At 1:50 a.m. Tuesday, Alex Jeffco, 22, and Sarah Olafson, 19, finally let out a collective scream of joy. For nearly seven hours the two huddled outside the Missoula City Council Chambers holding signs in support of a contentious—and historic—anti-discrimination ordinance that aimed to provide legal recourse to individuals denied services, employment or housing based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
When the public hearing started at 7 p.m., Jeffco and Olafson were surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators on either side of Pine Street chanting for or preaching against the ordinance. But by the early morning hours, after five hours of public comment and another two hours of council debate, they were the last two people standing—or, in Jeffco's case, sitting—outside in a steady rain, waiting for the final result. When a reporter exited the building and announced the ordinance passed by a decisive 10–2 vote, making Missoula the first city in Montana to pass an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance, both did a double take, and then simply cried out.
"It was worth it," said Jeffco of steadfastly staking out her spot all night. "I'd do it for a week, a month if I had to, because it's that important to me. It's important for the whole city."
Jeffco and Olafson's passion for the issue was shared on both sides of the debate in the week's leading up to the Monday night hearing—and, as it turned out, Tuesday morning discussion. Opponents of the ordinance bombarded city government with, according to one official, approximately 750 handwritten letters, e-mails and voice mails stating their strong objection to a law they claimed put women and children at risk, unnecessarily hurt business owners, or flew in the face of their religious beliefs.
"Man, I've never gone through this big of a mailing before," said Nikki Rodgers, deputy city clerk.
Orchestrated by a recent startup group called Not My Bathroom, much of the correspondence focused on the issue of restroom access. Despite repeated explanations from council members and City Attorney Jim Nugent that no current law addresses men entering women's restrooms, or vice versa—including this ordinance—the argument stuck with critics of the proposal.
"I am just appalled that you would even consider letting 'Cross Dressers' into the women's bathrooms," wrote April Armstrong in an e-mail sent to council on March 25. "Horrified is the word...I don't really care what anyone does in their own homes, but I sure expect that families can keep their rights to privacy. It says 'women' on the door for a reason."
In a voice mail left for Mayor John Engen and council members on April 9, a Bitterroot resident took it one step further. He said he "authorized his wife to shoot any man who enters into a women's bathroom," according to city records.
- Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
- Katherine Beckley spoke in favor of the anti-discrimination ordinance during City Council’s public hearing. “I am not confused,” she said. “But sometimes other people are confused or even angered by my appearance.”
A similar fear fueled the religious argument, as pastors and many Christians said they could not support an ordinance that condones a lifestyle deemed sinful by the church.
"I am not opposed to those in the homosexual community, I am opposed to the immoral practice of homosexuality," wrote Rev. James Overbaugh in an e-mail to City Council on March 24. "I believe there is freedom for any and all persons trapped in this destructive lifestyle. You may think me cruel, un-loving, un-educated, un-kind, etc. The truth is that, because of a real love for people and a real desire to see people truly free and happy and healthy in their lives, we endeavor to promote and provide a better way for the homosexual. A way of freedom from the destruction it brings through the redeeming, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ."
While opponents to the ordinance filled the council's inbox, proponents of the proposal took to the streets. Local middle school students coordinated Missoula's inaugural Diversity Day with an evening rally at Caras Park, and then marched to the doorstep of Council Chambers before the meeting. Supporters flanked both sides of Pine Street, substantially outnumbering opponents of the ordinance, and chanted "Flush the fear! Flush the fear!" One sign read, "That do unto others thing, I meant that. —God." When a cowboy-hat wearing Bible booster started preaching from the adjacent corner, rainbow-clad supporters drowned him out with a call and response of "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!"
Considering the charged emotions entering the evening, police reported no incidents among the crowd. In fact, throughout the city on Monday night and Tuesday morning, a largely respectful and, eventually, celebratory tone overtook any lingering fear, hate or animosity. It was evident inside Council Chambers, but also in local bars and on street corners away from the official hearing.
A public house, indeed
For the first time in anyone's memory, Sean Kelly's switched every one of its televisions to MCAT and hosted a standing-room-only crowd intent on watching a City Council meeting.
"I've never seen anything like it—never," said server Kendra Burton. "We didn't plan on this, but we didn't really have a choice."