One sure-fire way to make Montanans cranky is to tell them that an outsider knows what's best for them. When it comes to God, guns, wolves, or environmental protections, Montanans like to keep things local and go our own way.
That value apparently doesn't hold true when it comes to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, a historically oppressed minority that continues to face violence and discrimination in our society. A woman from Havre, Rep. Kris Hansen, through her bill to repeal Missoula's equality ordinance, believes she knows what's best for Missoula residents. Her bill, House Bill 516, is not only harmful because it's anti-anti-discrimination, but also because it threatens the ability of Montana cities to decide how best to live their values within the scope of our state's progressive Constitution.
I was one of more than 600 Missoula residents who came together on April 12 of last year to celebrate Diversity Day and march to the City Council chambers, where our city's historic and unique equality ordinance became law. The ordinance protects members of the LGBT community from being fired, denied housing, credit, or public accommodation (such as a hotel room) simply because of their identities.
Hansen, at the urging of a few holier-than-thou folks from the Bitterroot and the county, is sponsoring a bill that would nullify the ordinance in Missoula, and also negatively impact similar policies in Kalispell and Bozeman.
The Missoula equality ordinance sends a powerful, positive message that all people should feel safe and welcome in Missoula and pursue their lives to the fullest. It is personal for my friends and me because we see the connection between discriminatory legislation and rejection by our family, our churches, and our communities because of who you are and who you love.
LGBT folks face individual acts of discrimination as well as systematic oppression that prevents us from living our lives with the same levels of peace, justice, freedom and dignity as our heterosexual friends and neighbors. This can be tough to grasp if you've never experienced being fired from your job because you are gay (or for other reasons beyond your control, such as being female, Native American, or having a disability). Yet there are people in Missoula who have been fired for being gay, and also people who have been beaten up for being perceived as being in the wrong bathroom. Even if you aren't transgender, but you are a woman with short hair who chooses not to wear make-up and heels, this ordinance protects your gender non-conformance and allows you to pee in peace.
As LGBT Montanans, we are a minority and lack basic rights at the state level. That's wrong, and I hope someday, once the majority of Montanans know and love someone who is LGBT, that will change. But in the meantime, Missoulians believed that we could come together award some basic rights - around housing, hiring and firing, and public accommodations - through a city ordinance. Missoulians made a statement, through our elected representatives and the grassroots movement inspired by the middle school kids who envisioned Diversity Day, that regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression, you belong in Missoula, Montana.
You belong. I belong. Our relationships belong.
And isn't that what we all want? To be part of a community as equals and to believe in each other's right to live a life with peace, justice, freedom and dignity? In Missoula, we are a bit closer to that ideal because of this ordinance.
Please join me in opposing House Bill 516 and upholding the right of Missoulians and other cities to publicly and legally value members of the LGBT community by passing inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. The bill is currently in the Senate Local Government Committee, which can be e-mailed at leg.mt.gov/css/sessions/62nd/legwebmessage.asp.
Caitlin Copple volunteered on the steering committee that helped pass the equality ordinance and serves as board president of NCBI Missoula. She recently joined Pride Foundation as the Montana Regional Development Organizer. She writes from Missoula.