January 29, 2023

This comment was originally published by the Daily Montanan.

Colorado Springs is not that far away. Not by mileage and not by attitude.

What happened there – God forbid – could happen here. And this isn’t just a pearl clinging to a frightened snowflake. I’ve seen it first hand.

Covering the “Drag Queen Story Hour” at ZooMontana in Billings in June, I ignored many of the heckling and some of the worst comments aimed at the LGBTQ community, thinking that the depiction of the protesters’ worst feelings at the Event tarnished all of them with the same hateful brush, and that those terrible but deeply held beliefs needed no reinforcement. It is not new to say that drag queens are pedophiles. It’s a tired talking point that continues to be evoked as scaremongering despite the overwhelming research that drag queens aren’t molesters.


The danger to Billings — and indeed all of Montana — is that we believe a Colorado-style shooting could not happen here. Or worse, we don’t think the protesters who lined the zoo’s entrance and exit during storytelling session give permission to taunt, despise, or kill those who think they can treat the LGBTQ community as citizens will.

When several hundred people line the streets of Montana’s largest city to claim that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identification is not only an excuse for pedophilia and abuse, but that they are bound as hell in the eyes of the Lord, that sends it the message to members of the LGBTQ community are less than human and therefore available and worthless. You really can’t get any other message from the signs, or from the people taking photos of the license plates and then posting them on social media, suggesting that parents who brought their children should be reported for child abuse.

Words always precede actions. They provide cover for all possible actions.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the protesters, who by a generous estimate could have numbered in the hundreds, were only a small fraction of the several thousand who turned out in support of the event.

Our state-sanctioned defamation of the LGBTQ community is also troubling as lawmakers line up in 2021 to target transgender athletes and already struggling children. To every legislator who voted to support these anti-trans laws, I sincerely ask this: What are these actions in light of the Colorado Springs shooting?

Smart politicians, including those in Montana, will work to convince you that the two things are unrelated, and a bunch of people in Helena can’t be held responsible for what’s happening two states away. But actions like a calculated nightclub shooting aimed at a specific group of people don’t just happen. It’s not a new idea.

Closer to home, we have a senator who likens homosexuality to a disease and claims it’s riskier than smoking. And Senator David Howard, R-Park City, will leave Helena at the end of this term, not because his views were anathema to voters, but because voters loved him so much that he was recalled.

Meanwhile, protesters exercising First Amendment rights held up signs outside of ZooMontana in June ahead of the Drag Queen Story Hour that read, “Groomers Walk of Shame,” in blue letters dripping with blood.

This is more than a little ominous because it suggests violence and death. And you don’t have to think twice about whose death you’re thinking.

Exaggeration scrawled on old sheets? Probably. However, we cannot become so callous as to condone or ignore these types of messages, which are no longer hidden within our community and only discussed when the “right” people are at the table. Instead, they will be exhibited and featured in our community. If we agree with these messages and signs, what other messages are we sending?

I am pleased to champion our First Amendment and welcome their protest as part of civil society discourse and discussion. I would defend their right to be there, to make a mark, whatever the message. However, exercising the First Amendment is not a vaccine against criticism or responsibility. These thoughts and ideas, written in large letters on posters, suggest deeply rooted beliefs in our communities across Montana.

We cannot become so callous as to condone or ignore these types of messages that are no longer hidden in our community.

Lawmakers preparing to return to Helena in just over a month have an opportunity to send a different message. Sexuality and gender do not have to be a party issue.

I can hope that the events of Colorado Springs will offer those same lawmakers, who have an overwhelming majority, an opportunity to reexamine the notion that perhaps our laws, our rhetoric, and our positions were too extreme and went too far.

Montana fought mightily to let the world know we are open for business. The governor has championed a campaign urging Montana kids who have dropped out of college and careers to return home.

Now we must send out the message that there is plenty of room in the state for all kinds of people, or we risk becoming a fanatic’s paradise.

Trust me, Colorado Springs is a lot closer than we’d like to believe.

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