Guest opinion: 'Former felons' celebrate change in MT code

2014-04-16T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: 'Former felons' celebrate change in MT codeBy KRIS HERMANNS and KEV HAMM The Billings Gazette
April 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

A year ago this week, Gov. Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 107, repealing an archaic state law that made it a felony to be in a same-sex relationship in the state of Montana, a “crime” punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and 10 years in jail.

It was a pivotal moment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Montana. Hundreds gathered in the State Capitol for the bill signing, marking an important shift in attitudes and a trend towards true equality for all.

16 years of waiting

The signing of SB 107 also served as a reminder of how far we still have to go.

In 1997, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to include same-sex relations in the state’s definition of “deviate sexual conduct” (Gryczen vs. State). Then in 2003, in Lawrence vs. Texas, the United States Supreme Court found the “homosexual conduct” law in Texas to be unconstitutional. It was a landmark ruling for the LGBT community — extending LGBT couples across the country the same rights and privacy of heterosexual couples.

Despite both rulings, however, the harmful language that criminalized Montana LGBT couples remained on the state’s books for 16 years due solely to homophobia and fear. The passage of SB 107 signaled a long-overdue turning point for the Big Sky state, finally decriminalizing same-sex couples and acknowledging that words do matter.

Today, a number of cities and counties throughout Montana have begun to enact local nondiscrimination ordinances that prohibit employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The county of Silver Bow and the cities of Helena, Butte and Missoula have all recently passed nondiscrimination ordinances. Ordinances are also being considered in Bozeman and Billings.

Losing jobs, housing

There is still much to be done before full equality is reached. It is still legal in Montana to fire somebody or deny them housing or employment because they are LGBT. While strides are made throughout the country toward marriage equality, our state has yet to enact the basic statewide legal protections that allow all Montanans to live openly and genuinely in their workplaces and communities.

Discrimination, harassment and lack of services are commonplace experiences for LGBT people here as well. Finding employment, housing and health care are perpetual challenges. As a result, LGBT people are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty.

In this ongoing fight for equality it is always important to acknowledge the victories made along the way. The Former Felons’ Ball in Helena will do just that — bringing people together to celebrate the anniversary of SB 107 and the progress we’ve all made since.

While we celebrate, however, we also remember that it was just one year ago that our state still deemed us felons. We remember that it took 16 years to remove that discriminatory, unconstitutional language.

We know that the future is bright and filled with hope. Discrimination, hate and fear have no place in Montana politics or in our communities. And as our state continues to change and grow, it will be up to all of us to come together to ensure that all Montanans are treated equally under the law.

Kev Hamm lives in Helena. Kris Hermanns of Seattle is executive director of the Pride Foundation. The Former Felons’ Ball will start at 8 p.m. on Friday at Eagles Lodge in Helena. "They wanted us locked up," said Hamm, lead organizer for the event. "We’re free. Let’s dance!"

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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