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Idaho Says No to Final Resting Place for Veteran and Spouse

"I always want to respect the rules."

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It's entirely possible that Madelynn Taylor is the best reason for Idaho to add the words. The Navy veteran is victim to what may be the most egregious example of LGBT discrimination by the state of Idaho, and all she's asking for is to be laid to rest alongside her partner in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery. In a cruel twist of fate, if the veterans cemetery were operated by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would most likely have no problem with a gay veteran being buried next to a partner. The U.S. government has already indicated that it would approve.

But Taylor wants to be buried in the state where she raised calves, worked 25 years for Mountain States Telephone and served as a volunteer EMT. And she takes particular pride in her years of service: She was in the U.S. Navy from the late 1950s to the early 1960s.

That's all well and good with the state of Idaho, with one exception... she fell in love with a woman.

And that's the only reason why she is being turned away from the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery after applying for interment, along with her partner, who recently passed away.

"We've always... hmm... how do I put this?" Dave Brasuell, the state's chief administrator at the Idaho Division of Veteran Services needed to pause and think for a minute when Boise Weekly asked about Taylor's situation.

"We've always sided in favor of the veteran and the family, as long as we do it ethically and by the law or statute," he finally said.

Brasuell was clearly uncomfortable being asked about the dilemma; he knows as well as anyone that there are plenty of men and women from the Idaho Legislature who have no desire to recognize Taylor's marriage to another woman, let alone their acceptance at the state veteran's cemetery.

"I do want to say that we're sympathetic to her situation," said Brasuell.

Statehouse Standoff

Madelynn Taylor is 74 years old.

When we met her at the front gate of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, she needed something to lean against--she used a walker to slowly make her way to the entrance and then used a cane to hold herself up. On this particular spring day, she was framed by a watercolor blue sky, a soft breeze and a late afternoon warmth. She took a long look at the crosses that marked the final resting places of more than 3,000 service members.

"Please don't take my photograph when we're inside the cemetery," Taylor cautioned. "That would be against the cemetery rules and I always want to respect the rules."

Taylor has followed the rules her whole life, through her Navy years, her work as an Idaho phone company technician and as an EMT.

But in spite of that desire to follow all the rules, Taylor has still been denied the most basic of human rights: to live and love how she chooses, with dignity and respect.

Push came to shove earlier this year when Taylor was given a criminal citation on Feb. 7 and arrested twice, on March 12 and March 19, during Add the Words protests at the Idaho Statehouse. She had joined dozens of other citizens to block entrances to Statehouse meeting rooms in order to express their frustration with the Idaho Legislature's failure to consider adding the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Idaho's human-rights law.

"Sure, some of that was about my case, but what really motivates me is all of the heartbreak that some of these younger kids are going through today," she said.

Navy Blues

Taylor was born into a big family in the depths of the Depression--she had eight brothers and sisters--in the Ozarks of Missouri. She joined the Navy at age 18.

"That was 1959," she said, pointing to a photograph. "I was in boot camp in Maryland and aviation prep school in Jacksonville, Fla."

Taylor spent considerable time as a trainer in physiology and celestial navigation, while assigned to naval bases in California, Florida and ultimately, Corpus Christi, Texas.

"If you recall, things were pretty tense back in 1962; that's when some guy started playing around with nuclear weapons with the big boys," she said.

"Some guy" was Fidel Castro and "playing around" was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

"So just about everybody was being shipped down to the states near the Gulf of Mexico," Taylor recalled. "The Cuban Missile Crisis changed everything. Everybody was on edge."

But Taylor would need to deal with her own crisis when she was outed for being gay.

"I remember getting a call from my roommate telling me that investigators were in our barracks, searching through our stuff," she said. "They were probably looking for letters."

Ultimately, Taylor's superiors asked her to "name names" of other gay servicewomen. She refused.

"I told them it was none of their business, but then I was called into a courtroom. They asked if I was gay and I said, 'Yes.' I couldn't lie under oath."

The early '60s were light years before "don't ask, don't tell." So, Taylor was offered a terrible choice: face a court martial or voluntarily agree to an immediate administrative discharge. It would be 15 years before Taylor could successfully petition her dismissal, and she was granted an honorable discharge in 1979, restoring her full military benefits.

"The Navy had a revelation in the late '70s that it was wrong to discharge us at the time, and there was an amnesty window. So I grabbed my chance," she said.

