More than a hundred people gathered in the drizzling rain Monday evening to celebrate the recently installed rainbow crosswalk at Missoula's Art Park funded and installed by local nonprofit, Empower Montana.
The crosswalk has been vandalized multiple times in the week since the project’s completion.
“The Missoula Police Department will not tolerate anyone who intentionally damages someone else’s property especially because they simply have a different point of view,” Ethan Smith, a crime prevention officer with the Missoula Police Department and LGBTQ community liaison, said at Monday's event.
Smith said the police department will move forward with criminal investigations against anyone who intentionally damages the crosswalk. The police department is following up on a number of solid leads provided by Missoula community members, Smith said.
The rainbow crosswalk was the idea of Empower Montana’s LGBTQ youth group, Youth Forward. Mayor John Engen worked with other city of Missoula employees to make the crosswalk a reality.
"We cannot do enough to remind each other that we all belong in this place. And this crosswalk represents another gesture on the community’s part in saying we all matter, we all belong, we all deserve respect and love and kindness and compassion. If it takes a rainbow crosswalk to remind of us of that, so be it,” Engen said.
Engen also personally sponsored the crosswalk’s orange stripe — which stands for healing — because of a close friend's experience.
“My best friend in the world is a gay man who left Missoula 30 years ago because he didn't believe he could be who he was in this place that I love,” said Engen, who became visibly emotional during his remarks.
Spencer Czech, a youth programs specialist for Empower Montana, said that “while some colored asphalt may seem meaningless to some, the colors represent the community of support that made this all a possibility."
Czech described the crosswalk as a “beacon of hope for people who feel isolated and terrified to be themselves.”
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Julia Burkhart, a University of Montana student active in Youth Forward, read a personal poem about her struggles as a queer person who often doesn’t feel comfortable walking down the street.
“Slapping a rainbow gauze pad on a gunshot wound won’t stop the bleeding,” she said in her poem.
Burkhart said she often gets frustrated when the LGBTQ community does one cool thing, such as installing a rainbow crosswalk, and then stops instead of also addressing other important issues.
Claire Michelson, Empower Montana’s youth programs director, said the crosswalk is only one of a number of projects being worked on by youth involved with the nonprofit.
Nearly 10 years ago, Missoula became the first city in the state to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
But, as many of the evening’s speakers reminded the crowd, Missoula still has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ rights.
The animosity directed at many LGBTQ Montanans was visible in the multiple tire marks on the crosswalk, which began appearing almost immediately after its installation.
“Everyday people who identify as queer have to navigate the microaggressions, erasure, violence, hate speech, vandalism and stigma our society holds us down with,” Michelson said to the crowd.
“We love ourselves not despite our queerness, but because of how it enriches our unique, sometimes heartbreaking, and beautiful experience on this earth. Thanks for echoing our love.”