Sometime during the night on Labor Day three banners promoting the Sept. 7 Pride Parade and Festival were targeted with vandalism with one being stolen and two being slashed up. The signs were sponsored by 406 Pride, who aim to “ensure that LGBTQ + people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and throughout our community.”
Billings, the birthplace of “Not In Our Town,” now has an unwelcoming reputation of bigotry too many citizens are proud to embrace. On any online comment section mentioning LGBTQ people on local news sites, there’s always a steady stream of comments dehumanizing them as less than.
Conservative politicians and pundits have long used LGBTQ people as a pawn to maintain political control and stoke fear. In 2014, the Billings City Council had shot down a LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance — the only major city in Montana to do so. LGBTQ people wanted equal rights as according to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not “special rights” as those against the NDO lament. Since the gay marriage debate has been settled, cross hairs have been set on trans people as the next “other” to debase alongside immigrants.
When North Carolina enacted the anti-LGBTQ so-called “bathroom bill” in 2016, the Associated Press estimated the state lost $3.76 billion in revenues. Billings has no such figures, but I can attest as someone involved in the literature community, we’ve lost a lot of potential money just based on seeing how places like Missoula have a massive popular book festival people throughout the West flock to. While Billings is trying to get there with our own burgeoning book and film events, the stigma of being anti-LGBTQ gives off an aura of unwelcoming stench lingering beyond the arts community despite the many beautifully-hearted people who reside here. This dark cloud of being deemed prejudiced will always keep potential investors and visitors leery if we aim to make Billings vibrant beyond box department stores and chain restaurants.
Billings lies in a valley of what is traditionally Apsaalooke (Crow) land who called this area the “cliffs that have no pass” with our beautiful landmark sandstone Rimrocks cradling the city alongside the Yellowstone River. It’s also where the famous visionary Chief Plenty Coup was born who famously said, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal; without education you are his victim.”
Attitudes leading people to try and intimidate LGBTQ people by targeting signs representing them is guided by ignorance, and we must educate people as a weapon against it as Plenty Coup said. As a Northern Cheyenne Two Spirit/trans person in Billings who’s faced a fair share of bigotry, people often ask why I stay in a place so seemingly hostile towards LGBTQ people. I tell them I love this area enough to fight for it, and my best weapon is the knowledge that for thousands of years this land now called Montana wasn’t always this way.
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A highly respected Crow warrior named Finds Them And Kills Them lived as a Badé (Two Spirit) trans woman. For Plains Indian tribes, trans people were not only accepted but often revered for their empathetic insights and healing abilities. Crow elders said, “The Badé were a respected social group among the Crow,” and referred to them by female pronouns.
In the 1890s an Indian agent tried to force Finds Them And Kills Them to live as a man. She refused. The agent jailed the Badé, cut their hair, and forced them to do manual “man’s labor.”
The Crow were so outraged at this conversion therapy attempt, the late World War II war hero and Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow noted, “The people were so upset with this that Chief Pretty Eagle came into Crow agency and told the agent to leave the reservation. It was a tragedy, trying to change them.”
The idea there was something wrong with a respected tribal member for behaving as was always natural simply did not compute. They didn’t say, “Finds Them and Kills Them is mentally ill!” as transphobic people always proclaim today, they said it was a tragedy.
In the darkness of signs representing LGBTQ people being targeted, we must heed that light of humanity and example of how Crow tribal members who unquestioningly stood against hate fueled by bigotry in order to protect them. Those ready attitudes of acceptance and courage must be brought back to this Billings area, this land I love enough to keep fighting for our future.