- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - By some accounts, the sexual orientation of Montana’s superintendent of schools, Denise Juneau, was an open secret.

Juneau’s sexuality was already common knowledge within Montana’s political circles, and it was hardly a topic of conversation during her two previous campaigns for the Office of Public Instruction.

But her sexual orientation became a topic for public fodder in her bid for U.S. Congress when she introduced her female partner to an assembly of Democrats at a Bozeman political fundraiser on Saturday. By doing so, Juneau became the state’s first openly lesbian candidate for Congress.

Juneau, considered a rising star within the state’s Democratic Party, is the first Native American to hold statewide office in Montana.

Juneau declined a request for an interview, but her office released a statement via email Wednesday afternoon.

Her statement made no reference to her sexual orientation. It was in response to a question about how she might use her own experience and public office as a bully pulpit to address the challenges some Montana youth face over identity.

“I believe that every student in Montana, regardless of who they are or where they’re from, deserves a top-notch public education, free of bullying, prejudice, or hate,” Juneau said. “That’s something I’ve worked toward my entire adult life - first as a teacher, then as a lawyer, and now as Montana’s top education official.”

Her statement also highlighted her accomplishments as the state’s schools chief.

 ”I’m proud to say that since being elected superintendent, more students are graduating than ever before in Montana, a third fewer American Indian students are dropping out, we now have a bully-free law in place that gives families more ways to stand up to hate, and my Student Advisory Board is making sure kids have a seat at the table in shaping their public school system,” she said.

During her two campaigns for the Office of Public Instruction, few, if anyone, recall the Democrat talking publicly about her sexuality, certainly not while stumping on the campaign trail.

“I’m glad it’s out,” said Eric Feaver, a longtime friend who is president of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest union. “It eliminates the whisper campaign.”

Juneau’s acknowledgement was first reported by MTN News on Tuesday. It was unclear how Juneau’s acknowledgement over her sexuality could influence the political dynamics in her bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke.

In an email from his spokeswoman, Heather Swift, Zinke said he wished Juneau the best. “It’s important to have somebody strong and loving by your side during a campaign.”

Montana Democrats rallied around Juneau, saying her sexual orientation was a private matter that should not be an issue in her congressional campaign.

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democratic member of the state House who was at the fundraiser, said she was “surprised and impressed” by Juneau’s decision to introduce her partner.

“Sadly, today it is still a big deal. Maybe someday it won’t be a big deal. That day isn’t here yet,” said Dunwell. “Making it make public on Saturday was a huge step toward realizing that day when it won’t be a big deal.”

Rep. Kathleen Williams, another Democratic state legislator, took issue with all the attention being placed on Juneau’s sexual orientation, saying it was a private matter best left out of the campaign. “Montana is a place where we live and let live,” she said.

For the most part, voters will follow that mantra when it comes to LGBT candidates, said Michael McCall, the political director of the Coming Out Project for the Victory Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on supporting gay and lesbian office seekers.

“While there is still unique challenges to running as an LGBT candidate, voters by and large care more about what a candidate is going to do for them,” he said.

The Victory Fund has been in contact with Juneau’s campaign, one of 25 congressional campaigns involving LGBT candidates, McCall said.

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This story has been corrected to show that the president of the MEA-MFT is Eric Feaver, not Eric Seaver.

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