More than 80 people packed the Billings Public Library community room Wednesday for what Liz Welch called “the beginning of a conversation” to end discrimination in Billings.
The event was called “When hate happens here,” and it was organized by Not in Our Town Billings.
Welch, an advocacy coordinator for ACLU Montana, said there’s a misnomer that discrimination doesn’t happen in Billings.
“A lot of people don’t realize what’s underlying in Billings,” she said. “Unless you’re one of the people affected by it, you don’t realize it.”
For Welch, though, the problem is real. She hears the stories every day and hopes that events like Wednesday night’s will spur a conversation within the community that will lead to positive change.
The event offered members of the Native American, African-American, LGBT, straight, Buddhist and Jewish communities the chance to share their stories of how hate and intolerance has impacted them with the goal of helping residents work together to build a more inclusive community.
A total of 10 people shared their stories, each story different but the same.
Mariah Welch, Liz Welch’s 16-year-old daughter, summed it up when she shared her story.
After school one day, Mariah said she went to a local cafe to grab some food. She said as she was leaving, she held the door open for an older man. The man, she said, having spotted a gay rights bumper sticker on her vehicle as she drove in, told her she was “going to hell.”
Then, when she got to her vehicle she realized that one of her tires had been slashed and her car had been keyed, she said.
Mariah said this happened even though she is straight, all because of a bumper sticker.
Hate doesn’t discriminate, she said, “hate is just hate. “
Ron Bernhart, a Native American who has lived in Billings for 54 years, said that more than once he has been discriminated against in Billings for his looks.
Bernhart, who doesn’t drink, said that years ago he went to a casino to meet a friend. He said that when he tried to order a coffee, the waitress refused to serve it to him because he only had his tribal identification, so he left.
Not long after, he went back to the same casino and was refused again by the same waitress, but this time she asked him to leave.
Bernhart ended up bringing the incident to court and received a settlement, he said.
Other people shared their stories about discrimination they have faced for being gay or transgender, some said it has led to their cars being vandalized. Others shared the fear they have felt walking down the street when people have yelled profanities at them.
Eran Thompson, the other event moderator and chair of NIOT, said that conversations like Wednesday’s are important because it helps to prove that discrimination does happen in Billings.
“We can do better. We can be better. We can be more inclusive,” he said.
Thompson encouraged people to write letters to the newspaper and to city council encouraging a non-discrimination ordinance.
“How can we prove (that there’s discrimination) if it’s not illegal?” he asked.