Departing Montana Human Rights Network director championed nondiscrimination ordinances

2014-06-16T07:02:00Z 2014-06-16T11:57:04Z Departing Montana Human Rights Network director championed nondiscrimination ordinancesBy KEILA SZPALLER Missoulian The Billings Gazette
June 16, 2014 7:02 am  • 

MISSOULA — Jamee Greer started his human rights career in Missoula in 2006, and since then he’s tackled social justice initiatives around Montana.

The Bozeman native has helped cities put groundbreaking nondiscrimination ordinances in place.

And he’s been called names along the way, like “Tinkerbell.”

On Tuesday, Greer, 32, packs a U-Haul truck for Portland, Oregon, and leaves behind his advocacy work with the Montana Human Rights Network for a communications and development role with the Western States Center.

The former ACLU of Montana board member launched his advocacy work in Missoula as an advocate for the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force, and worked as the lead organizer on the adoption in 2010 of the state’s first municipal nondiscrimination ordinance.

Since then, Missoula’s ordinance has paved the way for similar efforts in a growing number of Montana cities.

Here’s an adapted Q&A with Greer about his work in Montana and the future of social justice and equal rights for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Q. What drew you to work in the human rights field?

A. I think I was always raised by both my parents to be aware of what was happening in the world and taught to engage and give back, and I came out really young in Bozeman. I definitely experienced bullying and hostility, and that I think had a real influence on me later in life. It was why I was able to navigate hostile situations, like the Montana Legislature and city commissions and councils across the state.

A Missoulian, Olivia Riutta, is the reason that I got the job as a lobbyist with the Montana Human Rights Network. I had never lobbied before, but I had worked as a community organizer. That’s how I went into it, completely cold, not knowing anything.

I was drawn to the Montana Human Rights Network because it’s just an amazing organization that recognizes that there are no real victories for one group unless everyone is part of the process. They recognize that we all have different intersecting oppressions and privileges, and we must recognize those things if we’re all going to achieve liberation and achieve our goal of being treated with respect and dignity and fairness.

Q. A lot has changed in the gay rights movement around the country since you started your work – and even since Missoula adopted its ordinance in 2010 to protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment and housing. Is your work different as a result?

A. I think that we’re traveling at light speed, and yet it’s still not fast enough, especially for people who are experiencing discrimination, whether their relationship is not being recognized or they’re experiencing workplace or housing or health care discrimination. We’re not moving fast enough, still.

But none of the work that’s happened in the last few years, whether it’s the Missoula ordinance or the repeal of the sodomy law – felony prison for gay sex – has been done by just one person or just one organization. This is people doing this work for decades, and people are going to continue doing this work for decades. But it definitely is moving much faster.

Q. What would you call the biggest achievements in social justice in Montana in recent years? The biggest disappointment?

A. I don’t want to pinpoint the biggest let-down. As for the biggest achievement, there’s so many different things that affect so many people differently. I think we’ve had a lot of things that we can be proud of, whether it’s passing things like Healthy Kids Montana and making sure children in the state in lower income families are getting access to health care of passing nondiscrimination ordinances.

And sometimes, wins aren’t just policy victories but the organizing that goes on behind them. Even at the Montana Legislature the last few sessions, we have gone into the session knowing that the environment is hostile and increasingly antigay and increasingly antitrans, and we still try to move forward with a statewide nondiscrimination law because we believe in it. People drive over mountain passes, over the continental divide, to speak their piece. Sometimes they don’t even get a minute, yet they’re still there because they believe in it. I think those things are victories as well.

Q. Can you name one thing you learned in Montana that you’ll bring to your future advocacy work?

A. So much of our history together as LGBT people, whether we’re in rural or urban areas, whether we’ve been more open in the bigger cities on the coasts, or we’ve been more quiet up until recently in places like Montana, much of our history has been erased. And I think it’s incredibly important that we understand the context and the history behind what we’re doing and the work that has happened for decades before us.

Something that I’m really interested in is some way of bringing the historic knowledge to the next generation of leaders and helping people understand where we’ve been as a frame for where we’re going. It’s also important to remember so much of the LGBT movement has been dominated by people who are white, and that it’s important we recognize there are communities of color that are experiencing multiple oppressions and different oppressions that need to be lifted.

Q. What do you tell younger organizers coming in your wake?

A. The amount of education around transgender justice and transrelated discrimination has really changed.

In 2009, key partners like Olivia Riutta and Caitlin Copple formed a steering committee, and we talked about deal breakers for the nondiscrimination ordinance in Missoula. We agreed we would not move forward on an ordinance that excluded the trans community. It was No. 1 on the list, and we were incredibly proud the steering committee was a solid yes.

When we got to Bozeman, the steering committee expected it. The committee understood what this ordinance meant to the trans community. I really feel like that is a victory, and it reflects the amazing work happening by people like Bree Sutherland. She’s doing work all over the state.

Q. What’s your new job? And will you be back in Montana?

A. I’m working for Western States Center. I don’t have an elevator pitch down yet, but I’m going to be doing some communications work as well as some development work, and it’s a really important organization to me. I was first introduced to it through the Montana Human Rights Network. We’ve been longtime partners of theirs, and they’ve provided us with lots of tools and analysis on LGBT and racial justice issues.

I’m really looking forward to this work, and I’m excited to be able to talk about what rural communities are experiencing. When I go to bigger cities and people ask about my work, people call me a rural organizer. Our reality is actually different here, but we are experiencing different oppressions. The work takes nuance, it takes listening to people on the ground, and I’m excited to get to talk about that on a bigger scale.

I hope I will get back to Montana at some point.

Q. How will you look back on your work in your home state?

A. We just need to be aware that the folks here in Montana know what’s best in the movement for equality here in Montana, and we’ve come so far, but we still have a ways to go. And we’re going to get there. We’ve experienced ordinances that have either threatened to be tabled or were tabled and revived. We just have to remember we’ve been through hard times, and we are winning. We can do this.

I’m biased, but the Montana Human Rights Network, mhrn.org, is an organization that will forever have a place in my heart. I will remain a member because it’s changed so many lives. I owe so much to it, and I just hope that other people reading this become members too.

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