I’ve been a fan of Niki Zupanic for as long as I’ve known her. She is an incredible, articulate attorney who serves as the Public Policy Director of the ACLU of Montana. She’s someone who can, with a straight face betraying no emotion whatsoever, take on legislators who argue that decriminalizing homosexuality will lead to school children being “recruited to the lifestyle,” as one did during the recent hearing on Senate Bill 107 in Helena.
My admiration for Niki’s skills was further cemented this past weekend when she explained the two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that deal with the freedom to marry for same-sex couples to a crowd of about 20 new community organizers at the Leadership & Power-Building Convening that was held in Billings in partnership with the ACLU, Montana Human Rights Network, and Pride Foundation.
LGBTQ Montanans are incredibly lucky to have Niki fighting for our rights during this heated legislative session, and I think it’s time the community found out a bit more about her.
Pride Foundation: What inspired you to become an attorney and to work for the ACLU?
Niki Zupanic: Before going to law school, I worked for six years as policy staff for the California State Assembly. I reached the point where I realized that I could be a better advocate for the causes that I cared so much about, like LGBTQ equality, if I had the training and experience that comes with a law degree. So I went back to school.
After graduating from law school I worked as an associate attorney at one of the larger law firms in Sacramento, but it wasn’t the right fit—I really wanted to get back to public policy and issue advocacy work. I had long admired the ACLU’s principled stances and steadfast work in defending civil liberties. In fact, while working for the Assembly, I helped pass ACLU-sponsored legislation that protected homeowners’ free speech rights. So, working for this organization was right at the top of my list of dream jobs. And it has lived up to that dream! I am so proud and thankful to spend my days advocating for the equal rights of all Montanans.
PF: What is your personal connection to LGBTQ issues in particular?
NZ: Like almost every Montanan, some of the people closest to me are members of the LGBTQ community, including my dearest and closest friend. It hurts me deeply to know that our state and federal governments treat him differently than they treat me just because of his sexual orientation. That runs counter not only to our constitutions, but it also runs counter to our basic sense of fairness. There is nothing fair or right about singling some people out and denying them equal treatment just because of who they love. I am a straight ally to the LGBTQ community because, like most Montanans, I believe in fairness and I want our laws to reflect those values.
PF: Describe what a typical day looks like for you during the Legislative session.
NZ: Most mornings I am at the Capitol before 8:00 AM to testify on one or more bills in committee hearings. The ACLU of Montana weighs in on bills covering a wide variety of civil liberties interests, including criminal justice reform, reproductive freedom, sensible drug laws, and immigration. We have already testified on more than 50 bills this session. After morning committee hearings, I typically meet with legislators and other advocates and follow-up on bills that have already been heard or prepare for bills that will be debated on the floor or heard in committees later that afternoon. That might include drafting amendments that we would like to see adopted, researching a new topic, or answering questions from legislators and providing more information about the ACLU’s positions. Once I’m done with committee hearings for the day, the prep work for the next day begins. I’m really lucky to work with my amazing colleagues at the ACLU of Montana and our various coalition partners who all help me make our case to the legislature and keep our members informed and engaged.
PF: Tell us about your working relationship with Montana Human Rights Network and how you have helped with the ordinance campaigns in particular.
NZ: The ACLU of Montana and MHRN have a wonderfully collaborative relationship, especially on LGBTQ equality issues, that goes back for many years. We were delighted when MHRN approached us several years ago and asked us to collaborate on working with Missoula residents to pass the state’s first-ever LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in their city. Shortly after that ordinance was passed, we filed a lawsuit to start the Donaldson and Guggenheim vs. State of Montana case that is seeking domestic partnership protections for same-sex couples.
We also launched our Fair is Fair public education campaign with two full-time staff members, Ninia Baehr and Liz Welch, who are dedicated to LGBTQ equality issues. On both relationship recognition and nondiscrimination, the ACLU and MHRN work closely and collaboratively to support and advance each other’s work. For example, MHRN is partnering with us right now on phone banking and in-person canvassing across the state to have one-on-one conversations with Montanans about why providing fairness for same-sex couples is important. On the ordinance campaigns in particular, the ACLU brings our legal knowledge and policy expertise to help residents and city commissioners craft the best ordinance language possible.
PF: What do you love about Montana?
NZ: I love that Montanans look out for one another. We have big hearts, we’re always willing to pitch in and help out our neighbors, and we listen to each other with open minds and good intentions, even when we disagree. We treat people the way we would want to be treated: with kindness and respect. And it doesn’t hurt that we live in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. I just wish it was a little bit easier to get around to all the great spots in this state, especially in the winter!
PF: What keeps you doing this work?
NZ: Hope. Whether it’s an inmate locked in solitary confinement for months on end, an indigent defendant who is unable to afford an attorney and relies on the public defender system, a woman who needs access to reproductive healthcare, or an LGBTQ couple who just wants the same opportunity to love and care for their family as other couples do, I know that the ACLU of Montana is making a real difference in the lives of Montanans. It is a real privilege and an honor to be entrusted with this work and I am excited to look back on my career some day and know that I helped to change things for the better.
**photo credit: Great Falls Tribune