Diversity & Respect

Looking back at City Council’s historic anti-discrimination vote

At 1:50 a.m. Tuesday, Alex Jeffco, 22, and Sarah Olafson, 19, finally let out a collective scream of joy. For nearly seven hours the two huddled outside the Missoula City Council Chambers holding signs in support of a contentious—and historic— anti-discrimination ordinance that aimed to provide legal recourse to individuals denied services, employment or housing based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

When the public hearing started at 7 p.m., Jeffco and Olafson were surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators on either side of Pine Street chanting for or preaching against the ordinance. But by the early morning hours, after five hours of public comment and another two hours of council debate, they were the last two people standing— or, in Jeffco’s case, sitting— outside in a steady rain, waiting for the final result. When a reporter exited the building and announced the ordinance passed by a decisive 10–2 vote, making Missoula the first city in Montana to pass an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, both did a double take, and then simply cried out.

Diversity 1

Originally Published: April 13, 2010, Missoula Independent

“It was worth it,” said Jeffco of steadfastly staking out her spot all night. “I’d do it for a week, a month if I had to, because it’s that important to me. It’s important for the whole city.”

Jeffco and Olafson’s passion for the issue was shared on both sides of the debate in the week’s leading up to the Monday night hearing—and, as it turned out, Tuesday morning discussion. Opponents of the ordinance bombarded city government with, according to one official, approximately 750 handwritten letters, emails and voicemails stating their strong objection to a law they claimed put women and children at risk, unnecessarily hurt business owners, or flew in the face of their religious beliefs.

“Man, I’ve never gone through this big of a mailing before,” said Nikki Rodgers, a deputy city clerk.

Orchestrated by a recent startup group called Not My Bathroom, much of the correspondence focused on the issue of restroom access. Despite repeated explanations from council members and City Attorney Jim Nugent that no current law addresses men entering women’s restrooms, or vice versa—including this ordinance—the argument stuck with critics of the proposal.

“I am just appalled that you would even consider letting ‘Cross Dressers’ into the women’s bathrooms,” wrote April Armstrong in an email sent to council on March 25. “Horrified is the word … I don’t really care what anyone does in their own homes, but I sure expect that families can keep their rights to privacy. It says ‘women’ on the door for a reason.”

In a voicemail left for Mayor John Engen and council members on April 9, a Bitterroot resident took it one step further. He said he “authorized his wife to shoot any man who enters into a women’s bathroom,” according to city records.

A similar fear fueled the religious argument, as pastors and many Christians said they could not support an ordinance that condones a lifestyle deemed sinful by the church.

“I am not opposed to those in the homosex- ual community, I am opposed to the immoral practice of homosexuality,” wrote Rev. James Overbaugh in an email to City Council on March 24. “I believe there is freedom for any and all persons trapped in this destructive lifestyle. You may think me cruel, un-loving, un-educated, un-kind, etc. The truth is that, because of a real love for people and a real desire to see people truly free and happy and healthy in their lives, we endeavor to promote and provide a better way for the homosexual. A way of freedom from the destruction it brings through the redeeming, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

While opponents to the ordinance filled the council’s inbox, proponents of the proposal took to the streets. Local middle school students coordinated Missoula’s inaugural Diversity Day with an evening rally at Caras Park, and then marched to the doorstep of Council Chambers before the meeting. Supporters flanked both sides of Pine Street, substantially outnumbering opponents of the ordinance, and chanted “Flush the fear! Flush the fear!” One sign read, “That do unto others thing, I meant that. —God.” When a cowboy-hat wearing Bible booster started preaching from the adjacent corner, rainbow-clad supporters drowned him out with a call and response of “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!”

Considering the charged emotions entering the evening, police reported no incidents among the crowd. In fact, throughout the city on Monday night and Tuesday morning, a largely respectful and, eventually, celebratory tone overtook any lingering fear, hate or animosity. It was evident inside Council Chambers, but also in local bars and on street corners away from the official hearing.

A public house indeed

For the first time in anyone’s memory, Sean Kelly’s switched every one of its televisions to MCAT and hosted a standing-room-only crowd intent on watching a City Council meeting.

