About 100 people gathered at a rally Saturday afternoon to commit to working toward getting a nondiscrimination ordinance enacted in Billings.
“We will stand side by side with our LGBT community and we will proudly say we are one community,” said Eran Thompson, chairman of Not in Our Town, standing on a platform before an enthusiastic audience.
Thompson was one of four speakers at the two-hour Fairness for All Families Rally. The event was put on by supporters of the ordinance, in the parking lot of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings.
Besides the speeches and sign making, and a time of “honk and wave” on 24th Street West, the day also included fun for kids with face painting, kite flying, hula hooping and games.
The Billings City Council at its May 27 meeting voted 6-5 to direct staff to stop working on the NDO. At its June 2 work session, people on both sides of the issue testified.
The city council will hold a public hearing on the NDO on Monday, which will be followed by a vote on the proposal to stop work on it.
On Saturday, Thompson reminded his audience that the cause they’re fighting for is about “fairness, dignity and equality.” Thompson, who is one of the organizers for the June 20-22 national Not in Our Town conference in Billings, said attendees will gather in Billings to remember the stand that local residents took 20 years ago.
“They stood up for those who were facing hate and intolerance, with the principle that they would stand side by side and make sure those folks felt like they were a fully inclusive part of our community,” Thompson said.
People at the conference will remember that victory and other actions that it inspired later elsewhere. They’ll come here at a time when Billings is struggling with whether to approve a NDO ordinance.
That’s OK, Thompson said. Communities struggle.
“The only way we lose this is if people do nothing,” he said. “Silence is the voice of complicity. We need to continue the fight.”
Karen Stainton, of Billings, who came to the rally with her spouse, Suzie Eades, said she lived in Billings when the community stood up for its minorities.
“(When) people put up menorahs in their windows and talked about not standing for bullying, and that we were going to stand up as a community against that, that was really important to me,” Stainton said. “And that made me feel it’s going to be OK here.”
Stainton, who attended the recent city council meeting, said the vote pushed her to take a public stance on the issue. Because of what she and others she knows have personally experienced, enacting an ordinance is crucial, she said.
“We need to protect people’s rights,” Stainton said.
State Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, told the crowd that as of Saturday morning, the Montana Democratic Party recognizes and supports nondiscrimination ordinances in Montana. She recalled in 2009, when she and Sen. Margie MacDonald sat in a Judiciary Committee hearing where a bill was considered that would have banned NDOs from being passed in the state.
“Brave people came from all over the state to testify on this bill,” Driscoll said. “It was not a friendly committee.”
The Legislature did not approve the bill, she said. She urged her audience not to let anyone tell them the ordinance isn’t a local issue.
“It is a local issue,” she said. “We will pass it. We passed it in cities all over the United States.”
Marty Ortiz, a transgender woman who is on the board of Not in Our Town, quoted a brief portion of the Declaration of Independence, saying that the document guarantees citizens the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“What about housing?” she asked “Should anyone be afraid that they may be evicted from their home because of why they are and who they love? Let’s talk about employment. Should terminating or hiring someone not be a business decision based on their performance or the needs of their business?”
Ortiz said that her employer has a policy that protects her from discrimination. But if she ever looks for another job, there is no guarantee she’d find that protection again.
“We are not asking for special rights,” she said. “We are asking for equal rights, the same rights that everybody else has.”
The Rev. Eric Thorson, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Billings, said that comments he has heard that an NDO is not needed are illogical.
“The ignorance and the hate that have come out of the closet in this discussion make the case for us,” he said. “There is bigotry in Billings and we need to take responsibility to contain it, so that all citizens of this city who live here and work here can take advantage of everything this city has to offer.”
After the speakers were finished, Liz Welch, LGBT advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union which helped organize Saturday’s rally, said a lot of rumors have been going around that a lot of people are being bused in to support the ordinance.
It’s important to know, Welch said, that the NDO is strictly a Billings issue, drawing its support from local people.
Timber Venard, who is a member of the just-formed Bikers Against Child Abuse chapter in Billings, came to St. Andrew Saturday to support the NDO.
“We believe everybody should have equal rights,” Venard said. “We concentrate on doing good in the community and supporting kids.”
Anna French of Billings took some time at the rally to create signs with her 6-year-old daughter, Talia. Like Venard, she wanted to show her support for the ordinance.
“I really encourage my children to look at everyone they meet as equals,” she said.
Reporter Mike Ferguson contributed to this story.