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In honor of Pride Foundation’s 30th anniversary, we are partnering with StoryCorps—an organization that shares our commitment to documenting and preserving the rich oral history of the LGBTQ community across our region. Over the next year, we will be sharing the stories we’ve collected through our recently-launched series: What Happens Here.

Moneisha Harrell chats with transgender icon Marsha Botzer, nationally-recognized for her decades-long work advocating and fight for LGBTQ rights, particularly the rights of transgender individuals. Marsha and Moneisha share great observations, perspectives, and insights as to the current need for our work to happen across multiple issue areas and work together, in spite of differences for lasting change.

David Drake asks Raven E Heavy Runner, regionally-known Two Spirit activist, about his coming out and his experience understanding more deeply the the challenges and privilege of coming out at an LGBTQ person in rural or Native communities.

Raven and David – Transcript

“…because I came out of Queer Nation, one of the issues that they had was, or one of the things that they really pushed was for people to be really visible, in who they were as LGBT people. That, when people were in the closet, that it didn’t allow society to see how many LGBT people there were. So, that was a big push, and sometimes there was even people who were outing people who were, like, in really prominent positions – say, “Hey, that person there is gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer,” you know. And so… well, when I got into the Native community, I went to this all-Native university… I really had advocated, hey, you guys gotta come out, you guys gotta show that they’re, that we’re here, and one of the young Two-Spirit people said, “You know, Raven, you are really out, and you have the ability to take care of yourself physically. We don’t. You know, we do this, and people are going to beat us up. And we don’t have that ability to protect ourselves like you do.” And I had to sit back and think about that, and I said, “Who am I to impose my political belief on people, just so that my agenda can be fulfilled?” You know… and so, I finally told him, I said, “You know what? I can’t be there to protect everybody; I would love to be able to be there to protect people who are going through that process, and advocate for them to come out… All I’m gonna say is, I do believe that people need to come out on their own time… and that, in any way that I can help to facilitate that, and be able to be an advocate and to protect them, then I’ll do that.” So, I kind of stepped back a little bit and, you know, really pushing that people be, you know, out, according to my agenda, you know, that people need to come out when they feel safe to do so, because there are, you know… Just five years ago, on my reservation, a young Two-Spirit person got beaten to death. So, it’s, there’s still a big issue around safety. So, you know, I have to be mindful of that.”

Debbie and Cliff Schenk, whose son is gay, learn about the challenges of being an LGBTQ person in a rural community and share how they’ve become better allies by understanding his struggle.

"I think as a parent… when you get further into this… with a child who’s gay, in a state like Montana, you start to think about things that are the very basis of everyday life that we all live as straight people, that people in the LBGTQ community have to think about. And some of the things that I, that come to my mind right off the bat are… I remembered him and his boyfriend and I going to a movie one time, and him talking about how they had to think about whether it was okay to hold hands. And it was really really interesting because Cliff and I were just recently on a vacation, and remember when we were walking and we grabbed hands. Like, just second nature, and we, and we talked about it when we did that, we said, “Think about how we just grab each other’s hand or whatever it might be, give someone a kiss, or, you know, meet somebody at the airport and never, ever have to think about what it’s like to show that affection outwardly, and yet people in the LBGT community, in towns in Montana that’s a constant thing on their mind. You’re, you’re holding hands with someone, you approach a group of people, you have to think about whether it’s still safe to keep holding hands, or whether you should drop it.” And, I think me as a parent now, those are some of the things that are the hardest to think about, what it’s like for young people in these rural states to have to have on their minds all the time. I think… yeah, it’s that, it’s that straight privilege that we have, that none of us ever think about, those very everyday actions of loving someone, and that’s… that’s what we, that’s what we’re talking about here is, is who we love and care about. And yet those people, they have that on their mind all the time."

Eran Thompson, National Not In Our Town board member, talks with Liz Welch of the ACLU about what they learned from the Billings non-discrimination ordinance campaign.
 

Eran: And I think specifically for Billings, for our community, that has this history of, of the Not In Our Town movement, of this idea that, you know, the story is back in 1993 when skinheads and white supremacists were, you know, doing horrible things, such as, they were desecrating the Jewish cemetery; they vandalized the synagogue; they… it culminated when they threw the brick through the window of an 8-year-old Jewish boy’s home. And this community rallied. This community rallied with marches and, you know, ultimately, our paper put in their Sunday edition a full-color menorah, and everybody in Billings was asked to put those up in their windows, for the holiday season that year, and 10,000 homes in Billings had had these menorahs in solidarity with this Jewish family that had been attacked. That’s a really great legacy, you know? It became a documentary that aired nationally on PBS, and it’s now started this movement that’s, that’s ultimately around the world; you know, they show the story of Billings in the Ukraine; it’s – which is really really exciting. But in the 20 years, 25 years, that… that that’s been the case… Billings has kind of lost some of that. So I think one thing we did get out of the NDO was this idea that you can’t – it’s the only Dr. Phil quote I ever use, right? – you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge. And here in Billings, we’re, we’ve got an opportunity to kind of really see the stuff that needs to be fixed. When we’ll – when ignorance goes from just being ignorance to willful ignorance, that’s where the problem lies. And I think, in terms of the people that we’ve gotta convince in Billings, it’s those people that have willful ignorance, because they don’t see it, it doesn’t happen.