“I’ve never seen anything like it—never,” said server Kendra Burton. “We didn’t plan on this, but we didn’t really have a choice.”

Council Chambers started filling up with prospective speakers and interested observers well before the 7 p.m. meeting. Members of the Montana Human Rights Network staked out territory in the afternoon, only to find the Not My Bathroom contingent had already arrived. By the time the Diversity Day rally reached Pine Street, Council Chambers was full, as was an overflow room next door showing a live cable feed of the meeting. A line of speakers extended all the way down the building’s main hallway, and those waiting persistently assured a steady stream of late arrivals there was no room ahead.

With few alternatives, the crowd flooded into Sean Kelly’s, the next door “public house,” and asked if the front flat-screen television could be switched to MCAT. Soon, the television in the back room of the Irish bar also flipped to the meeting, as did the small television on the other end of the main bar. By 7:30 p.m., staff finally switched the large flat-screen behind the stage, and nearly every table, bar stool and spot near a television speaker included sign-carrying or sticker-wearing proponents of the ordinance.

Hearing testimony proved difficult, but as key figures of the debate stepped to the micro- phone, the crowd cheered.

“Bring it, Jamee!” shouted one patron stationed under the back room television so he could hear Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network speak.

The only confrontation inside Sean Kelly’s came when the bar announced that its regularly scheduled open mic night would proceed as planned at 9 p.m. Undeterred, parties arranged to reconvene at the Union Club. Another group confirmed Al’s & Vic’s had the meeting on—and you could hear it. Then a rumor circulated that, at any minute, the daughter of Not My Bathroom co-founder Tei Nash would speak in front of council and officially come out of the closet in front of her father. Just as quickly, that rumor was debunked—she was supposedly in Spokane.

When the open mic started, the remaining viewers took to the bar’s back room and continued watching the meeting.

Burton said the bar usually turns off its televisions during live music, but this night proved an exception.

“We’d at least turn the volume down, but we’re too afraid to shut it off,” she said.

Then Burton added one other tidbit: Even with the overflow crowd and two-hour-plus rush, not one person reported a problem with the bar’s bathroom.

“Not a peep,” she said. “Not a thing.”

“He had no idea.”

Taryn Nash spent Monday afternoon driving from Spokane, where she’s studying to be a physician’s assistant, to her native Missoula. She says she was nervous the entire trip, and for good reason: She planned to speak in favor of the anti- discrimination ordinance and officially come out as a member of the LGBT community to her father, Tei Nash.

Taryn had told a few friends in the local LGBT community of her plans—hence the rumors—but kept her arrival a secret to her father.

“He had no idea,” she said. “That was the idea. When I was about the third person in line I saw that he got up and left.”

Taryn spoke for the allotted three minutes, directing the first half of her testimony to her father.

“Dad, I strongly disagree with the way you have been portraying the LGBT community, who are my friends,” she said. “You have gone too far. I will not sit back any longer and be quiet. I love you because you are my dad, but I have lost respect for you. Your blanket judgments and irrational conclusions are ignorant and hurtful. You need to realize that this crusade that you are on is wrong and it affects me personally. It makes me sad to say this, but Dad, right now I am ashamed to call you my father. I am asking you to stop your ridiculous agenda of battling the LGBT rights or you will lose me forever.”

The second part of her testimony focused squarely on the ordinance.

“I plan to practice medicine with an emphasis on geriatric care in the Missoula community, and I hope to live in a community where I won’t be discriminated against based upon my orientation,” she said. “I also encourage you to pass this ordinance because these wonderful people of the LGBT community deserve protection against discrimination in all areas. They are hard working, trustworthy, loving and respectable people, and I am proud to call them my family.”

After speaking, Taryn, 25, was greeted by a small crowd of friends in the hallway outside Council Chambers. She planned on leaving immediately to drive back to Spokane. She had class at 8 a.m.

