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Discrimination against homosexuality is the civil rights issue of this generation, agreed an unlikely panel consisting of a Wyoming Republican, a pastor, a veteran and a former outspoken conservative.

"I cannot believe we're fighting issues like this in 2010," Tom Figarelle, past chairman of the Montana College Republicans, said regarding the ability to discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender individuals.

There's an inconsistency among the far right, Figarelle said. Many conservatives support small or limited government intervention in peoples' lives except when it comes to social issues.

At the same time, they promote freedom and liberty. And yet, some Americans cannot exercise the freedom to love whomever they please. These inconsistencies "sadden and befuddle," Figarelle, who said these are some of the reasons he ended his involvement with the political right.

Tuesday's panel, hosted by Forward Montana, aimed to show that support for homosexual rights is broader than some might think. An ordinance before the Missoula City Council, sponsored by Councilwoman Stacy Rye and Councilman Dave Stohmaier, would make it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people in areas of employment, housing and public accommodations.

Forward Montana, along with the Montana Human Rights Network and Montana Equality Now, hopes to garner support for the city measure by hosting events like this and plans to lobby the state Legislature when it convenes next year for statewide anti-discrimination legislation, said Andrea Marcoccio, Forward Montana managing director.

"This is the civil rights struggle of our day," said Figarelle, who lives in Great Falls.

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State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, expressed similar sentiments in 2007 when opposing a bill that would've prohibited Wyoming from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Zwonitzer, a third-term Republican lawmaker who is heterosexual, garnered nationwide praise from the gay and lesbian community for speaking out on the topic in a "supermajority Republican" state.

It was difficult at first to take a stand on the issue in a red state like Wyoming, he said. Now that he's taken that leap, Zwonitzer is a vocal advocate for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community and co-sponsored legislation last year similar to the ordinance before the Missoula City Council. The bill passed a committee vote, but was never scheduled for a floor hearing and subsequently died.

Most of the political pressure since then has come from extremists in the state and county party, not his colleagues in the Legislature.

Pastor Peter Shober is the pastor at University Congregational Church in Missoula, a congregation of about 700 United Church of Christ members. Jesus taught people about compassion and nonviolence, Shober said. To those who fulfill that mission, it means loving all people, he said.

Fear is a powerful force when not used correctly, he said, pointing to the coalition of local residents who have come out against the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance for fear that predators will lurk in public bathrooms, among other concerns. In response to NotMyBathroom.com, Shober said a coalition of people want to form a group called, "Flush the Fear."

Keegan Connell is a former senior airman with the U.S. Air Force. As a veteran of the military, Connell said he never experienced a situation in which a person's sexual orientation affected the cohesion of the unit. At the same time, it was discouraging to hear discrimination against those individuals by other military members while not on duty. One of Connell's closest friends in the military came out while they were both stationed in California.

"It was met with harsh words," he said. "They're an easy target and I wanted to stand up and help him out."

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One of the most effective ways Zwonitzer has found to sway public opinion is by talking to people age 30 and younger. There's a generation divide, he said. He tries to initiate conversation with his constituents' children so that they can then challenge their parents' potential biases, he said.

Conversation is the best way to combat discrimination, Figarelle added. As long as it persists, the fight for freedom extends beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. It's here on our home soil, he said.

"The obligation falls on all of us," he said.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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