The Big Sky Pride parade on Saturday may not have been the longest parade ever in downtown Billings, but it may well have been the most colorful.
The parade took only about 15 minutes to pass by any given point, short enough that hundreds of parade watchers had time to walk a block south on Broadway and see the whole thing again. It was worth a second look.
Instead of marching bands, the parade had Chicks with Sticks, a group of women from Bozeman who beat in unison on plastic buckets and, later on, a big bass barrel. Instead of horses and riders, the parade had roaring motorcyclists and members of the Magic City Rollers roller derby team on roller skates.
Parade marchers and spectators wore a colorful range of costumes, wearing T-shirts and carrying signs bearing such messages as “Love Always Wins,” “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not,” “I survived testosterone poisoning,” “I’m gayer than Skittles” and “Make way for the gay.”
And there were hundreds of rainbow flags, dozens of necklaces of colorful beads, flowered leis and hair dyed in every color of the rainbow, sometimes all on the same head.
“We believe in magic” was the theme for the celebration, which was making its first appearance in Billings in nine years, but “pride,” the key word in the name of the annual celebration, seemed to be the real focus of the event—a week when people of a mind-bending number of sexual orientations were able to stand tall, unafraid and uninhibited.
“The first step was loving myself and coming out and feeling proud,” said Ella Smith of the Montana Pride Foundation at a federal courthouse rally that followed the parade.
A Helena man who asked not to be identified said that he has been attending Pride gatherings since 1995. In the early years, he said, protesters were common at the events.
That first Helena event he attended included a rally on the Capitol steps and anti-gay messages spray painted on the Capitol doors. It also included an emotionally moving moment when a pastor led a group singing of the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me,” with its inclusive message of “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”
In those days, he said, many people were afraid to attend the annual celebration, and it was difficult to attract sponsors. But Saturday’s event not only listed a page full of about 30 sponsors, including Wells Fargo and Blue Cross Blue Shield, it also drew visitors of all ages, among them many families.
“The world has changed,” he said. “America has changed.”
Asked why he comes to the annual event, the Helena man pointed to the sense of community and openness and days of fun and dancing.
“Why would you not come?” he asked.
If some churches still consider homosexuality a grave sin, other church groups expressed their support for the celebration by marching in the parade and holding up signs of their own. First Church of Billings may have had the most compelling float with a series of colorful doors labeled with the words “God’s Doors Are Open for All.” Members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Grace United Methodist Church, the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Seeker’s Harbor Faith Community, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, also marched along.
Gay support and civil rights groups abounded. Planned Parenthood, whose federal funding is endangered under current Republican majorities in Congress and the White House, seemed to draw particularly enthusiastic support from the crowd with its messages of “Proud to serve folks of all gender identities” and “Proud to care no matter what.”
The rally following the parade drew hundreds of spectators cheering speakers who voiced repeated calls for political activism. They also got a welcome from two men in drag, Lexi Tucker-Dixon, who sang the National Anthem in a resplendent gold gown, and Kola Stomey, whose short dress was threatened by a brisk breeze.
“Apologies in advance if the wind gives you all a peep show. I’m going to try to Marilyn it,” he said. Or maybe she. As Kevin Hamm, Big Sky Pride president from Helena, acknowledged, keeping pronouns straight at the annual celebration can be a challenge.
Politics may be boring and inefficient, Hamm told the crowd, but it’s still important.
“When we get involved in politics, you know what we do?” he asked. “We get marriage equality.”
The city of Billings took a series of knocks from rally speakers, mostly over the City Council’s failure to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014. Two members of the council at the time, Ken Crouch and Brent Cromley, spoke at the rally.
Crouch noted that Article 2 of the Montana Constitution says, “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights.” Section 4 of the article says, “The dignity of the human being is inviolable. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws.”
The Legislature and the Billings City Council don’t say who “all persons” includes, but they are willing to decide who is excluded, he said.
Cromley described himself as the “token old white male straight guy” at the rally and pointed that the city government lists as one of its goals to enable a “diverse, welcoming community.”
“We are a diverse community,” he said, “but I think you know that we are not as welcoming as we should be.”
But like many other speakers, Cromley appeared to be optimistic about prospects for continued improvement in guaranteeing the rights of LGBTQ citizens.
“It’s not always easy,” Cromley said, “but I think this weekend shows it can be a hell of a lot of fun.”
