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Montana Newcomers Create Culture Clash

Tensions rise as political opposites meet on the streets of Bozeman

It's been said that no community in Montana loves to celebrate an old-fashioned parade more than trendy Bozeman - an agricultural college town that once served as an outpost of civilization on the Western frontier.

Over the years, citizens here have used nearly any excuse - from the arrival of summer wildflowers to the rodeo - as a compelling reason to stage a march along Main Street.

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But this weekend, Bozeman is hosting a parade that bitterly divides its residents, and in some ways it might be an omen for what lies ahead in many corners of the West.

On Saturday, 500 gay men and women plan to stroll through the heart of downtown and later participate in a symbolic mass wedding ceremony, even though just weeks ago Montana Governor Marc Racicot signed a bill that makes gay marriages illegal.

The civil disobedience has sparked outrage. Raven Kargel, a homemaker, mother of three, and leading anti-gay crusader, points to the Bible and claims even Jesus wouldn't tolerate the kind of social acceptance homosexuals in Montana are seeking.

In 1995, Mrs. Kargel organized a parade of her own to condemn the "homosexual lifestyle" after she saw an advertisement in the local newspaper depicting two shirtless men embracing and calling themselves "gay Christians."

But as Kargel and 45 of her allies walked on one side of the street to protest the tolerance of gays, they were met by 450 community members - most of them straight - protesting her views. "Well, I disagree," she responds. "I think it's a straight, conservative state, and I want to keep it that way."

Despite a recent proliferation of gourmet coffee houses, art galleries, and Range Rovers, Bozeman's Pollyanna-ish image as a haven for transplanted yuppies has been overshadowed by extreme right-wing groups and fundamental Christians.

Consider a sampling of events in the first six months of 1997:

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* During the winter, an abortion rights opponent in Bozeman was arrested on arson charges after he allegedly tried to torch an abortion clinic.

* After plans for Saturday's Gay Pride March were announced, leaflets from the Ku Klux Klan were circulated, claiming AIDS can spread through the air.

* In May, three young men with white supremacy literature, were arrested on the outskirts of Bozeman after detonating a pipe bomb.

Demographers in the American West have long operated under a premise: That as communities grow from an influx of outsiders, they tend to diversify, and with this diversification comes a greater tolerance.

"The perception is that because the outdoor environment and the quality of life plays an important role in why people relocate to Bozeman, that the growth is somehow driven by ... fairly liberal folks," says Raymond Rasker, an economist who has been tracking social trends in the West for the Wilderness Society. "But, in fact," Rasker adds, " I don't think this is what has happened."

Homogeneous Bozeman has become a fertile recruiting ground for the Militia of Montana and served as the home of freeman Leroy Schweitzer before he allegedly went on a binge of writing bogus checks and joined comrades at a ranch near Jordan.

Many talk about Bozeman as "a place where individual liberties reign supreme - where there is little government regulation, so it tends to attract people with those leanings," Rasker says.

Although it wasn't too many years ago that cowboys would lasso hippies and drag them off to the barber for crew cuts, social tension these days is marked by death threats.

"The kind of social confrontation occurring here is not unique to Bozeman," says Ken Toole, program director for the Montana Human Rights Network. "Although you would expect some kind of progressive thinking to emerge in places growing with outsiders, the public policy still seems to be dominated by not just conservative views but ultraconservative views."

Toole says both the right and left are locked in a battle to change the status quo. But here in Bozeman few residents consider that a good excuse to rally united in a parade.

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