In the meantime, Taylor had moved to Idaho, relocating to Boise to work for Mountain States Telephone as a central office technician. She worked for the phone company for nearly a quarter-century.

"I had a lot of friends here in Boise, and I owned three different homes and farms over the years. I would usually raise calves and farm the land," she said.

Jean

St. Patrick's Day 1995. Taylor remembers it as if it was yesterday.

"Jean was..." Taylor paused and looked away for a moment. "Well, Jean was a lady."

And yes, it was love at first sight.

Taylor's voice immediately softened: "I met Jean Mixner on a blind date in Kansas City, Mo. We sat up all night that first night playing Gay Trivia all night. We met for breakfast the next morning. We were a couple from the moment on," Taylor recalled.

When Taylor returned home to Boise, she and Mixner racked up some hefty phone bills, prompting Mixner, who was retired after working for years as an insurance executive, to sell her house and pack her bags for Boise.

"Life was good," said Taylor. "I worked the farm and Jean ran a transgender support group, helping people with how to put their makeup on right. Plus, she was one of the clergy at the Metropolitan Community Church."

In 1995, the two were married in an MCC Church in Boardman, Ore., and in 2008, they were married again at the San Bernardino County Courthouse in California.

"Jean had a corsage and I had a boutonnière," said Taylor.

Her voice softened further.

"And then she got sick."

Mixner was a smoker, and severe emphysema had devoured her lungs. Recognizing that each day was precious, the two loaded up an RV and drove coast to coast, from the New Jersey shore to Apache County, Ariz., where they parked for the last time.

"The worst of it was watching her deteriorate. She took morphine, as needed."

On April 19, 2012, Taylor woke from a brief slumber after trying to catch a couple of minutes of sleep in a chair. Mixner was gone. She had somehow detached her oxygen tank and walked out of the house. A short time later, Taylor found her wife, dead, on the neighbor's lawn.

"I think she was there because she used to like to look at our garden from the neighbor's yard," said Taylor, taking another long breath.

Taylor keeps her wife's ashes in a wooden box with a cross on its lid.

The Cemetery

In December 2013, Taylor drove to the Idaho Veterans Cemetery hoping to secure a reservation for interment, along with her wife's ashes, in a granite columbarium. She made a point of bringing her honorable discharge papers and marriage license to show the cemetery officials.

"But the moment I said the word 'partner,' they said, 'No.' That was basically the end of the conversation," she said.

Taylor said she had returned to the cemetery to talk with a supervisor, but that conversation was the same.

"Oh yes, Madelynn has visited our cemetery," James Earp, Idaho State Veterans Cemetery director, told Boise Weekly. "Yes, we comply with the National Cemetery Administration's requirement and we verify the veteran's benefits, but we're also governed by the Idaho State Constitution and that's where, I believe, the main differences lie."

But that's when Earp suggested we talk to Tamara Mackenthun, deputy administrator at the Idaho Division of Veterans Services. And that conversation didn't last too long before Mackenthun bounced us up the organization chart: "I think you should be talking to my boss, the chief administrator of the Idaho Veterans Affairs Commission. That's Dave Brasuell," she said.

That's when Brasuell put BW on a speaker phone, along with Mackenthun, to delicately explain the state's official position.

"Yes, we have benefits that are provided directly to the vet from the U.S. Veterans Association. There is absolutely no issue when the federal VA comes down with its own policies and procedures," said Brasuell. "However, in this case we're dealing with benefits that are administered by the state, such as the veterans cemetery or the state veterans home. And that's when you have to deal with state laws."

Amendment No. 2 in the Idaho Constitution states, "a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."

"Regardless of what our personal feelings might be in this matter, we have to honor, foremost, the state constitution," said Mackenthun.

But precedent has already been set in federal veterans cemeteries. In February 2013, the same-sex spouse of an Air Force veteran was buried in Willamette National Cemetery, southeast of Portland, Ore. The burial was granted at the discretion of the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

But Taylor wants to be buried in Idaho.

"Shouldn't we be able to be buried in our home?" she asked.

Brasuell said that this was the first request of its kind for Idaho, but it would certainly not be the last.

"We all have our personal feelings on this. We're very sympathetic to her challenge," he said. "We hope that the state and federal regulations would get in line, but this [veteran] has earned these benefits due to her honorable service."

And while Taylor may not have all the time in the world, right now, time is all she has.

"Other than being buried in a national cemetery in another state or a private cemetery..." Brasuell paused again to choose his words carefully. "She has the option of possibly waiting to see... well, to see if things change."