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Kev Hamm of Big Sky Pride

KEV HAMM

Billings Mayor Tom Hanel recently issued a proclamation welcoming Big Sky Pride, which is in Billings today through Sunday.

Unfortunately, this proclamation is full of empty words. It never uses the words "LGBTQ", "queer", or "gay", instead relying on trite phrases like “belief in diversity”, “acceptance of all persons” and “support of civility and tolerance."

This is not to say that diversity, acceptance, and tolerance aren’t laudable values for any community. Promoting greater respect for everyone in Billings is a good thing, and we appreciate Hanel’s broad statement of “opposition to violence and hate.”

Hanel seems much more interested in the economic value of Big Sky Pride, rather than the festival’s social and political impact. He zeroes in on the expected number of tourists and emphasizes that these visitors will “stay in the city’s hotels and motels, and patronize the city’s restaurants, theaters, bars and other businesses.” The proclamation from the mayor then launches into four whereas clauses that give readers a bizarre play-by-play of the schedule for Big Sky Pride.

We find it strange that Hanel devotes so much space to reiterating the festival’s schedule and offering vague statements about diversity, when what Billings needs much more is a strong statement of support for LGBTQ people.

No matter what, talk is cheap and any leader must be measured by the actions they take. The last time Hanel had an opportunity to directly support Billings’ LGBTQ community, he stood down.

Three years ago, in August 2014, Hanel had the chance to cast the decisive vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO). This ordinance would have enacted substantive protections for the LGBTQ community, by amending Billings city code to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

At 3 am, after 8 1/2 hours of debate, Hanel broke the tie with a no vote; the policy failed, 6-5. Hanel cited no specific reason for killing the ordinance, instead saying, “Billings is just not ready.” At the close of the city council meeting, Hanel professed, “We were all created equal. If you can’t sit by someone who disagrees with you, shame on you.”

In the same meeting, Brent Cromley, one of the city council members who voted yes on the NDO, made the assertion that LGBTQ people in Billings just “want to be treated as real human beings.”

Falling back on platitudes about respect and tolerance sounds nice, but it does nothing to protect LGBTQ people across the Billings community who are exposed to threats, intimidation, and hatefulness with disturbing regularity. The Billings NDO would have protected people from discrimination in public accommodations, such as restaurants and parks. It would also have prohibited LGBTQ individuals from being discriminated against in housing and employment.

If Hanel really believes that all people are created equal, and in diversity and acceptance rather than intolerance and hate, then he should take direct action instead of issuing empty proclamations.

Mayor Hanel, Billings is still waiting for you to take the lead on substantive, city-wide nondiscrimination policy. Billings is ready — are you?

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Kev Hamm, Big Sky Pride president, wrote this opinion in collaboration with Kim Abbott of Montana Human Rights Network, Eran Thompson of the national Not In Our Town board and Liz Welch of the ACLU.

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