“It wasn’t hard for me to speak out because I’m absolutely passionate about this,” Taryn told the Indy. “It was hard for me tonight, though, because my father is who he is. He’s a strong voice in the community, and for that reason I’ve been intimidated. But I’m not scared anymore.”

Fear factor

One of the prevailing sentiments throughout the public comment period was fear. Many members of the LGBT community said they were telling their story for the first time—of getting fired for being a lesbian, of getting denied housing for being gay, of getting attacked for being transgender. Discrimination in Missoula is real, was their message, and this ordinance offered the chance, finally, to acknowledge that members of the LGBT community are equal under the same protections of the law as their neighbors.

Chris Lockridge, for instance, felt he had to lie when his partner’s mother died so he could get off work.

“I was afraid,” he told the council.

Opponents of the ordinance used that exact same argument—fear—to express their concern with the ordinance. Simply by holding certain beliefs, they were already in violation of the proposal.

“As a Christian I cannot ignore the Bible which condemns homosexuality, and there cannot be special protections,” wrote Rachel Hayes in a letter to City Council received April 9. “I believe the passage would abridge civil liberties of Christians.”

Diversity 2

Photos by Cathrine L. Walters

During the public hearing, Iris Schmitt cried as she explained the measures she takes to protect her children.

“Children are demonstrating gay actions,” she said. “I will describe to my children that it’s not appropriate, because it’s not appropriate. And, if they are born that way, there is counseling, there is help. If my child was gay, I would love them, just as I love all of you in this room.”

Some pastors tried to strike a conciliatory tone with council, urging the members to table the ordinance. Given more time, religious organizations may be able to address their concerns. One pastor thanked the council for at least helping to unite the Christian community on one issue.

“If we’ve never agreed on anything else,” said Midtown Church pastor Russ Smith, “we agree on this.”

At the end of the hearing, after City Council announced the 10-2 vote in favor of the ordinance, Schmitt stood in the doorway to Council Chambers, leaning on her husband.

“Is that it?” he asked. “Did they do it?”

“It’s done,” Schmitt told him quietly. “It’s over.”

“Hope, hope, hope”

While civility and measured voices largely ruled the public hearing, a different tone was struck just a block away at the Badlander. Haitian lesbian poet Lenelle Moise, a member of the radical performance group Sister Spit, brought a queer crowd to its feet.

“I’m sick of this shit, this be polite shit … I reserve my right to anger … I reserve my right to say fuck you,” Moise said between cheers and whistles that emanated from the mostly lesbian and transgender audience.

Moise read from her self-penned piece, “The Fuck You Now Manifesto.” The work, she explained, stemmed from an encounter with a stranger who felt compelled to, apropos of nothing, shout at the poet and her partner, “Hey, I eat pussy, too.”

That kind of stuff happens to her all the time, Moise said, while many in the audience nodded their heads in a shared frustration. Moise resolved to no longer let anger that stems from incidents of that kind sit quietly inside.

“I’ll remember, I did not cower away like an intimidated mouse,” she said. “I’ll remember. And I’ll laugh my fucking ass off.”

Moise’s piece and the Sister Spit performance as a whole provided a release for local LGBT people who weathered weeks of being equated with pedophiles, perverts and sinners as part of the anti-discrimination ordinance debate.

The Monday night show was strangely serendipitous, said Eileen Myles, the current University of Montana Hugo Visiting Writer and organizer of the event. When planning the show, she had no idea the City Council meeting would take place the same night. She kept tabs on the anti-discrimination ordinance debate throughout the evening, periodically glancing up at MCAT’s broadcast on the television above the Badlander bar. For Myles, the law’s passage conveys social acceptance.

“I like the idea of the law claiming us,” said Myles, who lives in New York. “We didn’t come from someplace else. We grew here.”

When asked about ordinance backlash, specifically the Not My Bathroom group, Myles scoffed. Really, she said, it’s not women and children who face danger in public restrooms. If anyone should be scared, it’s androgynous people or a woman with masculine attributes.

“A bathroom is a dangerous place for us, not for kids,” she said.

The event featured Myles and Moise, as well as alternative culture luminaries like writer and founding Sister Spit member Michelle Tea, film director and screenwriter Silas Howard, and translady Annie Danger.