Liz: Well, that was something we heard over and over again, was, “Tell me how, you know, you’ve been discriminated against. Tell me, I – we – we need stories, and examples. Have you reported it?” And yet, there were people who went up and testified, who were like, “I won’t serve gay people!”

Eran: Right.

Liz: “I don’t want them in my business! I don’t want to do this!” But somehow those didn’t count as examples too, of how just, somebody would target someone who was, you know, LGBT.

Eran: Right.

Liz: And… and so… educating someone who doesn’t want to be educated or who doesn’t want to sit in that discomfort of their privilege. Because it’s really painful. I mean, you and I had a conversation over dinner and you busted me on something, and you, it was like, “That’s your privilege.” And you kinda gotta sit in it, because you have to own it. And that’s hard to hear as a straight, white, cisgender person. And if you don’t have that open mind to, to create that space… how do you, you know… how do you overcome that if you can’t do it through stories, and knowing people, and you know, I know the mayor said, “I’ve had a lot of gay friends, but…” which is always my favorite comment… Anytime you hear that word “but,” I think you should just realize that they’ve already put up that wall, and they’re not gonna recognize their privilege.

Pride Foundation board member Shelley Hayes and her good friend Becky Webber discuss what it felt like to testify at the City Council hearing, and the aftermath in the community after the legislation failed.

First speaker: And I walked in, and… the energy in the room was just awful. I mean, it was, half of the room was the supporters’ side of the ordinance, and the other half of the room was the opposition, and they were all dressed in white, and just the, the hate that I felt coming from that side of the room, that was in support of discrimination, that was opposing a non-discrimination ordinance in Billings, the famous Not In Our Town community… I was trembling; my hands were shaking; I had my notes on a piece of paper and I could hardly hold it still, and as you know, I do – I facilitate, I teach classes, I speak to people of all sizes of crowds all the time, and here this wasn’t even that big of a room, it wasn’t even that many people… but to know that I was gonna be speaking to that hostile environment was… really scary. And, after I said my piece, which was probably sixty seconds, through trembling lips and my paper shaking in my hand and then went and sat back down with the supportive side, I just couldn’t believe how brave everybody had been, in standing up and saying who they were and outing themselves and risking their own sense of safety, their own sense of… well, not being out, you know, that kind of daily outing that sometimes you have to do.

And… and then I said, okay, well, I’m gonna go, you know, ‘cause I was just sick to my stomach; it was just gross in there. And I went to leave, and it was downtown, and it was probably 7 or 8 at night; it wasn’t really that dark, kind of dusk, and my car was maybe a block away on, you know, one of the main streets, in front of the Montana Brew Pub, so it was, you know, a very public area, and I was terrified to walk to my car. And walking to my car with tears in my eyes, and shaking, and wishing that I would’ve asked someone to walk me to my car. [voice breaking] Because I thought, oh God, what if one of those crazy people followed me? Or if they had people monitoring who was coming in and out? And Damian was still at home, and so I’ve always really balanced trying to stand up and be out, and be brave in the community with being a single mom of two boys, and needing to protect them but also try to be a good role model that, you stand up for what’s right.

[long pause]

So… that was… awful. And just, I probably endured that for an hour, and there were people that were so brave that were there for hours and hours and hours every time the city council met. And I just don’t know how they did it. I just… I have so much admiration for them, and… and I… like I said, I did it for an hour. And then for still those city council people to say that they didn’t hear any real stories of discrimination… and that Billings wasn’t ready for it, and that our mayor, who had attended LGBT events, and said he supported our community, was the deciding vote to say Billings is not ready… I – it was just horrendous.

Second speaker: Yeah, I mean, for many, for many of my friends, identify as straight, so in the privileged community, even still were so disheartened by what happened with the nondiscrimination ordinance failing here. And, of course, appreciating the context of that, it had already passed in smaller, more conservative communities; the mayor, you know, had given the impression that he was supportive, so even if the city council was split, the assumption was that it would pass here. And so, as you said, so many people were brave in coming forward and telling their stories and identifying themselves in ways that they could then be discriminated against because of, not only because they were brave and probably would have done it anyways, but because we assumed this was going to be the catalyst to changing our community as it had been in many other communities, so when the ordinance failed because of the deciding vote by Mayor Hannell… it was just like a toxicity had spread through the community, and so many of us that were sickened by it felt really compelled to leave. And having that conversation about not wanting to be in this environment, in this energy, not wanting to raise children in this community if that’s what’s gonna be seething to the top of this community. But at the same time feeling conflicted, because if we all leave, then the community never changes, and so having, again, to make those decisions of, do you sort of let yourself marinate in this energy, hoping over time, your contribution to it changes things, or do you go, so that you can be somewhere that feels healthier and you feel like you can thrive in, and… I just think that it’s more of that kind of fragmented splitting in the choices that we hope ultimately leads to people being able to live wholeheartedly wherever they are, and in the meantime, you know, enduring the conflict.

This first set of stories explores the devastating loss that the LGBTQ community in Billings, Montana faced last August. After months of organizing by local community members, the Billings City Council voted down legislation to adopt a citywide non-discrimination ordinance—which would have protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. One year later, we want to acknowledge the bravery and courage of Billings’ residents who stood up for our community by sharing their stories.