Nearly three years ago, Rebecca Douglas left Seattle for Billings not knowing quite what kind of welcome she’d receive.
A 43-year-old divorced mother of a girl who’s now 9, she’d recently come out as a lesbian. She purchased Fit Body Boot Camp, 2341 Broadwater Ave., which puts about 100 clients through strenuous strength-building workouts “and addresses their mind and spirit, too,” she said.
To her surprise and delight while establishing her fitness business, Douglas enjoyed a warm welcome from the Billings business community.
“I never felt so accepted and so helped, from Day 1,” she said. “They all wanted me to be a success, and that was a surprise coming into a conservative part of the country. I had played around with hiding who I am, but it wouldn’t work. If they don’t like who I am, they don’t need to be part of my life.”
Douglas is one of dozens of residents who have lobbied the Billings City Council on an issue it has yet to take up — a proposed non-discrimination ordinance that’s scheduled for consideration this summer following the council’s budget deliberations.
Billings City Administrator Tina Volek said city staff will begin meeting soon to craft a proposed ordinance. The city council is scheduled to look at — but not vote on — the proposal during its June 16 work session.
Billings’ ordinance could be written to protect residents against discrimination in a variety of aspects, including employment, housing, accommodation and services.
“Discrimination is discrimination, whether it’s skin color, gender or whomever somebody loves,” Douglas said. “People don’t realize that I can get kicked out of my house, and that’s wrong.”
Genesis of a proposed ordinance
After a November presentation by the Billings Human Rights Commission, City Council member Jani McCall created and the City Council approved an initiative directing staff to devise a non-discrimination ordinance. McCall said she asked staff to wait until the budget process is complete before bringing the ordinance before the council.
Being a city council member gives McCall what she calls the unique opportunity and responsibility to bring forward initiatives to better the community. The proposed ordinance is one such opportunity, she said.
Had she not proposed the ordinance, two or three other council members would have, she said.
“I think it has a decent chance of passing, particularly as we move forward and look at other ordinances," she said.
State law currently bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age or disability.
“I believe that individuals should also not be discriminated against or denied their civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” McCall said.
As she’s read emails from Billings residents opposed to the proposed ordinance, McCall said there are common themes that “people choose not to recognize or don’t understand.” Among them is that a local ordinance can’t instruct local clergy which couples they must marry or which people they must consider hiring for church work.
“There are many people who are absolutely opposed to this and many people who support it,” McCall said. “This will be another opportunity to once again exercise our wonderful democracy.”
Through the city’s website, people on both sides of McCall’s initiative have delivered dozens of emails to city council members.
In one email, Brian Kenat of Billings called the proposal “a solution looking for a problem” and “a huge attack against the freedom of religion … Local government has no place in forcing individuals, property owners and business owners to compromise their moral beliefs for a choice they find abhorrent.
“If they can’t rent an apartment, they can buy a house,” Kenat wrote. “If they can’t get a job, they can start their own business. If they get denied by a business for services, they can find a competitor who will serve them. That’s freedom and being held responsible for your choices.”
Al Spencer wrote that he is disappointed that “such a group of learned elected officials would even waste their time and our money considering such an abomination against the rights and morals of the citizens of Billings. … How is it that such a small group of people be granted special privileges over and above the rights and privileges afforded all of us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? I find it repulsive that any group of people who practices perversion and moral indecency be afforded any special privileges, let alone those that would put your children or my grandchildren at risk, are even considered.”
Aaron Blakeslee, 28, of Billings, said he feels comfortable working in his current food service position, declining to name the restaurant he manages but calling it “a great company in the restaurant industry.” To him, “it doesn’t make sense not to be for” the non-discrimination ordinance “because it will protect the people of Billings.”
In previous jobs Blakeslee said the discrimination was mainly verbal.
“I kept my orientation secret, and the comments made around me by my supervisor and coworkers about gay people made me uncomfortable,” he said.
He summoned the courage to write to Mayor Tom Hanel and the 10 city council members last month.
"I wrote it after I read some of the letters opposed to the ordinance," he said. "I lost my fear, because some members of the community were speaking louder than others.”
Some of the letter-writers opposed to enacting the ordinance “like to reference the Bible, but unfortunately they’re missing the point of the Bible by referencing it for hatred,” Blakeslee said. “I mostly think it’s fear, fear of the unknown.”
“A goal in my life has been to befriend the homophobe,” he added. “I haven’t changed people’s minds, but I’ve met with people willing to open up to me. If they’re willing to talk to me, I am willing, too.”
Gays and straights together
People like Eran Thompson, the 37-year-old African-American board chair for Not In Our Town who describes himself as a “straight ally” of gays seeking protection, said he sees the looming struggle over the proposed ordinance as a civil rights battle.
“We never see any one oppression as greater than another,” he said, “because I have heard stories from people who need this protection. We already protect race and gender, but we need to add three to that: sexual orientation, gender identification and gender expression.”
Thompson, who’s been involved in the civil rights struggle since he was a teenager, said he reads the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for 30 minutes every night before going to bed “to center me.”
“We try to make sure everyone is treated with fairness and dignity,” he said. “We will work together for fairness and not be pulled into a negative place. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for people to sit through city council meetings and wade through all those emails. All we can do is stand with folks.”