Danger, like Moise, tapped the crowd’s activist vein. Prior to taking the stage, she ran through the crowd, landing high-fives on out- stretched hands. Assuming the persona of a late-night infomercial host, the dapper Danger—close-cropped hair, white slacks, a baby blue shirt and yellow tie—made her way to the stage.

“Those of you who came for action, raise your hands and say, ‘Hell yes,’” she said. The raucous crowd happily complied. Danger pushed forward, explaining that outrage for the socially minded is integral to happiness.

“Every single person that I encounter is furious about how this world is being run,” she said. “How many of you have tried to do something about it?”

The crowd jumped to its feet. A woman in the front row waved a large sign left from the Diversity Day march earlier in the evening, prompting Danger to share more morsels of paradigm-shifting insight.

“I’m a revolutionary. And what that means is, I believe I can make change in the world,” Danger said.

That’s what it takes, she said. One must get up everyday and find hope. As she prepared to leave the stage, Danger called on the crowd to join her in a growing chorus of “Hope, hope, hope.”

“History in the making”

By 12:30 a.m., after five hours of public comment and a short recess to allow everyone in the still-full chambers to stretch, Mayor John Engen opened City Council’s debate of the ordinance.

The late hour and emotional testimony prompted many council members to apologize for being a little tired, tripping over words or stumbling through parliamentary procedures. It also appeared to encourage them to tell personal stories of why, exactly, they wanted to vote in favor of the state’s first-ever LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance.

“Over the past several weeks, I’ve received what you might say is a fair number of less than charitable phone calls and email messages, some expressing dismay that I have small children and at the same time would support this ordinance,” said Dave Strohmaier, Ward 1 council member and co-author of the measure. “To those individuals, I say it is precisely because I have children that I am unwavering in my commitment to passing this ordinance this evening, or this morning as the case may be. I want to bestow to my kids a Missoula that will value them regardless of who they are or what they look like, regardless of whether they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”

Ward 4’s Jon Wilkins spoke openly about being adopted by “holy rollers” who tried to cast the demons out of him when he was young.

“Well, they did,” he said, “but I went with them.”

Wilkins said he actually switched local churches over the ordinance, declining to remain a part of a congregation that couldn’t accept members of the LGBT community and their lifestyle.

“I grew up in that philosophy,” he said. “I knew it was wrong when I was 12 years old, and I believe it’s wrong today.”

Wilkins voted for the ordinance.

Ward 1’s Jason Wiener shared a similar story of being raised in a fundamentalist household and being driven to pass the ordinance as much because of why some opposed it, as for why he supported it. He quoted Isaiah 61:1, which had been tacked to his door as a child. It reads: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners.”

Wiener said he would live up to that passage with his vote in favor of the ordinance.

Ward 5’s Dick Haines spoke of racial discrimination he witnessed in the U.S. Army and retold a story of crossing the country with a black soldier. Ward 5’s Renee Mitchell recalled her own experience of discrimination as a young basketball player wanting to compete with men. Haines voted for the ordinance. Mitchell, along with Ward 4’s Lyn Hellegaard, did not.

Ward 3’s Stacy Rye, the other co-author of the measure, said she’d never experienced a public hearing like this one. The stories of hate and injustice relayed to council showed that not everyone is free in our society.

“Most of us can’t remember civil rights in action,” she said. “This is it for us. This is our lifetimes.”

That sentiment stuck with Olafson outside the Council Chambers after the final vote was announced. The University of Montana student didn’t know what to expect from the charged evening when she first joined the Diversity Day march: Confrontation? Chaos? Who knew? But she came away with a sense of pride in both the outcome, and the level of debate between two disparate parts of the community.

“There’s been a lot of passion on both sides, and I respect that,” she said. “It’s been educational. It’s been very encouraging. To see how all of this has gone on, seeing how many people care so much about this issue, it’s inspired me even more. I understand that today’s just the first part of a longer conversation.”

Written in collaboration with Jessica Mayrer


%d bloggers like this: