After weeks of attending Billings City Council meetings in support of efforts to pass a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) in the city—including an all-night meeting to keep the NDO from being tabled and three work sessions to draft the language for the ordinance—it was finally the day of the first reading. This was the big day, the real deal.
I arrived two hours before the City Council meeting began and four hours before the NDO was up for discussion. Supporters were slowly trickling into the Universalist Congregational Church across the street, grabbing snacks and orange t-shirts that said, “Billings Does Not Discriminate—Pass a Fully Inclusive NDO” and “Equality Montana.”
Everywhere I looked, supporters of equality and fairness were changing into the brightly colored orange shirts and preparing for the night ahead. There was a feeling of both excitement and anxiety hanging in the air—we knew this was going to be a long evening filled with both courageous testimony and difficult rhetoric.
People were gathered in groups, quietly talking about what they were going to say when given the opportunity to testify, how they thought the evening would go, and what the chances of success were. We all grabbed a few water bottles of water, put them in our shoulder bags and headed over to City Hall.
It was incredibly hot and muggy in the hallway leading into the chambers, and there were hundreds of people lining the walls. There was a clear divide between people supporting and opposing the NDO. Those in support donned their orange t-shirts, and the majority of the opponents were asked to wear white, supposedly to signify “purity.” It was a challenging setting for our friends, family, supporters, and allies. We were in close proximity for almost eight hours with the opposition, many of whom were speaking loudly about their distaste and moral disregard for the LGBTQ community.
We stood in line, slowly weaving our way closer to the podium and microphone. It felt like the line would never end, but eventually everyone had a chance to speak their truth. Testimony ended at 2:00 in the morning, and then the hour-long discussion by City Council began.
There were only about 50 people remaining in the chambers at this point, and you could almost feel the tension and anxiety in the room as we waited to hear the vote and subsequent fate of the NDO. The vote was split down the middle at 5-5, with the deciding vote lying in the hands of Mayor Tom Hanel.
From the moment that Mayor Hanel began speaking, it was clear he felt strongly about the many perspectives he had heard; yet it was still unclear which way he would vote. By the end of his closing argument, however, I could feel a growing sense of dread in the pit of my stomach.
I looked around the room and saw that my fellow supporters of equality and fairness knew that we had lost his support. His statements were not short or concise, but they were sharp and cutting—it was clear that he did not understand how valuable and important this policy is for Billings. “This is not the right time, Billings is not ready,” he repeated over and over.
With his eight minute speech, Mayor Hanel effectively overturned our months of hard work and organizing. He removed the humanity from his decision, choosing to ignore the tangible and positive impact this ordinance would have on people’s lives and safety.
Each day Billings goes without passing a non-discrimination ordinance is another day that someone from our community can be fired for who they are, denied housing for who they love, or discriminated against because of someone’s ignorance or hatred.
For Debbie Schenk, a member of our Montana Leadership Action Team who was heavily involved in this campaign, “the defeat was heartbreaking and frustrating.” She also had a message for Mayor Hanel and the Councilmembers that voted against the ordinance: “Six people decided that ‘Billings is not ready.’ They are wrong. Not only are we ready, but we are committed. We are working for the rights of the people we love. It is not going to be easy and we must move forward with a clear strategy and much intention, but one thing is for sure, we are not going away. Signed…the Mom.”
The loss is devastating, but this fight is not over. We will learn from this loss and move forward as we have after every other setback. This will not define us, but energize us to work even harder, knowing we have more hearts and minds to change in order to gain the respect and the legal protections we deserve.
Coalition partners which include the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Human Rights Network, Not In Our Town, and the Human Rights Campaign are working together on next steps. Please stay tuned as we move forward with this campaign and mobilize the supporters in Billings that stand for equality, dignity, and fairness.
We know that we are standing on the right side of history, so for us it is not a question of if we get there, but when. And when we do—the victory will be even sweeter.
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Montana. Email Kim.