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How Idaho’s LGBTQ are maneuvering through the state’s checkered past and uncertain future

After a Pride Month dominated by vandalism, arrests, and Supreme Court orders that many viewed as a blunt eraser to civil rights across the country, the LGBTQ community of one of America’s most conservative corners wants to remind us there is more work to be done.

(CN) — Pride Month has, for many people across many years, become a crucial time. Born from recognition for the Stonewall riots of the late 60s that transformed the fight for gay rights in the U.S., Pride Month has become an opportunity for millions to celebrate the dignity of their sexual and gender identities and affirm their stance that the LGBTQ community is worth standing for.

But during a time that was set aside for celebration, Idaho saw a Pride Month tinged with intolerance.

Over three dozen men linked to a white nationalist group — all of whom were dressed like a “little army” and armed with riot gear in the back of a U-Haul — were arrested in northern Idaho for planning a riot at a weekend Pride parade and dozens of Pride flags in Boise were stolen or damaged just a week after volunteers with the Boise Pride Festival put them up.  

The rhetoric against the LGBTQ community leading up to Pride was just as troubling. A Boise pastor told his congregation “put all queers to death,” later said he wanted to bring back laws that made homosexuality punishable by death, and that if Jesus “was the king and our leaders reported directly to him, we would not have a Pride Month.”

Around the time of the pastor’s comments, a GOP lawmaker from northern Idaho also told an audience that drag queens and other LGBTQ supporters were waging “a war of perversion against our children."

With hateful comments and attempted violence swirling around the state at a time when Pride is at the cultural forefront, many of Idaho’s LGBTQ are left to ponder a chilling question: After years of purported progress, is the Gem State’s relationship with the LGBTQ community beginning to crumble?

Meda Thompson, realtor and owner of Boise Pride Homes and creator of Boise Pride Pages, a resource website that highlights Idaho businesses and organizations that are LGBTQ owned or supportive of the community, says you don’t have to look too deep before finding discrimination plaguing Idaho’s LGBTQ.

At an LGBTQ Alliance Fundraiser in June, Thompson recalls a woman who said she was having a difficult time accomplishing something as essential as getting a home simply because she was married to a woman.

“She and her wife had a hard time finding a home because they were gay,” Thompson said. “Everybody was like ‘Oh you’re getting a home with your sister’ and when they found out she was actually her wife, it was crickets. . . even though they had work, they had income, they had everything you need, they had a hard time finding a home just because they were a couple.”

While many would hope that an Idahoan’s ability to find a home is not linked to their sexual or gender identities, discrimination like this is still a harsh reality too many have to face — particularly if they belong to more than one minority group.  

“I know from meeting with the Intermountain Fair Housing Council that the biggest discriminatory factor is when somebody fits into two or more minority factors,” Thompson said. “Like, somebody that is Black and gay, or somebody that is disabled and a lesbian.”

Of course, not unlike many corners of the country, Idaho’s history with discrimination against the LGBTQ is nothing new — though it does have a reputation for leading the charge.

In the mid-1950s, Boise become entrenched in city-wide “homosexuality scare,” a scandal that saw law enforcement conduct sweeping investigations and arrests into a supposed “homosexual underground” in Idaho’s largest city. At first masquerading as an investigation into rumors of child predators in the city, before long the investigation ballooned into a witch hunt against gay men having sexual relationships with other consenting adults.

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By the end of the investigation — after it was expanded when the City Council hired William Fairchild, a private investigator known for his work in investigating gay people hired by the State Department — over a thousand interviews took place and around a dozen men were sentenced to lengthy prison stays on charges including lewd and lascivious conduct and crimes against nature. After the scandal became history, historians attributed the whole affair as being pivotal to the spread of rampant homophobia across the country in the second half of the 20th century.

Even today, 70 years after Boise’s crusade, the LGBTQ community in Idaho is fearful that the law might once again turn against them — and the Supreme Court could in large part be to blame.

During Pride Month, the U.S. Supreme Court rocked the nation when it overturned Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to an abortion. While the case does not directly deal with LGBTQ rights, fears have already begun to circulate that gay rights could be next on the chopping block.

Jennifer Linsley and Will Ranstrom, attorneys at Trilogy Law — the only law firm listed on Boise Pride Pages as an LGBTQ-friendly firm in Idaho — says that a concurring opinion written by Justice Thomas in the Roe overturn was all but begging for future cases to be brought before the court that could overturn the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision that affirmed the right to same-sex marriage.

“He really painted a target on the community’s butts. . . it was an open invitation, that was ‘Challenge these laws, and if we get to the Supreme Court, me and my cronies will get rid of it for you,’” Ranstrom said.

As of now, nothing has moved through the legal pipeline that would challenge the Obergefell decision. But many warn that taking legal precedent for granted led to the overturn of Roe, and if the nation wants to avoid a similar fate with LGBTQ rights, vigilance and legal preparation is paramount.

“We’re not there yet. Obergefell still holds at this point. But pay attention to what is working through the circuits, and when you start to see that making its way up through the courts, you better be sure you’ve protected yourself and your family.”

As for what states are most likely to lead that fight, Idaho’s deep-red politics make it well situated to be one of those contenders.

“I don’t want to sound the alarm and be scared, but if there is any state that is going to lead the charge, it’s going to be an Idaho, or a Texas, or a Florida,” Linsey said.

Of course, none of this to say that Idaho and the nation at large has not made tremendous strides in overcoming a long history of intolerance. Polling and research data has shown time and time again that more people are supportive of the LBGTQ community than not, and over a dozen Idaho cities — including Boise and Meridian, the two largest population centers — have passed protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Similar statewide protections, however, are still not in place.

Even in the depths of the Idaho judiciary, stories of tolerance and acceptance have come through. The team at Trilogy Law says they’ve watched judges acknowledge the pronouns of their court clients and have found that maneuvering through the courts with LGBTQ-related cases has not been as challenging as was once feared.

“We do a divorce, and it’s treated like any other divorce is treated by the judiciary. And that has been a welcoming surprise for me, because it maybe wasn’t what I expected giving the climate of Idaho.”

Where, then, does the state go from here? As Idaho moves through a future where civil rights rollbacks seem all too common and many fear for the security of their own lifestyles and identities, what can people do to prepare for such an unpredictable tomorrow in one of America’s most conservative stomping grounds? The answer might be a simple one: stay informed and stay in the fight.

“You need to pay attention, you need to vote, and get involved in your community,” Ranstrom said. “Don’t just sit back and say there’s nothing that you can do, because there is something you can do. It is so much harder to hate people when you know them. Be out there. Be loud and proud.”

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