Updated at: 04/18/2013 10:05 PM
By KATHRYN HAAKE
(AP) HELENA, Mont. - An obsolete law deeming gay sex as deviant _ akin to bestiality _ was stricken from Montana code Thursday, prompting gay rights activists to say they hope that full legal equality may be close at hand.
When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 107 decriminalizing gay sex, cheers erupted in the Capitol’s Rotunda. It had been 16 years after the state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional and 24 years after gay rights activists began their fight to take government out of the bedroom.
"I am not going to speak too long because, frankly, the longer I talk, the longer this embarrassing and unconstitutional law stays on the books," Bullock said.
The victory, though a powerful one for the gay community in Montana, is highly symbolic with no tangible benefits aside from striking the obsolete law condemning gay sex from Montana code. The outdated code has not been used to prosecute individuals for years. And previous efforts to offer gays and lesbians protection under the law, including a push to prohibit civil discrimination, have been thwarted by a GOP-controlled Legislature.
Rep. Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, said he holds no ill will toward gay people, but he and other Republicans opposed the legislation and similar efforts along religious lines. He added that there is a bi-partisan movement to "protect the family," defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and gay rights efforts could have "long-term ramifications."
"This isn’t over," he said. "We will see a continual push for recognition of unions ... for health insurance. All kinds of things will come out of this."
The decriminalization bill passed the House on a 64-35 vote, and it cleared the Senate 38-11. In both cases, Republicans joined minority Democrats to advance the legislation, as gay rights activists hailed their success as a sea change within the GOP.
"In the past we’ve seen members of the Republican caucus say, I can’t stand with you because it will cost me my re-election," said activist Jamee Greer, a lobbyist with the Montana Human Rights Network.
Gay rights activists are hopeful the bi-partisan effort is a catalyst for further change. They say that gay equality aligns itself with the fundamental libertarian values of privacy and a live-and-let live attitude pervasive in Montana _ especially among Republicans who subscribe to a strong Libertarian undercurrent.
This year an effort to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing and employment was tabled by a conservative House committee. That plan and another to legalize gay marriage remain priorities in future sessions, Greer said.
"As more and more LGBT people come out to their friends and their neighbors," Greer said, "it’s going to be harder to discriminate against them."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)