'We want the same tools they have'

2014-06-01T00:00:00Z 2014-06-24T06:22:09Z 'We want the same tools they have'By MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Married going on three years now and in a relationship for a decade longer than that, Billings residents Katie Hendrickson and Jill Lippard say they feel a little more comfortable every time they tell their story — even to their local newspaper.

Hendrickson is more likely to share that story, even to a stranger. When she recently ordered a foot-long sandwich made differently at either end, the sandwich maker told her, “Oh, that must be for your husband.” No, Hendrickson said, it’s actually for my wife — a statement from which, she said, nice conversation can ensue.

“Getting married didn’t change the way we lived,” Lippard said, “but I think it meant a lot for us to get married.” At the last minute on their wedding day — Sept. 13, 2011 — her father decided to attend the ceremony, held at city hall in Ames, Iowa, one of 19 states to recognize same-sex marriages. Montana does not.

“Our marriage demonstrated our level of commitment to our families,” Lippard said. “It really changed the way they viewed our relationship.”

Hendrickson cites this example: After their marriage, her parents finally allowed the couple to sleep in the same bed when they came for an overnight visit. But not before.

Hendrickson, 33, is a chemist at the Billings water treatment plant. Lippard, who’s 16 days older than her spouse, cleans cars part-time while pursuing a career as a photographer. She's trained in biology and as a veterinary technician.

Both are strong supporters of the nondiscrimination ordinance that the Billings City Council voted 6-5 early Tuesday to derail. Both are also grateful that the city began this year to provide health and life insurance to same-sex partners of city employees. “That allowed Jill to quit her full-time job and pursue photography,” Hendrickson said, seated alongside Lippard in the couple’s West End home.

“A majority of people will make good decisions” about offering fair housing and employment for gay residents even without the NDO in place, Hendrickson said. “They won’t fire you for being lesbian or gay, but a small number of people will.”

Reading the dozens of emails lobbying city council members on the then-proposed NDO, “you can see the passion people have in a negative way on this issue,” Hendrickson said. “The NDO gives us a tool in our belt that we never had before. Everybody else has that tool, and we want the same tools they have.”

College sweethearts

The couple met and fell in love while students together at a traditionally Christian institution, Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. But for almost a decade into their relationship, they kept their orientation a secret — even from family members.

“When I finally came out, I lost a ton of weight,” Hendrickson said. She said she put on the weight in the first place as a result of “the burden of having to control conversations and friendships. I held onto that weight gain. It’s absolutely amazing how you don’t realize the things you are doing to yourself to be in the closet.”

Both women say they’ve felt the support of their faith community, Grace United Methodist Church, after years of what Lippard called “the struggle to reconcile faith with our relationship.”

“I remember discussing being gay with God many times a day,” Hendrickson said. “I’d pray, ‘Take this away from me,’ because the demonization of being gay had been ingrained in us. By the time I decided to come out of the closet, I remember having this conversation with God: If being gay is a sin, by my choosing to be honest with family and others around me, (God) would reveal if it was a sin to me.”

Instead, “My relationship with God rose to a different level that I didn’t know could exist, and our relationship blossomed,” she said, gesturing toward her wife. “We shared an intimacy we didn’t have before, because our relationship depended on how we were with God. That was an answer to our prayers.”

“For seven years, we didn’t tell our family or anybody,” Lippard said of their relationship. “I decided I was sick of walking that line and living half a life. My life was full with Katie, but in the rest of our life we were shutting people out.”

Sooner or later

Both women said they believe that Billings will one day adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a question of when,” Hendrickson said. “I’m not naturally a patient person, so I’ve learned I have to wait for things. Right now we’re waiting for Montana to recognize our marriage, like our home states do (Hendrickson is from Minnesota; Lippard from Iowa). But here is a sense of urgency and a weariness of waiting.

“I know there’s a process for these things, and that’s fine. But I get angry when people step in to divert the process. That’s why I wrote to Mayor Hanel. He had a choice, and he is going to make me wait longer. I am sick of waiting.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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