KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Shortly after the deadly 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Courtney VonLindern, who is gay and non-binary, was walking through downtown Missoula in a state of dejection when they spotted a pride flag displayed in the window of the United Methodist Church, a symbol of support to the LGBTQ community during a period of intense vulnerability and pain.
“It occurred to me that there was an opportunity for churches and faith-based communities to take a supportive stance on LGBTQ issues, and to create inclusive LGBTQ spaces in theology at a really scary time,” VonLindern, who is now pursuing their Master of Divinity at the Denver-based Iliff School of Theology but was born and raised in Whitefish, recalled. “Receiving that message in that moment was really powerful — knowing that you can be queer and Christian, that these things can coexist and that God and the Bible does affirm you in your identity.”
It’s a message that’s as relevant today as it was in the immediate and devastating aftermath of the Orlando shootings, which killed 49 people and injured 53 others in what is widely viewed as the most violent attack on the LGBTQ community in U.S. history. Adding to that pain, a tide of legislative efforts to thwart or roll back LGBTQ protections followed the shooting, including in Montana, where measures to erode the rights of individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity have become a painful and perennial reminder of the state’s lingering intolerance.
For VonLindern, who didn’t come out as gay to friends and family until late in college at the University of Montana, but who grew up attending the United Methodist Church in Columbia Falls, an open and affirming congregation that preached a message of inclusivity, the targeted attacks on the LGBTQ community have been deeply unsettling.
“The congregation that I grew up with instilled a theology of God being like love, and that church and community existed to give that love to others, and it didn’t matter if that person’s identity was gay, lesbian, transgender,” VonLindern said. “I believe that God calls us to serve those people on the margins.”
For some individuals living in the margins of Montana, and especially for those who identify as gay or transgender, that spirit of affirmation and inclusion feels evasive, if not downright oppressive, in the current political climate. With Republican majorities in all three chambers of state government, several GOP lawmakers representing districts in the Flathead Valley have introduced a slate of controversial bills targeting transgender youth and LGBTQ individuals.
The proposals mirror legislative efforts underway in at least two dozen other states, and similar versions have been proposed before in Montana, only to be quashed by a Democratic governor’s veto powers. But the Republican-led Legislature is newly emboldened by the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years, Greg Gianforte, a conservative Christian who has not made clear his stance on all of the bills. As the measures quickly clear legislative hurdles in the House and Senate and advance toward his desk, advocates of LGBTQ rights are attempting to send a message of inclusivity to those who feel targeted and powerless.
“I think that legislative proposals like these make it extra scary for people to stand up for themselves right now, let alone stand up for others in our community,” Bryan Bebb, the founder of the Kalispell-based Glacier Queer Alliance, said. “I run a transgender peer support group, and for a lot of people this boils down to a basic human rights violation that is not only hurtful, but is just an enormous waste of time and money for the state. Why are we in a position of having to defend our basic rights?”
Bebb founded the Glacier Queer Alliance just over two years ago in an effort to provide resources and a safe community for queer people in Northwest Montana, and last week set up a table at KALICO Arts Center, where he invited members of the Flathead Valley community to drop by and fill out a postcard with expressions of support for LGBTQ individuals. The outpouring of compassion was overwhelming, he said.
“You are valued. You are loved. You are seen and heard,” read one postcard.
“We can work together to make the world safer for all of us,” read another.
The messages of tolerance and inclusion run counter to the rhetoric some lawmakers are voicing in Helena, including Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, a retired teacher who recently drew critical attention when he quoted Joseph Goebbels, the German Nazi politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda under Adolf Hitler, to underscore the need for legislation barring transgender athletes from participating on school sports teams.
“Joseph Goebbels said, ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,’” Regier, who carried the anti-trans athlete bill in the Senate, said. “Let me give you some contemporary lies: if you are born white, you are a racist. Another one: man can change the climate. Another one: a man can become a woman or a woman can become a man.”
The bill targeting transgender athletes and another that would prohibit doctors from providing transgender youth certain gender-related medical treatment, as well as a third that would give businesses and individuals legal grounds to deny people service if they claim it infringes upon their religious expression, are part of a trio of legislation that LGBTQ individuals say are cut-and-paste jobs from a nationwide campaign designed to erode their rights.
Two of the bills are being carried by Rep. John Fuller, a Republican representing the west side of Kalispell, who describes them as nonpartisan, even as the measures advance on mostly party-line votes with Republican support, and opposition from all Democrats and several cross-over Republicans. Fuller, a retired high school teacher and one-time coach to student athletes, said his “Save Women’s Sports Act,” or House Bill 112, which would prohibit trans women and girls from participating on women’s sports teams, is designed to protect Title IX regulations that prevent discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and intercollegiate athletics.
“Title IX revolutionized athletic opportunities for countless millions of young women and it’s now in danger of being extinguished, allowing males to compete as women in female sports that will result in women once again being shouldered aside to stand below the awards podium, and being forced to cheer the accomplishments of men while being denied the opportunity to win the accolades that they deserve,” Fuller said.
Proponents in Fuller’s camp say the bill protects the integrity of women’s sports, while his other proposal safeguards trans children from life-altering medical procedures to which they cannot fully consent. Opponents say the bills harm the wellbeing of transgender kids, strip away the rights of high-functioning individuals and their families, and target communities that already face higher rates of suicide, violence and discrimination. They say the bills also brand Montana as unwelcoming, coloring its business climate as discriminatory and deterring students from its universities and other institutions.
