Dee Boyce recalls the last Pride event held in Kalispell about 10 years ago as a relatively modest affair: Roughly 30 people showed up for a gathering at the park near the old county courthouse building, and a few activities were held at a nearby campground. The goal then, as it is now, was to celebrate and honor Montana’s gay and lesbian community. But the Pride celebration set to take place this weekend in Kalispell will be a much grander event, expected to draw several hundred gay Montanans and supporters of gay rights from around the state for three days including dancing, music, a drag show and parade.
“The goal, from my perspective, is to educate people, to let them see that we’re just like everybody else,” said Boyce, the organizer of this year’s event, adding that she hopes it will also help Montana’s gay community see, “that we aren’t really as discriminated against as we think we are – a lot of it comes more from our perspective than the public’s perspective.”
Over the last five years, the annual Pride Celebration has grown into larger, more organized events in Billings and Helena under the management of the Montana Pride Network. The sheer size of this year’s Kalispell celebration, and the relative lack of controversy it has engendered in one of the more conservative pockets of the state, bears testimony to the advances the gay community has made over the last decade, across the state and the country. Earlier this month, New Hampshire became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, though just a few days earlier the California Supreme Court upheld a statewide ban on gay marriage enacted by ballot initiative.
In Montana, it remains legal for someone to be fired from their job or denied housing due to their sexual orientation. Repeated attempts in the Legislature to pass bills that would include sexual orientation in the Montana Human Rights Act, or that would amend the hate crimes statute to include gays and lesbians, have failed. Several churches in the Flathead also plan to protest the Pride parade this weekend.
Yet other churches are helping to organize the celebration. And a poll commissioned last year by the Montana Human Rights Network found that 83 percent of Montanans believe gay people should have all the legal protections and rights of anyone else. All of which indicates Montana, as with so many other political and social issues, defies easy characterization when it comes to views on gay rights.
The experiences of the Flathead Valley’s gay community mirror that complexity in many ways, with younger people enjoying increasing cultural tolerance, while older gay residents recall vividly when this was not such an easy place to grow up – particularly if you were a little different.
Tim Ottwell is unsure of how much he wants to participate in Pride weekend after what happened to him two weeks ago. He was standing outside a store in north Kalispell when a teenage boy in a passing car leaned out and yelled, “faggot” at him. The car passed by several more times, and when Ottwell’s friend, Cid Wolstein, approached the vehicle to question the teens, a shouting match erupted.
By the time police arrived, Ottwell had thrown his cup of water on one of the teens, and Wolstein saw one of the boys punch a cement pillar as hard has he could.
“That is a lot of anger for one young kid to have,” she said, recounting the incident.
Ottwell and Wolstein are both members of the Flathead Valley Alliance (FVA), the local gay and lesbian association, and they immediately called Boyce, one of the founding members of the group, along with the police. Although the situation defused quickly once authorities arrived, it has left Ottwell feeling uncertain about marching in the Pride parade: he wants to participate, but fears further verbal taunts or harassment.
“I feel like, not obligated, but that I should do something,” Ottwell said. “But after the incident I had, I’m a little afraid.”
For Wolstein, the incident underscores the prejudice against gay people that pervades parts of the valley.
“There’s a lot of bigots,” she said. “The farther you get from Kalispell, the scarier it gets.”
But for Boyce, such an incident is, in some ways, the exception that proves the rule. After 20 years in the Flathead, she said, such verbal harassment is rare and decreasing as attitudes evolve.
“A good part of that is due to people being educated as well as people getting to know me,” Boyce said. “When you get to know somebody on an individual basis, it’s harder to be prejudiced against them.”
She also attributes it to the inherent respect for privacy which so many people in this state cherish: “In Montana, it’s you do what you want and I’ll do what I want, as long as you’re not pushing me to do what you want.”
Meanwhile, the Flathead’s gay community has been growing. When Boyce and her partner, D.J. Lopez, started the FVA with three men in the early 1990s, attendance at social events was small.
“We thought we were doing really good if we had 10 people there,” Boyce said.
And though it has dwindled at times over the last 20 years, today FVA membership stands at around 60, according to Boyce, with a broader a community of about 120, taking into account FVA members’ partners. Out of that community, Boyce estimates 10 percent of the Flathead gay community are open about their sexual orientation, 10 percent are “really hidden in the closet” and the other 80 percent are somewhere in between: “They’re more likely to not be verbal about it but if you asked them they would tell you.”
Boyce observes that those who moved to the Flathead from larger cities tend be more open and forthright about their sexual orientation than gay people who grew up here. Both Ottwell, who attended Whitefish High school, and Wolstein, who attended Bigfork High, suffered verbal humiliation from classmates through their teens, as they were trying to sort out their sexual orientation.
Some things haven’t changed. Kody Lunceford, 24, said he left Flathead High when he was a student there after it grew unbearable.
“People in that school were just really, really cruel,” Lunceford said.
After finishing school in Utah, Lunceford is back in the Flathead, and has found the valley a more tolerant place as an adult.
“Since I’ve been out, I’ve never really had any problems,” Lunceford said. “I think they’re finally starting to understand that we’re everywhere.”
Lunceford met Seth Vickers at a recent FVA dance, and said he was “shocked,” since the dances tend to attract an older crowd. That’s why one of the key goals of Vickers, 24, since his recent election as president of the FVA has been to attract a younger crowd to social events.
“I just wanted it to be a place where younger people felt a little bit more comfortable,” Vickers said, “which I feel like I’ve been accomplishing.”
Vickers has also actively engaged those who have objected to the Pride Celebration, particularly the parade. At the May 18 Kalispell City Council meeting, Barry Brubaker was joined by four other people when he told council members the city should not allow the parade to proceed because it would “further erode morality and set precedence for future lasciviousness and lewd displays that other communities have experienced.”
Vickers and Boyce spoke up in support of the Pride Celebration. At the June 1 council meeting, Pastor Nathan Bemis of the Bible Baptist Church quoted Scripture and also urged the council to halt the parade.
“I want you to consider your children … because they want your children,” Bemis said. “Sodomy is a sin and you are agreeing that it’s OK.”
Vickers said he met with Brubaker, and was able to allay some of his fears that the parade would have nudity or more graphic displays, as some gay pride parades in larger cities do. Instead, Vickers said he reassured him the Kalispell Pride parade would be “a celebration of diversity and acceptance.”
In a later interview, Bemis said he and members of some other churches intend to peacefully protest the Pride Celebration. Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said he would have a strong security detail for the entire weekend, along with officers with video cameras during the parade to capture any incidents on tape.
But while there may be protesters, the Flathead’s gay community and their allies believe when they begin heading north on Main Street Saturday morning, they won’t just be walking from the courthouse to Depot Park: They will be doing their part to advance the cause of gay rights and acceptance in the valley they call home.
“I hope that this will open people’s eyes to the fact that this is more of a growing community than they thought,” Vickers said. “And if you are in the closet, there is more support in this community than you thought.”
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