Last week, we threw some rhetorical rotten eggs at Ken “The Cooch” Cuccinelli, the state attorney general who schemed to keep the legislature from repealing Virginia’s Crimes Against Nature Law that makes sodomy illegal:
18.2-361. Crimes against nature; penalty.
- If any person carnally knows in any manner any brute animal, or carnally knows any male or female person by the anus or by or with the mouth, or voluntarily submits to such carnal knowledge, he or she shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony.
It seems only fair that we now shower some metaphorical rose petals at the feet of the “anti-Cooch,” Montana State Senator Bryce Bennett, who this week led the successful effort to repeal a similar law called the Deviate Relations Statute, still on the books in his state:
45-5-505 Deviate Sexual Conduct
- A person who knowingly engages in deviate sexual relations or who causes another to engage in deviate sexual relations commits the offense of deviate sexual conduct.
- “Deviate sexual relations” means sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex or any form of sexual intercourse with an animal. (45-2-101 Definitions)
Bryce Bennett, the only openly gay man in the Montana legislature, stood next to his desk in the State House on Monday, and asked his fellow representatives to make him their equal. The baby faced Bryce, at 28, looked even younger than his years, standing amid the lined and wary faces of his fellow legislators, most of whom appeared to be more than twice his age. He was the rookie, the upstart – to some, I’m sure he was that “gay kid.” He has all of two years in office on his abbreviated resume. They were the jaded career lawmakers who had seen “kids” like him come and go. Bryce looked more like a student standing in the midst of his college professors, than the elected state representative from Missoula, fighting for equality.
Bryce didn’t brandish a flaming sword of justice like a comic book hero; he nervously clutched a microphone the way real life heroes do. He fidgeted and stumbled as he read the speech he had written. No one is ever going to compare his oratory skills with Fredrick Douglas or William Jennings Bryan, but he possessed a quiet dignity as he stood in front of his fellow-lawmakers, clothed in the light of a harsh truth. He spoke from the heart. He appealed to their collective sense of fairness. He offered no insult, yet he insisted all those career lawmakers who surrounded him take a long hard look at how their inaction hurt him. He told them, even though he was not afraid of being arrested or jailed for loving someone, the words of the Montana “Deviate Sexual Conduct” statute that made his love a crime, still stung. It categorized him alongside animal rapists. It made him a second-class citizen. “Words are very important” Bryce told them. “Words matter.”
The reason Representative Bryce Bennett spoke Monday, was to offer a “blast” motion, a request for a vote to “shake loose” a bill stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, like a well-placed stick of political dynamite. For 22 years, LGBT activists have been trying to repeal the Montana law against sodomy. In 1997, the Montana Supreme Court ruled Montana’s Deviant Sexual Conduct statute, which makes homosexual lovemaking a crime punishable by 20 years in prison, was unconstitutional. It’s true the police and the courts no longer enforce the law, yet for the fifteen years since the Court ruled, the Montana House has been unable to find enough votes to repeal it. Just two years ago, a similar measure had been tabled by the Judiciary Committee, never to see the light of day. Bryce Bennett rose Monday to ask them not to shirk their duty once again. The time had come to vote.
Bryce got his vote. He needed 60 “yeas,” three-fifths of the 100 member House. The Blast Motion carried, 60-38. Bryce said he couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked up and saw he had reached the necessary 60 votes.
Tuesday brought the second of three mandatory readings of Senate Bill 107, the bill Bryce had single-handedly dragged into the light of day. The bill had already passed the 50 member State Senate 39-11. The half-hour of debate that preceded the House vote was brutal. At one point, Bryce stood a few short feet away while Rep. Krayton Kerns, the charmer known for calling Sandra Fluke “A studding bulldog,” informed him to his face that “The Supreme Court gets it wrong sometimes.” Then he told Bryce “God has not changed his mind about homosexuality”, and offered the judgment that gays “lacked moral character.” One of the female representatives later told reporters she “wanted to punch him.”
Despite the harangues and the insults, Bryce didn’t flinch. Only once did I see him react to the attacks from the right wing. It was a small thing; just a spontaneous lift of the corner of his mouth when Republican Rep. Dave Hagstrom, who recently made the news by scolding his constituents for their “dependent mindset,” prefaced his remarks with a reassurance to Bryce that he was not a homophobe. Why, some of his best friends were homosexuals! Then he proceeded to explain how “sex that doesn’t produce people is deviant.”
When the vote was taken, the yeas carried the day, 64-36.
Wednesday brought the third reading of Senate Bill 107, which would finally end the legal insult to all the gay and lesbian citizens of Montana. The vote was 65-34. The language criminalizing gay love in Montana was struck down. It now heads for Democratic Governor Steve Bullock’s desk. I hope he does it up right with a signing ceremony, surrounded by Montana’s LGBT activists, and a pen for Bryce Bennett to remember his victory by.
If gay rights were a relay race, this was Bryce Bennett’s week to carry the baton. He did himself, his state, and the gay community proud. He ran hard. He adhered to the high road. He kept his eyes on the finish line, and his determination never wavered. The I’m from Driftwood project would do well to ask him to record his story; the man who finally brought equality to the laws of Montana.
Today, Montana Representative Bryce Bennett, who this week wrote a page in civil rights history, is On Our Radar.
Author’s Note – On Thursday, the day after their historic vote on Senate Bill 107, the House entertained a choral group from Hawthorne Elementary School in Bozeman, Montana. The students filled the galleries, singing America The Beautiful and A Child of this World for the representatives. By coincidence, there were 107 children. Fate has such a funny way of marking human achievements.
Photos are from Rep. Bryce Bennett’s Facebook Page
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.