“The reality is that, especially for our transgender, two-spirit and non-binary youth, it is invalidating their existence, invalidating their identity and it is creating spaces in which they don’t feel safe coming out,” VonLindern said. “If they don’t have supportive parents and families, when news of this legislation comes out it can cause a lot of harm and trauma.”
Another piece of legislation is Senate Bill 215, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, introduced by yet another Flathead legislator, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila. That controversial bill would dilute the state’s anti-discrimination laws, opponents say, under the guise of promoting and protecting religious expression. In an apparent reversal of his stance from 2016, Gianforte’s administration delegated Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras to voice support for the measure, even as opponents frame it as yet another legislative barb targeting LGBTQ communities, and say it will be used to contravene Montana’s most basic human rights buffers.
The bills have prompted spirited debate on the House and Senate floors, with opponents, including families, educators and medical providers, handily overwhelming supporters, and even some Republicans voicing opposition.
Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, warned that HB 112 runs counter to the Biden administration’s policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the administration’s interpretation of Title IX, and could put schools and universities at risk of losing federal funds and facing boycotts from the NCAA. He voted against the bill even after succeeding in attaching an amendment stipulating that, if the U.S. Education Department issues a “letter of impending enforcement action” determining the law violates federal anti-discrimination law, the Montana ban will be voided.
In an admonition to his fellow Republicans on the Senate floor, Salomon said if HB 112 becomes law, Montana could lose millions of dollars in federal education funding, and noted that the Big Sky Conference has said if the bill passes, Montana colleges won’t be hosting any conference playoff games.
“If you want to take this chance and risk the future educations of hundreds of thousands of kids, that’s your choice,” Salomon said. “And if you don’t ever want to watch a home football championship game in Montana again, that’s also your choice.”
Another lawmaker, Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Helena, voiced opposition to the bill after speaking with his cisgender daughters, who he said encouraged him to consider the positive impact that high school and college athletics had on their lives.
“This bill is unnecessary and cruel, and the bottom line is that a transgender girl in high school has made a really tough decision and the least we should do is give them the opportunity to show up as their authentic selves, on the field or on the court, and enjoy the benefit of sports,” Flowers said on the Senate floor. “This bill is worse than a solution looking for a problem — this bill will become the problem.”
In the Flathead, some leaders of local faith-based communities are tracking the developments in Helena while tending to their congregations, which include LGBTQ individuals as well as their family members.
“Our congregation is affirming of all people and practices, and we have adopted the principle of open hearts, open minds and open doors,” Rev. Jared Stine, who presides over a congregation of 100 at the Columbia Falls United Methodist Church, said. “We have parents, grandparents, and siblings of lesbian folks, gay folks, transgender and non-binary individuals, so this congregation has been on a journey toward becoming affirming and inclusive as they experience their loved ones coming out, and as they learn to own their true selves.”
Similarly, Pastor Morie Adams-Griffin, who presides over the Whitefish United Methodist Church, said his congregants have been on a path toward reconciling their faith with biblical discrepancies over acceptance and inclusivity, particularly as Montana lawmakers introduce legislation limiting the rights of individuals in the name of God.
“Through honest biblical study, we know that God was all about justice, so when we think about the LGBTQ community and people lashing out to infringe upon their rights when they are not harming anyone by being who they truly are, we need to consider justice,” Adams-Griffin said. “This is a group of people who did not choose this life, it chose them, by their genetics and their evolution and by God creating them. So to have people in the name of their Christian faith seek to harm them and deny them equal opportunities and cause more suffering in their lives, it is just unfathomable for me as a Christian person.”
Cindy Hoard, of Whitefish, said she’s actively petitioned state legislators to stop introducing measures that target LGBTQ individuals, using the story of her own experience as the mother of a gay son and a strong believer in the Christian faith to promote inclusivity.
“I raised my children in Great Falls, and when my son came out as gay, he was fortunate enough to have the support of our church, and that inclusive nature and progressiveness gave him a solid foundation to be himself and celebrate his life,” Hoard said. “Unfortunately, I saw other children in his high school that didn’t have that support, either from their church or from their family, and sadly I fear for those young people, because our society is pushing them to desperate measures. Suicide among these young people is something that worries me deeply. And to me it is unconscionable that someone can use Christianity as a club to disenfranchise people.”
Last year, VonLindern stepped into the role of Designer for NextGen and Inclusiveness Ministries with the Mountain Sky Conference Office and Young People’s Ministries in Missoula. In that role, they provide support and education on issues of inclusion, teen suicide, gender identity and sexual orientation. In addition, they will work to provide supportive spaces for parents and loved ones of LGBTQ youth.
“As our younger generations are more racially, sexually and gender diverse than generations before, it is imperative that we as a beloved community learn how to be truly welcoming of those with different identities in order to remain relevant and sustainable in our ever-changing world,” they said. “It is my hope to help bring others into a true understanding of what it means to be authentically inclusive of those who are often left out in our churches and society.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call (800) 237-8255.
Trans Lifeline’s Hotline is a peer support phone service run by trans people for trans and questioning peers. Call (877) 565-8860 in the United States and (877) 330-6366 in Canada.