Many of us in the LGBTQ community and movement remember when the United States Senate successfully passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) by a vote of 64-32 last November. It was a historic vote after so many defeats. Passage of federal legislation that provides protection from discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity is critical for our community. While we will continue to monitor the efforts at the federal level and work towards a positive outcome, it is more important than ever that we simultaneously continue the fight at the state and local levels.
As it stands, while ENDA is stalled in the United States House of Representatives, states like Montana still lack the statewide legal protections to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Organizations have been working for over two decades at the Montana state legislature, but unfortunately do not have the necessary votes to put something into law.
Legal protections are crucial to individuals in the LGBTQ community and ensure that everyone can live genuinely and safely in their community. That is a right we all deserve. According to a report titled “A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers” put out by the Movement Advancement Project, “Same-sex couples live in 93% of all U.S counties. As many as 4.3 million LGBT people live in states with no state laws providing employment protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.” This means that LGBTQ couples are living in nearly every county across the country and many of them lack economic security and basic legal protections that will keep them safe from losing their jobs. As outlined in the report, LGBTQ workers face higher unemployment, receive fewer benefits, and pay more taxes, putting both themselves and their families at risk. There is not time to wait and see what happens at the federal level. Something must be done now to ensure that protections are put into place.
Montana has been working diligently since 2010 to do just this. As efforts to pass an inclusive Montana Human Rights Act for the LGBTQ community were unsuccessful, organizations and activists took to the local municipalities and have made important progress. Missoula, the Garden City, was the first city to pass a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) in April, 2010. Helena followed next by passing an ordinance unanimously, but with an amendment that stated if a transgender person is using a locker room or bathroom, they would need to use the one of their birth-assigned gender, rather than their gender identity. This was disappointing for the entire LGBTQ community working on this issue, as we strive for fully inclusive protections. Most recently Butte passed an inclusive policy on a vote of 10-2. Butte is the third Montana city to pass an NDO and the policy even goes a step further by extending the protections county-wide.
Moving forward, Montana is working on two campaigns in the next year. Currently, efforts are focused on Bozeman where opponents of equality are heavily involved in propagating harmful and misleading stereotypes. At the same time, a campaign is underway in Billings. It is possible that similar groups will be involved there. It will be a challenge, but one that is necessary.
All of these campaigns, past and present, provide us with the opportunity to share our stories with family and friends about the devastating effects of workplace discrimination and the importance of protecting all residents as a way to build healthy and vibrant communities. While we’ve made really important progress in Montana in recent years, we still have a long way to go. If you live in Montana and are interested in getting involved in local efforts, please contact Kim, Regional Development Organizer in Montana.
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.