Northwestern Montana historically has not been a hotbed of queer life, but three years ago when Kalispell hosted the Montana Pride Celebration, momentum began. This momentum seems to be spawning new LGBTQ-focused groups and helping established ones expand. Pride Foundation is thrilled to see the growing movement in Montana.
According to their March newsletter, the Flathead Valley Gay Alliance (FVGA) and the local PFLAG chapter are exploring the possibility of renting the current location of the Community Congregational Church for a community center.
Currently, there is only one LGBTQ community center in Montana: the Western Montana Community Center in Missoula. Part of whether or not renting the space is possible depends on cost. FVGA estimates it will cost about $500 a month, utilities included – a hefty sum for the group that only recently applied for 501(c)3 status after existing as a social group for the past 20 years. Board member David Klassy says FVGA is seeking input from membership and the larger community before making any commitment to rent the property. The group envisions the center offering counseling, HIV/AIDS testing, drop-in hours, a library, social events, and meetings.
Brad Nelson, a mental health therapist, started the group Gay Flathead two and a half years ago after recognizing the need for a safe place for gay men to meet and socialize. So far he’s used his private office and members’ homes to host dinners and movie nights. While he’d like to see a community center established, he says he has concerns about the church’s “off-the-beaten path” location and would prefer to see one downtown.
The new kid on Kalispell’s LGBTQ block is People Seeking Social Acceptance (P.S.S.A.) which was started by Chris and Gina Bedoian about a month ago. The weekly group meets Wednesdays at 6:30 PM at Colter Coffee, generally drawing 10 – 12 people from all letters of the LGBTQ community.
“I was inspired to start the group because I’m transgender, and recently my wife has discovered she’s lesbian,” explains Chris, who is still using male names and pronouns before pursuing full-fledged transition. “I saw all these LGBTQ kids getting abused and bullied, and I thought – why am hiding and in the closet – I need to do something. If you are out in public, you show everyone that you are no different than anyone else. People need help, safety, companionship, a place to talk, and that’s what P.S.S.A. provides.”
Chris came has lived in Kalispell for 10 years and out to himself about four years ago. Bree Sutherland’s Missoula-based Montana Gender Alliance was a huge help to him and his family during the process, but coming out has not been easy.
“When I came out and my employer found out, they told me to knock it off and get ‘it’ fixed,” he said. “I had two choices, to go back in closet and denounce it or leave my employment.”
Chris chose to leave his job four months ago. It took some time to find a job because his past employer told people he was transgender during reference calls. Luckily, he was recently hired for a job in medical logistics.
Drawing on their parents’ experiences, two of the four Bedoians’ children, ages 14 and 18 have attempted to start Gay-Straight Alliances in Kalispell High and Middle Schools, but were told by administration that such groups weren’t allowed. Chris contacted Pride Foundation grantees the ACLU of Montana and the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) for help, and help is what he got.
“Jamee [Greer of MHRN] came up for fact-finding, and Nikki [Zupanic, with the ACLU of Montana] came over to talk with the school’s legal counsel and she drafted a letter that basically told them we are watching and legal action is eminent.”
Greer and Kim Abbott of the Montana Human Rights Network are also working with the P.S.S.A. to lay the groundwork for a non-discrimination ordinance, similar to what passed in 2010 in Missoula and is currently before the Helena City Commission. Bedoian noted that a full-fledged ordinance campaign is probably a couple years down the road, but something the P.S.S.A. would like to work on.
For more information about Pride Foundation in Montana, contact Regional Development Organizer Caitlin Copple at 406.546.7017 or by email.