HELENA — The memory of Montana’s 67th legislative session hung lightly but persistently over the 28th iteration of Big Sky Pride, which capped a week’s worth of events with a parade on downtown’s Last Chance Gulch walking mall and a rally in Anchor Park on Saturday. 

On Friday afternoon, the Montana Human Rights Network made the connection explicit with a public debriefing on what MHRN organizer Shawn Reagor called “a very rough session for many of us.” 

Reagor was referring to a raft of Republican legislation this spring, both passed and failed, aimed at restricting transgender Montanans’ access to health care, school sports, and identity documentation, and creating legal exemptions for religious expression that critics say could undermine civil rights protections.  

(Earlier that same day, two transgender plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit in Yellowstone County District Court seeking to overturn the new state law making it more difficult for a trans person to change the gender on their birth certificate. House Bill 112, which bans transgender women athletes from participating in university women’s sports, has also been challenged in court.)

Reagor’s presentation explored those bills’ wide-ranging impacts on LGBTQIA+ people, from specific policy consequences to an environment of misinformation and a sense of siege among citizens who felt their civic autonomy and basic legitimacy under attack. But Reagor’s main message was more affirming than alarming as he ticked through a series of successes achieved at a Capitol where the partisan math was stacked against them: primarily mobilizing Montanans to stand and be counted through in-person testimony, comments to legislators and community-building public events during a session in which traditional lines of communication were often crimped by COVID-19. They may not have won every battle, but they were seen, Reagor said, and they will be back. 

He reiterated the point several hours later in an introduction from the stage of a drag performance that drew thousands from Helena and around the state to the intersection of Last Chance Gulch and 6th Avenue: “We just survived the worst state Legislature in Montana probably ever. But guess what? We survived. And we’re still here.”

“You don’t have to do it alone, even though in Montana it can feel like it.” 

Pride attendee Nora Howard

Continued visibility in the face of what many attendees experienced as governmental intrusions on human rights was a large part of Big Sky Pride’s point, highlighted by Saturday’s parade, which drew what Big Sky Pride organizer Kev Hamm estimated to be more than 8,000 participants and attendees, and the post-parade rally. Speaking from Anchor Park’s flag pavilion, a line-up of politicians and candidates took turns praising the turnout and promising to take the fight for recognition into offices from the Helena City Commission to the statehouse to Congress. Moana Vercoe, speaking on behalf of her brother, state Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, said, “Our presence in all spaces is critical. Being present is making a difference.”

Republican officeholders and candidates were absent from the stage. Hamm later confirmed that the three-minute speaking slots were apportioned by his personal invitation and that no Republican politicians were invited to speak. 

“Until their platform extends to us basic humanity, they do not get to stand in front of my community and lie extolling their virtues,” Hamm said in an interview. 

Speaker Kyle Waterman, a Kalispell city councilman now running as a Democrat for a seat in the state Senate, did address Republican priorities when he referenced Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Come Home Montana campaign, which aims to lure back the state’s expatriate young adults with the promise of expanded economic opportunities.

“Too many kids are moving out because they didn’t feel welcome,” Waterman said. “If you want Montana to be open for business, welcome us home.”

A welcoming community is part of what drew Bozeman’s Nora Howard to Helena for the rally, her second Big Sky Pride, and first on the heels of a legislative session that left her feeling simultaneously targeted and unseen.

“It really sucks,” she said of being on the receiving end of Republican rhetoric around LGBTQIA+ issues. But at the same time, she said, organizing and sharing space with like-minded peers helps her bolster a sense of community that was hard to access during a pandemic that strained connections statewide. 

“You don’t have to do it alone,” she said, “even though in Montana it can feel like it.” 

Waterman and Howard’s sentiments dovetail with Hamm’s own experience as a Montanan who left his home state before returning in 2008 and taking on the task of organizing Big Sky Pride with a small group of friends and volunteers in 2014. 

“I didn’t think any kid should look at this beautiful state and think, ‘I’m not welcome here,’” he said. 

But politics alone misses the other major mission of Big Sky Pride, Hamm said. While the benefits of visibility are aimed at reminding neighbors and lawmakers that “we exist,” equally important to the community itself is the celebration.

“We have 364 other days of the year to fight. It’s exhausting, and for some people, it’s too much,” he said, referencing statistics showing that LGBTQIA+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQIA+ peers, and a quarter of transgender Montana youth report having attempted suicide. 

“Not having a celebration is in many ways deadly,” Hamm said. “It’s supposed to be a celebration.” 

If you are transgender or questioning your gender identity and want to talk to a supportive person, the number for the Trans Lifeline is 877-565-8860. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Disclosure: Kev Hamm is COO of Treasure State Internet, an in-kind supporter of Montana Free Press.

This story was updated July 19, 2021, to correct the timeline of Kev Hamm’s return to Montana and involvement with Big Sky Pride.

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Brad Tyer manages the MTFP newsroom and coordinates freelance reporters, special projects and collaborations. He edited the Missoula Independent from 2002 to 2007 and 2016 to 2018. He's also done two stints as managing editor of the Texas Observer in Austin, and has freelanced widely. Contact Brad at btyer@montanafreepress.org or 406-465-3386 ext. 1.