The political landscape in Montana is complex and can be confusing. One thing we know for sure is that it’s been very difficult to pass pro-equality policies into state law in Montana. For the past two decades, a number of organizations and lobbyists have worked tirelessly to pass a bill that would include sexual orientation and gender expression/identity under the Montana Human Rights Act. Unfortunately, it has always come up short of the necessary votes to pass into law.
Since sexual orientation and gender expression/identity is not covered under the Montana Human Rights Act, local communities have begun working on the grassroots level to pass city non-discrimination ordinances. The ordinances serve to protect LGBTQ community members from being fired from their jobs or denied housing or public accommodation based on their sexual orientation or gender expression/identity. While passing an ordinance requires a significant amount of work, we’ve witnessed that a majority of community members, business owners, and faith leaders support such protections for the LGBTQ community.
The first non-discrimination ordinance campaign was in Missoula, Montana. There was a lot of support from the community, a majority of the City Council members and the Mayor even spoke at a rally beforehand proclaiming the importance and value of Missoula’s LGBTQ community members. The hearing lasted seven hours with a bulk of that time filled with public testimony. The Missoula City Council voted 10-2 to pass the ordinance.
Following the success of this campaign there was backlash at the state level. A legislator introduced a bill (HB 516) in the 2011 legislative session that would essentially nullify the ordinance and prevent local city governments from passing non-discrimination ordinances. Despite both the Missoula LGBTQ community and others mobilizing to stop the bill, it passed both the House and Senate. However, when it reached the Senate floor it was referred back to committee where it died. Fortunately, the bill was not brought forward during the 2013 legislative session.
After a successful campaign in Missoula, as well as the defeat of HB 516, efforts moved on to our capitol: Helena. After a 14-month process, the Helena non-discrimination ordinance passed unanimously, but with one disheartening caveat. There was an amendment attached which states that if a transgender person is using a facility where they would be changing clothes (such as a gym locker room), they would be required to use the bathroom of their birth-assigned gender, rather than that of their gender identity. This was a harsh loss that made for a bittersweet victory.
So while there is a significant concentrated effort to pass city specific ordinances, organizers continue to work hard on the grassroots level for a win on the state level. There is a sense that the tides are turning in Montana. During the past legislative session we saw the passage of Senate Bill 107, the bill to remove “sexual deviate conduct” language from Montana State Law that criminalized same-sex sexual relations.
Progress like that feels great, however we still have a lot of work in front of us. Until we can fully protect all LGBTQ families, we will continue with the push in local municipalities. Montana is a very large state that spans nearly 147,164 square miles, with an overall population of just over 1 million people. While Montana is a very beautiful place with friendly people, without protections, leaves many LGBTQ people isolated and unsafe in their own communities.
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.