I met the kid who would quickly become my best friend in the world about 35 years ago. We were sophomores at Hellgate High School in Missoula, both products of middle-class homes. We liked to go to basketball games and see movies with our gang of friends and hang out and do all the things high school kids did in the early 1980s. We both served in student government and we were active in politics, though at that time we were on different sides of the aisle. Our grades were OK, we generally fit in, though not completely. His parents treated me like family, and mine did the same for him.
He worked full time to put himself through the University of Montana and graduated with a finance degree. Only in hindsight do I recognize how driven and disciplined he was to do well and move on. He got a job in Seattle and moved on to have a great career from there. Everything he touches is a success. When a family member needs something, he’s the first one they turn to for help and he is always, always there.
When I couldn’t muster the stuff necessary to deliver my dad’s eulogy, my friend flew to Missoula and read my words for me at Dad’s memorial. I love the guy. He’s my friend, my brother and I am so grateful that he is in my life. We communicate as often as is practical, but I miss him and wish he lived in Missoula.
He is gay.
Everything has changed since 1980. I didn’t know my best friend was gay and he didn’t know how to tell me. I know I said things out of ignorance that hurt him, but he never let on. I know he must have been uncomfortable, afraid, angry, hurt and more a lot of the time but, again, he never let on. He worked hard, got an education and got out. He went to a place that was a little ahead of us where he could be a little more comfortable. How I wish my place, our place, the city I love and serve, could have been a little more comfortable.
And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that our city is now a much more comfortable place for my friend and thousands of other citizens who are different in one way or another. We’re far from perfect, not without bigotry, hate and discrimination, but we’re out in front and it matters. We’re more comfortable. We passed a non-discrimination ordinance in 2010.
Writing a letter to Billings from Missoula is risky business. I know I don’t like it when someone from somewhere else tries to tell me how we ought to do things here. But because the city of Billings has asked for an attorney general’s opinion as to whether local government can enact ordinances protecting classes of citizens, we’re affected by what’s happening there and I’m compelled to weigh in.
Billings has been a leader in fighting hate and discrimination and can continue to do so. Folks in Missoula and elsewhere have long admired Billings’ decisive response to anti-Semitic attacks decades ago. In fact, Billings continues to be at the forefront of those efforts and an example of how communities can come together to protect, even embrace targets of discrimination, violence, hate and repression.
That’s what your proposed anti-discrimination ordinance is intended to do: carry on Billings’ legacy of being on the right side of justice for all. I urge citizens of Billings to support council members who support this ordinance. And I urge Mayor Tom Hanel and members of the council to assert the right of cities under the Montana Constitution to govern themselves.
Billings knows what’s right for Billings which, in this case, is what was right for Missoula and every city in Montana. We all deserve to be comfortable, safe, valued and protected under our big sky.
John Engen is serving his third term as the full-time mayor of Missoula.