MSUB student Daniel Mehrens-Wallace

MSUB student Daniel Mehrens-Wallace encourages other students to make a difference, MSUB Chancellor Mark Nook said in a recommendation for a student leadership award.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

Scared of coming out in what he felt was a hostile community, Daniel Mehrens-Wallace said he was drinking himself to death at 19 while he waited for someone else to address the problems he saw in the local LGBT community.

"I think I was waiting for somebody to come along and fix that for me," Mehrens-Wallace said. 

Now, the 31-year-old Montana State University Billings sophomore is sober and active, advocating for the causes he believes in.

"He has a non-anxious presence where he's able to draw people in and draw out their best leadership," said MSUB campus minister Rob Kirby, who has worked with Mehrens-Wallace on a number of outreach projects for the LGBT community.

Mehrens-Wallace has helped bring different organizations together and into the MSUB campus, Kirby said.

"He is very much a connector," Kirby said.

It's that connecting ability that recently earned Mehrens-Wallace the Newman Civic Fellows Award, which honors college students who have shown dedication to solving community challenges. 

"Daniel is an amazing student who has taken the initiative to engage and connect to MSU Billings and the community, as well as encourage other students to make a difference," MSUB Chancellor Mark Nook wrote in a recommendation for the award.

Mehrens-Wallace is studying human services with concentrations in psychology and addiction rehab. He is president of OUT — an LGBT student organization at MSUB — and has worked with TRIO — a campus support group for low-income, first-generation and disabled students. He also is chairman of the recently opened Rainbow Coffee House for LGBT teens, a project he works on with Kirby.

But it took work and support from his family to get him there.

More than a decade ago, after graduating from Billings Senior, Mehrens-Wallace began working in housekeeping and retail. The work didn't provide a sense of purpose for him.

Still concealing his sexuality from his family, Mehrens-Wallace said he was drinking every day by age 19 and using "anything I could get my hands on, primarily alcohol," in order to cope with the sense of alienation he felt.

"You kind of internalize the messages the community is sending you," Mehrens-Wallace said. "Churches and stuff like that, you feel connected, but you know you can't show up, that you have no place there." 

But his family was supportive — even before he had come out.

"I remember my parents sat me down and told me, 'You know, we know that you're gay, and if that's why you're killing yourself, you can stop now,'" he said.

Mehrens-Wallace has been sober about five years.

Then three years ago he saw the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana table at Montana Fair. It was the first time he had ever seen a group in Montana that advocated for the LGBT community. 

"I started showing up at their events and eventually they put me to work," Mehrens-Wallace said. "It just kind of kept going from there." 

One credit away from junior status, Mehrens-Wallace aims to make a career of advocacy. He found communities around Billings, including Grace United Methodist Church, where he feels free to express his faith.

Among his proudest accomplishments was securing MSUB the screening rights for the 2013 documentary "Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine."

Mehrens-Wallace credited the 2014 failure of Billings' nondiscrimination ordinance for re-energizing his activism. Opponents of the ordinance sent a "horrible message" to the LGBT community of Billings at that time, he said.

Though his work on campus can be tiring, Mehrens-Wallace said receiving the award was rejuvenating.

"It helped recharge me, I think, in a way," Mehrens-Wallace said. "Now I can't slack off, people are watching.

"It can be tough, but it's better than sitting around and doing nothing." 

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.