Guest opinion: LGBT minority's 45-year struggle for equal rights

2014-06-22T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: LGBT minority's 45-year struggle for equal rightsBy JAMES C. NELSON The Billings Gazette
June 22, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The first three words of the U.S. and Montana’s Constitutions — We the People — are words of inclusion. No natural person is excluded. We the People includes everybody; no exceptions.

Yet, in the history of our country and state those words, at one time or another, have rung hollow for many. People of color, women, persons with physical or mental disabilities, mentally ill people, Jews, Catholics, Irish, Germans and Japanese, the poor, those from the wrong class, Native Americans, those from the wrong side of town, Northerners, Southerners, union members, people of the wrong religion, atheists, the illiterate, to name just a few. Pick your poison. If you can look back at your ancestry and find no one in your tree who was not a victim of discrimination, hate, or bigotry, those in your lineage—you—have enjoyed a truly charmed existence.

Stonewall raid

And, the war to become one of We the People still continues. In America, into the 1960s, homosexuality was a criminal offense in nearly all states, including Montana; homosexuals and transgender people were considered to be deviants; they we not welcome in any public area or private business; they were fired from jobs; they lived in a closet. In that historical context, on June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, in Greenwich, New York.

Like most people who suffer the victimization and stigma of discrimination, there will come a time when they will no longer be deprived of the fundamental civil and human rights that other citizens enjoy. And it was this police raid on the Stonewall Inn that sparked a number of spontaneous riots by lesbian, gay, and transgender people. The gay rights movement was born.

Since Stonewall, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have fought hard for their civil rights. There is gathering national support acknowledging that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens have the same rights, privileges and obligations as other citizens. Nearly two dozen federal courts have held that state marriage amendments and statutes that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are unconstitutional as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Montana’s “marriage amendment,” Article XIII, Sec. 7, will, I predict, be among the next to fall.

Billings lags on NDO

Billings has, heretofore, met hate and bullying with a firm and unequivocal “Not in Our Town.” But it is a city that ironically, has yet to also enact an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — as has its sister cities, Missoula, Helena, Butte and Bozeman. It seems that to some, “Not in Our Town” means “No NDO in Billings.”

Gay rights and marriage equality is an issue only for people over 50. To our children and grandchildren gay rights is a non-issue; they have LGBT friends and classmates; they work with LGBT people; they socialize with them. Equality, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity is the new normal for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. They are going to outlive the rest of us. Ultimately, hate and bigotry are going to be buried with those who harbor it. That is the legacy of Stonewall; so, on this its 45th anniversary, remember Stonewall for that.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people rightly demand to no longer be the victims of shameful discrimination for simply being who they are. They rightly demand that they have and enjoy the equal protection of the law. Nothing more; nothing less. Equality! Full and unconditional members of We the People!

James C. Nelson, of Helena, is a retired Montana Supreme court justice.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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