On Monday, February 16th, supporters of equality from across Montana gathered at the State Capitol. Pride Foundation partnered with Montana Human Rights Network, Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, Big Sky Pride, ACLU of Montana, NCBI Missoula, and the Human Rights Campaign to bring nearly 150 people to our LGBTQ Lobby Day and Teach-In. Our goal for the day was to advocate for statewide legal protections that would allow everyone in the Big Sky State the same opportunity to earn a living to provide for themselves and their families.
Other events that day included a large public lands rally, workers coming together to call for an increase in salary for state employees, and a five-hour hearing on a water compact rights bill—which if passed would recognize tribal water rights and protect existing uses on and off the Flathead Reservation.
The Capitol Building was so busy that, at times, you could barely navigate through the halls. Everywhere you looked there were people with brightly colored shirts advocating for water rights, public lands, and equality. While it felt a bit unwieldy at times, it was both exciting and uplifting to see so many community members come together to support the livelihood and well-being of all Montanans.
In order to ensure that geography wasn’t a barrier to participation in the day’s events, we arranged for transportation for people coming from Missoula, Billings, Bozeman, and Great Falls. Our supporters had an issue briefing in the morning on SB179—sponsored by Sen. Christine Kaufmann (D-Helena)—which would amend the Montana Human Rights Act to protect people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. There was also a briefing on HB282—sponsored by Rep. Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula)—a bill that would remove the discriminatory and unconstitutional language from Montana Code that states people of the same sex are not allowed to get married.
Following the issue briefings, everyone went to meet with their legislators to share their stories and tell elected officials why these bills were important to them. Starting at 12:45pm, we had people gather to fill the Senate Gallery to watch Sen. Kaufmann make a motion to blast SB179, which would bring the bill from being tabled in committee to a full vote on the Senate Floor. In order to make this happen, Sen. Kaufmann needed to get 26 of 50 total votes.
There was a lot of energy in the gallery leading up to this moment. I found myself walking around the large room talking with many of our supporters, thanking people for being there, handing out stickers, and reminding people of the rules. Everyone was feeling excited, nervous, frustrated, and anxious—myself included. However, it was important to remember that people in the gallery are not allowed to cheer, applaud, jeer, or otherwise provide feedback to the discussion on the floor.
Sen. Kaufmann eventually made her motion—there was a brief discussion and then the full Senate voted. The motion unfortunately failed on a party line vote of 29-21, which is what we had expected. You could almost feel the energy leave the room when it was over. Slowly, the crowd filed out of the gallery. It took longer for some people as they processed what had just happened.
Despite the fact that many of us were prepared for this, the feeling that a governing body could vote down our rights and our humanity in a matter of 20 seconds is one that is difficult to put into words.
A few people asked me, “What happens next?” I had to tell them with a heavy heart, “It’s done. At least for this session.”
The afternoon brought a different wave of energy at a local supportive church, Plymouth Congregational Church. Several workshops took place on mobilizing our community and being allies for change. There were great presentations from youth at NCBI Missoula (a Pride Foundation grantee), Forward Montana, local transgender activists, and Retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson.
That afternoon, I felt a sense of community, strength in values, and a passion to move forward. It was good to be around other like-minded people after the disappointing events at the Capitol and it gave me a renewed sense of purpose and determination for our work ahead.
The day ended with a great speech by Governor Steve Bullock that was both genuine and heartfelt. While he didn’t discount the challenges we’ve faced, he emphasized the many accomplishments we’ve made over the last two years: two additional local non-discrimination ordinances—making a total of four cities in Montana that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations; the harmful and unconstitutional law we removed last legislative session that criminalized same-sex relationships; and most recently marriage equality. He then took time to meet with each person there to hear their story and take pictures.
Gov. Bullock’s message was a powerful tool for our community to hold onto as we continue our work. While there were hard moments throughout the day, I felt a sense of momentum, vigor, and enthusiasm as we wrapped up the day’s events. If anything, I was reminded how critical and important our work is. Now is not the time to let up or slow down. It is essential that we keep sharing our stories, having conversations with elected officials, and stressing how important it is that everyone is treated equally under the laws of our state.
Thank you to everyone who helped make LGBTQ Lobby Day the success that it was. I look forward to more conversations and collaborations with many of you as we work toward full equality for all Montanans.
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.