State Rep. Jessica Karjala said a friend of hers moved out of Billings after the nondiscrimination ordinance was defeated.
“I love my community,” she said, “but to be perfectly honest sometimes I don’t like it.”
Several current candidates for political office spoke, among them Danielle Egnew, who is running for mayor.
“We are the love and let live town,” said Egnew, who said she came out in Billings 25 years ago and who first gained notoriety with the rock band Pope Jane. Later on Saturday, at the Pride Fest in North Park, Egnew said her campaign message of “lead with love” is resonating with Billings voters. Whatever the outcome of her mayoral race, it was clear that she could have won an overwhelming victory if the election had been decided at Saturday’s rally.
“We are ready to move into the 21st century,” she told the cheering crowd. “Billings is ready to come together in beauty and in brilliance.”
State Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, an Air Force veteran, said he went from being an ally of gay rights to an activist when a niece of his, also a veteran, moved to Laurel after being turned down for housing in Billings because of her sexual orientation.
McCarthy sponsored House Bill 417 in the 2017 Legislature, a failed bill that would have added protection from discrimination based on “gender identity, or expression, sexual orientation” to Montana law.
“It’s easily the biggest ass kicking I’ve taken in the Legislature,” he said. But speakers noted that they defeated a bill that would have required transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth certificate gender.
McCarthy said that if Democrats could get a majority in the Legislature for just one session, they could move the state forward by decades.
“Billings is more than a City Council vote a couple of years ago,” he said.
Other speakers included Ta’jin Perez, running in Ward 2 for the City Council; Tyler Starkweather, a candidate in Ward 3; Amelia Marquez, a Montana State University Billings student running in House District 52 for the Legislature; and Bryce Bennett, a state representative from Missoula now seeking a state Senate seat. He described himself as the first openly gay male state representative in Montana.
“This community,” he said, referring to Big Sky Pride attendees, “has never once asked for permission for our rights. We have taken them.”
Letters also were read from Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Bullock noted that he was the first Montana governor to speak at one of the annual celebrations. Tester said he is a cosponsor of the Equality Act, which would add “sex, sexual orientation and gender identity” as protected categories against discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act.
After the rally, participants flocked to North Park, where the Pride Fest featured booths, live entertainment and food. Barjon’s Books offered such titles as “Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens” and “Raising the Transgender Child.”
Forward Montana was signing up people to vote and urging them to send letters to senators asking them to hold judicial nominees to high standards of review.
Taking a break in the shade at North Park was Monti Sebree, whose daughter, Mia, is acting president of the Gay Students Alliance at Senior High School. Sebree said her motive for supporting the celebration was simple: “I don’t want people messing around with my privacy.”
She said she was raised in Oklahoma, where racism and discrimination were still fairly common, and sees some of those same tendencies in Montana
“There are some things you still don’t talk about,” she said.
Erin Grantham, pediatric urologist at Billings Clinic, was there with her husband, Michael, and 3-year-old daughter. They moved to Billings in 2015, after the NDO ordinance was defeated, but said they were disappointed that it failed. Dr. Grantham said it was unfortunate that sort of thing is even needed in society.
“I’d like to see more of this,” she said of Saturday’s gathering.
Also there was Ben Hahn, of the recently formed Billings chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, who said the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for president galvanized interest nationwide in democratic socialism. Just in the last year, he said, DSA chapters have formed in Billings, Helena, Bozeman and Missoula, and membership nationwide has more than tripled.
A poll last year by YouGov showed that 43 percent of those under age 30 had at least a somewhat favorable view of socialism, nearly twice the percentage of those 65 or older.
Hahn called for a return to times when socialist issues were a part of serious political debate. Eugene Debs was the candidate of the Socialist Party of America five times for president, winning as much as 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912.
He said DSA was willing to support candidates of any party that backed its position on issues, but he agreed that Republicans were conspicuously absent at Saturday’s rally. However, he pointed out that a sign in the parade said that Libertarians had been backing LGBTQ+ rights since 1972, an indication that people of widely different political principles might find common ground.
Events continued through the weekend with a Lipstick and Lipsynch Drag Show, comedy with Preacher Lawson, dance parties, movie screenings and, scheduled for Sunday, an interfaith service and recovery brunch.
David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and professor who regularly contributes stories to Last Best News.