Heidi Bates (left) and Kara Hagen (right)

MISSOULA, Mont. (WOMENSENEWS)–It was the simplest of announcements: “Kara Hagen and Heidi Bates, both of Missoula, announce their engagement.” It ran, along with their picture, in the local newspaper on a Sunday in late January, one of six engagement notices in the Missoulian that day.

The other five showed smiling men and women. A wedding picture also ran that day, and a bride smiled in an advertisement for a downtowndepartment store in Missoula, a university townin the mountains of western Montana and the state’s second-largest city with 57,000 people.

The readers who routinely scanned the social announcements in the Missoulian’s Territory section on Jan. 20 might have done a double take: For the first time, the Missoulian published a picture of two women as the betrothed.

Hagen and Bates were not trying to shatter a taboo. They just wanted to announce their engagement.

“If it broke ground, it wasn’t because I meant to,” said Bates, a student in social work at the University of Montana. “It was because I wanted to do this thing. I didn’t think, ‘Hey, we’re going to be the first ones, aren’t we important?’ I thought, ‘I’m going to have my engagement announcement in the paper!'”

Newspapers around the Country Run Same-Sex Commitment Notices

Having an engagement notice in the paper is a simple rite of passage that most women don’t think twice about. You fill out the paperwork, send in a photo, pay your money and wait to see your picture in the paper.

For gay women and men, it’s hardly ever been that easy. But it’s getting easier.

In mid-August, The New York Times announced it would begin running same-sex commitment notices. It joined 70 other newspapers in the country, including the Missoulian, that had already adopted that policy, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

On the same day that The Times made its announcement, GLAAD launched its Equality Project. Its goal: Within a year, double the number of newspapers willing to run same-sex commitment notices.

Within two months, the GLAAD list more than doubled. By Dec. 20, it had grown to 180 newspapers.

“It’s been just amazing,” said Monica Taher, a GLAAD spokeswoman. “After The New York Times came on board, there was a trend.”

The papers range from the 1 million-circulation New York Times to the Southern Utah News of Kanab, Utah, circulation 3,950. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe have all signed on. In all, newspapers in 37 states, from all regions of the country, have said they either have or would run same-sex commitment notices. The list includes papers in Montgomery, Ala., New London, Conn., and Kalamazoo, Mich.

Editor Saw Newspaper Announcement as Couple’s Public Commitment to Each Other

At the Missoulian (circulation 32,300), the change came quietly.

It happened because Heidi Bates and Kara Hagen wanted to be like any other couple getting married.

It happened because the Missoulian editor Mike McInally didn’t see why it shouldn’t. “We had two consenting adults who wanted to make public their commitment to each other,” said McInally. “I felt that the newspaper could help them do that.”

Bates and Hagen, both 30, met about four years ago through friends. Sometime in 2001, they decided to spend the rest of their lives together. They planned a ceremony in Missoula, even though same-sex marriage is not recognized in Montana.

For Christmas 2001, friends gave them a wedding planning book. A year ahead: Pick the site, plan a honeymoon, find a minister. Nine months ahead: Announce your engagement. Six months ahead: Book musicians, finalize guest list, choose your dress.

“We thought, ‘Oh my goodness, who’s crazy enough to do all that stuff?'” Bates said. But they wanted to do some of it, including the engagement notice.

Bates asked other lesbian couples whether any had tried getting an engagement announcement in the Missoulian. All said no.

“I thought, ‘well, you don’t know if you don’t ask,'” she said. “So, I asked.”

She sent in the paperwork in early January, along with a check for $25 and the photograph that a friend had taken of them over Thanksgiving. Then she waited.

“I thought, ‘They’re going to call and say we can’t, we won’t, you’re crazy, get outta town,'” she said.

At the Missoulian, a newsroom clerk opened the envelope and showed it to McInally.

“My initial inclination was to go ahead and just run it,” said McInally.

But he decided to at least give the circulation people a heads-up. And he thought the publisher should weigh in on it also. That led to meetings of all department managers at the paper.

“There was some discomfort but nothing I’d call hard-core dissent,” McInally said. He called other newspapers in Montana to see what they had done with similar requests and discovered he was pretty much alone.

When the phone rang at Bates’ house, it was McInally. He didn’t tell her she was crazy. He told her the paper would run the announcement. But first he wanted to make sure it wasn’t a prank–they assured him it wasn’t–and then to warn the couple that they might get angry letters and threats from people who saw their picture in the paper.

The women told him to go ahead: “Because we’re getting married and we want the world to know.”

Meanwhile, they also tried the Great Falls Tribune. Of their four parents, two live in or near the city, Montana’s third largest. But a clerk from that paper told them the notice would not run; the paper does not announce engagements unless they result in legal unions.

Tribune editor Jim Strauss confirmed this. “If a couple is engaged to be legally married, then we’ll run it,” he said.

Strauss remembers the paper running a wedding announcement a few years ago for a lesbian couple who had been legally married out of state. It was then that he decided the paper’s policy.

“It seemed like a logical guideline,” he said. But he’s willing to revisit the policy, he said.

Lack of Negative Response a Pleasant Surprise

In Missoula, Bates and Hagen skipped from newsstand to newsstand on the Sunday morning that their notice appeared. They bought several copies. They called their friends.

In the weeks that followed, they got no nasty phone calls or letters. Instead, people recognized them from their picture in the paper and praised them as pioneers.

At the Missoulian, operators were waiting for a flood of phone calls that never came. A few people called on Sunday, but McInally characterized the callers as more disappointed than outraged. During the following week, he estimated, the paper received about a half-dozen calls.

“And that may be high,” he said. There were no letters to the editor about the notice, either positive or negative.

Public Outcry Against Scare Tactics

Within three weeks, another issue involving a lesbian couple made big news in Missoula. Those women–one of them a University of Montana psychology professor–had their home destroyed by an arson fire shortly after they held a press conference to announce a suit against the university over health benefits for same-sex partners. The Missoulian put the women’s photos on the front page.

The blaze, ignited during the middle of the night, rousted the couple and their 2-year-old son but did not injure them. It enraged many people in this liberal town and residents poured into a downtown church to show support. “Hate hurts” signs went up in windows of homes, businesses and cars.

And Bates and Hagen got scared, knowing they may have put themselves at risk by having their picture in the paper.

“We slept with a bat and a fire extinguisher next to our bed for months,” Bates said.

Still, while the fire gave them a jolt, the two women got no angry letters or threats. If anything, they received even more praise.

Bates and Hagen are still cautious. Almost a year later, the arson fire has not been solved.

In June, they had a ceremony at a church in Missoula, with double rings and a live string trio. They each had a wedding dress–they share a story about the bridal shop clerk, who was convinced she hadn’t heard right when both of them said they needed dresses. She repeatedly pulled out bridesmaid dresses for Hagen to look at.

They called their ceremony a wedding–not a commitment ceremony or a relationship ceremony–even if it wasn’t recognized by the state. “I wanted to call it a wedding because for me that’s what it was and that’s what it is: a marriage,” said Bates.

They considered sending a wedding picture to the Missoulian, but decided against it.

“I thought that really might be asking for trouble,” Bates said. “And it’s not trouble I want. It’s equal rights, it’s equal protection and equal recognition under the law. That’s what I want, and not trouble.”

Sheri Venema is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula.

For more information:

The Missoulian–Engagement Announcement:

Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation–
“GLAAD’s Announcing Equality Project:
Newspapers that publish same-Sex union announcements:

Montana Kaimin–“Professor’s house gutted in arson fire”: