Billings City Council hears more public comments on proposed ordinance

2014-07-07T22:30:00Z 2014-08-13T06:25:08Z Billings City Council hears more public comments on proposed ordinanceBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Once again Monday, the Billings City Council heard from a long line of residents commenting on a baker’s dozen of proposed changes to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

City staff presented the City Council with a second draft of the proposed ordinance, having made changes based on recommendations from City Council members and on public testimony.

By press time Monday night, council members were still discussing possible language changes. The NDO is not on the agenda for the July 14 meeting, but it could once again be the subject of a work session, Mayor Tom Hanel said.

The changes under discussion included a section prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, where users who ordinarily “appear in the nude” may be “required to use the facilities designated for their anatomical sex, regardless of their gender identity.”

Alternate language, City Attorney Brent Brooks said, could be taken from state law: “Separate lavatory, bathing or dressing facilities based on the distinction of sex may be maintained for the purpose of modesty or privacy.”

Some people testifying took issue with the ordinance’s definition of homosexuality as “erotic activity with another of the same sex.”

But many residents, like so many before them, took their allotted 60 seconds to address the NDO as a whole.

Tina Postel said when she came to the Magic City four years ago, “I was naïve enough to think that everyone who moved to Billings was welcomed with the same open arms I was.” Sadly, she said, she’s heard from friends in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that’s not necessarily the case.

Sarah Rossi of the Helena-based Montana Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence called people’s “bathroom fears misleading, false and completely baseless.”

Nancy Pence said she’s concerned that the language in the ordinance about sexual expression “is not explicit enough.”

Ben Uselman said he believes that Billings businesses and nonprofits will “suffer dozens of lawsuits” if the ordinance is adopted.

Penny Running remembered her days working at her family’s former restaurant, the Happy Diner, “serving the public no matter their orientation. We had the most amazing customers.”

Sarah Jetter, a transgender woman from Bozeman, called it “dangerous for me to tell people I have a penis. It’s a good way to get me killed.

“I use the restroom based on the gender I express,” she said. “What would be an issue is me in a men’s room.”

In response to a question from Councilman Rich McFadden, she said, “Are you saying that the only thing that makes me different from a straight man is the clothes I wear? I am a woman, period. Transgender makes no difference.”

Clifton Berglee told the city council an NDO isn’t needed because “we’re all equal under the law.” He told the story of his then 3-year-old daughter being escorted to a women’s restroom by his father-in-law, who kept a man from entering the restroom only by threat of force.

Mae Woo called the NDO “straight out of the playbook of the Marxists and the communists.”

Jennifer Strong said that the feminist movement “emasculates men in our society” and “female is becoming an ambiguous term.”

Joel Dugan, a janitor who works for the city at Billings Logan International Airport, said he’s uncomfortable asking people if they belong in the restroom they’ve selected. He said he worries that such questions could be perceived as discrimination and believes that voters should determine the fate of the NDO.

Asked if city employees would receive NDO training if the ordinance passes, Hanel told him they probably would — and that Dugan shouldn’t worry about speaking his mind during a public meeting.

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