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Same-Sex Couples Fight for Their Rights in Big Sky Country

James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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July 22, 2010

Mary Leslie knows firsthand how it feels to lose everything. On their eighth anniversary together, her partner was killed in a tragic accident at a Montana ski resort, where they both worked as instructors. Despite their years together, Mary was denied access to her partner’s remains and denied bereavement leave at work. Mary also faced financial challenges and lost the home she shared with her partner, because her partner left no will and Montana law didn’t recognize their relationship. Everything Mary’s partner had went to the rest of her family instead. Mary also couldn’t sue on her partner’s behalf for the accident, since she wasn’t considered family.

Mary struggled through that loss and found love again, and she and Stacey have been together for over 12 years now. But Mary’s learned the hard way how vulnerable they are. As Mary says, “We know better than anyone that you can lose everything in a moment.”

Kellie Gibson worked for years at a juvenile detention center, but is now on disability because of a rare brain condition. She’s had 56 brain surgeries and over 300 spinal taps over the past 10 years. Kellie credits her partner of 11 years, Denise, for helping her through: “She never left me when I was so sick. I endure her relentless love of sports and she endures my need for dogs. I love her to infinity and beyond!” Kellie and Denise have sacrificed for each other, but Montana still considers them just “friends.”

Mary and Stacey and Kellie and Denise are two of the committed couples on whose behalf the ACLU filed suit today in state court in Montana, seeking protection for their families. (Read the other plaintiffs’ stories here.) They can’t ask for marriage under the state constitution, since Montana amended it back in 2004 to exclude same-sex couples from marriage. But the Montana constitution still promises equal protection, due process, and – in a unique Montana provision – the pursuit of life’s basic necessities, for everyone, including LGBT people. So they’re asking for equal protection of their relationships through a domestic partnership system similar to those that exist in California, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

Winning domestic partnership protections in Montana will help these families, and many others, when crisis finds them. It will also play a key role in our quest for fair treatment of our families all across the country.

We and other advocates for LGBT rights have made significant progress on relationship protections at the state level. Five states plus the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples the freedom to marry. Two others recognize marriages of same-sex couples validly entered into in other states. Five more states provide comprehensive relationship protections through non-marriage systems like civil unions or domestic partnerships. And five more protect same-sex relationships through more limited domestic partnerships.

At some point in our fight for the freedom to marry, we’ll have to get help from federal courts or Congress to bring a uniform national rule regarding marriage fairness, because there are some states that just won’t get there on their own. Of course some federal efforts are underway already. The best way to maximize the ultimate chances of success in those federal efforts is to maximize the number of states that protect our relationships – perhaps especially those states that, like Montana, have marriage amendments. That is exactly what the lawsuit brought by these couples – the first lawsuit seeking statewide relationship recognition to be brought in a state with a marriage amendment – aims to do.

To read a copy of the legal complaint filed today in this case, click here. For an FAQ on the case, click here.