when deep down, I know it's always going to be home.
That's how I felt last week when my plane landed in Boise, on a visit to say goodbye to my dying grandfather. Even though I'm a fourth-generation Idahoan (I left for Montana in 2005, where a more libertarian than religious-right culture made it safer to come out), and despite my generally supportive family still living there, Idaho feels distinctly unwelcoming to me.
As I drove my mom to work at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, I passed a giant digital sign calling Obama the worst president ever. My first thought was relief that it wasn't blatantly racist like it usually is.
Next I saw a billboard in Nampa, my hometown, advertising an upcoming speech by Phil Robertson -- the racist and homophobic Duck Dynasty star -- which is sponsored by a statewide political candidate. Nampa's then-Mayor Tom Dale openly advocated for packing the Idaho Center, telling the NBC affiliate, KTVB-TV:
"[Nampa] is a community that supports his moral and spiritual philosophy. For any news media to come out and say they're going to criticize or condemn somebody for expressing their personal religious and moral belief is totally beyond the realm of what we should expect in a country like the United States."
But the roadside evidence that my home state remains in the Dark Ages directly contrasts with what I'm seeing lately on my Facebook feed and in the local newspapers. The tremendous heart shown by local LGBT activists and progress in recent years gives me reason to hope.
These are folks like Steve Martin, a longtime Boise journalist-turned-regional development organizer for the Pride Foundation, who graduated from Caldwell High and stuck around, even though it's not been easy. And Mistie Tolman (below), co-chair of Add the Words Idaho and a self-described "recovering Mormon" and mother of four who came out five years ago at age 31.
People like Steve and Mistie, along with incredible volunteers, are the reason Idaho now has seven LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances (four more than Montana). Both states' legislatures have refused to add statewide employment and housing protections for LGBT people, despite decades of trying.
"Meridian is like a mini Salt Lake City," explained Tolman, referring to the suburb of Boise where she lives with her female fiancée. "When I came out and left the church, I faced the stark reality of going from being part of a group that has a lot of power and rights to being part of a minority with basically no rights that was historically marginalized and is currently stomped on. It was quite a slap in the face."
In Idaho, regional and national attention to the struggle for LGBT rights is growing, thanks to recent escalations by the political action committee Add the Words and the formation of a separate but allied grassroots direct action group called Add the 4 Words. So far, 44 people have been arrested for non-violently protesting the legislative committee for a hearing on a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act. More than 500 attended a rally at the Capitol in mid-January, and more than 250 showed up to the protest in mid-February that led to the arrests.
"I think we're seeing the legislature's last gasp," said Martin, who married his partner of 17 years in Seattle last October. "They're holding out till the bitter end, but they are on the wrong side of history. So much is changing regionally with Utah and Washington, not to mention nationally."
Martin believes the Idaho Legislature, which is dominated by conservative Republicans, wants to make the story - and the protesters - go away. After all, the strategy of not holding a hearing on the bill has worked for the past eight years.
Tolman agreed, recounting a recent interaction with state Sen. Brent Hill (R-Rexburg). Tolman admired that the senator attended part of the rally and asked her what she wanted him to hear.
"I asked him why, after eight years, we still can't get a hearing on basic non-discrimination for Idaho's LGBT community," she said. "His answer was, 'I can understand your frustration.' It was a non-conversation. Then I asked him if he had any words of hope for LGBT Idahoans, who increasingly feel frustration and despair. He said, 'No' and left."
Hill is a prominent member of the LDS Church, and his district is home to BYU-Idaho. Tolman said until the Idaho LDS Church takes a stand on non-discrimination like it did in Utah, lawmakers like Hill won't be swayed.
"It's supposed to be a church about family values, but this issue is dividing a lot of families," Tolman said. "The church needs to issue a unification statement."
But LGBT Idahoans have made it clear they are done waiting for lawmakers or the church. Add the Words is not going away. Tolman cited a 2012 poll conducted by Moore Information, a polling firm used by Republican Governor Butch Otter and Congressman Raul Labrador, which showed 81 percent of Idahoans support employment protections for gay employees. That means when change comes, it will likely stick.
"I never thought I'd see marriage equality in my lifetime anywhere in the U.S.," said Martin, who is 47. "We celebrated with a commitment ceremony in Boise in 1998, but after the DOMA ruling last June, we thought we should go on the record as a married couple for the federal benefits."
My friends on the coasts often ask me how I can live in a place like Montana, and how I can get excited about something as basic as non-discrimination when full marriage equality is the new norm in many states. I don't know if I have a good answer, other than I believe in advocating for equality at every level of our democracy.
Non-discrimination policies build the equality movement in unexpected places, from the abandoned copper mines of Uptown Butte to the shadow of Bald Mountain in Ketchum. It makes the kids who live in these towns less likely to kill themselves. It makes people like me feel like we can keep living there so we can fight another day. Eventually, we'll have enough cities in Montana and Idaho to make the legislators listen.
"I'm hopeful," Tolman told me. "If I wasn't, I wouldn't be doing this work."