The question used to crop up at the Western Montana Community Center all the time.

"Why isn't there a women's group? Why isn't there a women's group? Why isn't there a women's group?" said Bree Sutherland, a member of the board of directors.

The center has been "serving the LGBTIQ community since 1998," and this year, it has a women's group. It's broadening its transgender group and reaching out to Bozeman and Helena and Kalispell. And in response to constituents as well as opposition in the Montana Legislature, it aims this year to grow its budget along with its outreach.

"We're going to hopefully, hopefully increase our budgets and allow us to reach out further than we have ever reached before and just do a lot more in the community and outside of Missoula," Sutherland said.

In other words, the center begins this year to take it to a whole 'nother level. (Oh, and the LGBTIQ alphabet soup primer goes like this: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer. Look 'em up.)

One of Missoula's many nonprofits, the organization's home base is downtown in Suite 202 of 127 N. Higgins Ave. Volunteers run its programs on a shoestring budget - among them the outreach groups, activity groups, a resource library, First Friday art shows, and a news publication called Out Words.

"That paper is actually distributed all across the United States," as far as Alaska and Portland, Ore., Sutherland said.

She said annual operating costs amount to some $18,000, mostly for rent and for expenses associated with its principal fundraiser, the Black and White Ball. Some 250 to 300 people normally attend, and this year the board expects a possible uptick.

"We are reaching out. We're providing a ball that's not just for LGBT individuals but for anyone. This year we have a lot more opportunities available to attend the ball for those that can't (afford the ticket prices)," Sutherland said.

This year, the center also plans to turn OutFest, its summer event, into a fundraiser as well.

Sutherland said the board's decision to ratchet up its presence and grow the organization came in part from increasing requests from constituents and also because a bill in Helena, House Bill 516, could nullify the anti-discrimination ordinance the Missoula City Council adopted last year.

As a nonprofit, the center can't be politically active, but it can provide a space for those who want to get involved, Sutherland said. And she said more and more people do want to get involved.

Success with the women's group happened in part because Erin Scott moved to Missoula and started looking around for LGBT resources.

"I found that they were severely lacking, and I said, you know what? That's all right. I will create it," said Scott, also starting a solar design company called Scott Solar.

So that women's group folks repeatedly asked the center about in the past? It's up and running, with Scott in the lead as her way of giving back to the community. Check out updates on the center's Facebook page.

Thressa Dunn turned up to the first meeting in January, and she now helps run the group as well. She's heard from some of the younger women, including University of Montana students, who attend.

"They really enjoy coming to the group because they have a place to talk and just be themselves and not have to look over their shoulders," Dunn said. "They can be themselves."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.


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