(Daily Montanan) Every week at the legislature, LGBTQ and transgender rights activists show up at the Capitol to testify in committee hearings and voice their disapproval of several bills they say target their freedoms and civil rights.

On Monday, they showed up en masse for the first time this session to tell lawmakers to cut it out.

“It’s important for people to know that there is a really big LGBTQ community in Montana, and that we’re out and we’re engaged. People in Montana need to know that they’re not alone,” said Shawn Reagor, program director for Equality Montana and Economic Justice at the Montana Human Rights Network.

Around 200 people from legislators to organizers to community members wrapped in rainbow flags touting pro-LGBTQ and trans rights signs showed up at the Rainbow Rally on the Capitol’s steps. The event was hosted by the Free and Fair Commission, a group of more than a dozen organizations that have partnered to fight anti-trans and anti-gay legislation in Montana.

Helena resident Bill Anderson stood in the crowd holding a sign that read “trans, non-binary and two-sprit people belong in Montana.” He said he was there to support trans and gay communities and the idea of equality, which he said he doesn’t currently think exists in Montana.

“I sort of cling to the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller,” he said, referring to the poem “First They Came.” “If they come for them and no one speaks up, who will speak up when they come for me?”

Many speakers laid into the Republican legislators carrying bills they say dangerously target LGBTQ and trans folks — communities that already face higher rates of suicide, assault and discrimination. Proponents argue the bills are necessary to protect religion, women’s sports, and minors experiencing gender dysphoria.

Demonstrators took part in protest chants meant to be heard by legislators inside the Capitol, sent a mass-text to legislators to vote no on SB215 and danced to Shania Twain while embracing being together to support one another.

House minority leader, Kim Abbott speaks outside of the Capitol building in Helena during Monday's LGBTQ rally. (Eric Seidle/Daily Montanan)
House minority leader, Kim Abbott speaks outside of the Capitol building in Helena during Monday's LGBTQ rally. (Eric Seidle/Daily Montanan)

Reagor, who has been involved in organizing and activism at the Capitol since 2013, said, he’s never seen so many “bad bills” introduced in one session. If passed, the legislation would put in place policies that would regulate transgender people’s ability to participate in sports and receive healthcare and institute a statewide Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Being LGBTQ plus in Montana means we’ve all experienced discrimination,” said Democratic Missoula Sen. Bryce Bennett, the first openly gay man elected to the Montana Legislature. “We see it all the time, and we see it every day. But being part of this incredible community also means that we are resilient.”

Amanda and Gabriel, who asked for their last names not to be used, traveled from Clancy to show support for the trans and LGBTQ community. “I think it’s great that this many people came out to support this,” Amanda said, adding that she thinks the bills directed at LGBTQ and trans folks in the legislature are “absurd.”

Gabriel called the bills “embarrassing.”

“For some reason, many Montanans and their elected officials think that it’s OK to discriminate when really I think they could be lifting LGBTQ people up instead of just making their lives harder than they already are,” Gabriel said.

S.J. Howell, executive director of Montana Women Vote, said it’s nice to see people come together but wishes it was under better circumstances.

“I wish we didn’t have to rally in opposition to the constant attacks against the queer and trans people in Montana,” Howell said. “This is not what I want to be spending my time on, nor do I think it is what the legislature should be spending their time on.”

A top legislative priority for activists is stopping Senate Bill 215, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill would give businesses and individuals legal standing to deny people service if they claim it significantly burdens their religious expression. The bill is expected to pass out of committee and be heard on the House floor this week. Reversing a 2016 stance on the bill, Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he will sign if it ends up on his desk. 

“I think this bill is consistent with our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion. It’s unfortunate that we need a bill like this given our Constitution is so clear,” Gianforte said at a Friday press conference.

Bennett said the bill would push back the progress made to protect LBGTQ and trans communities.

“Bills like SB 215 want to steal that away and destroy what we have built together,” he told the crowd.

Proponents say it is necessary to allow people to live under their religion. And opponents argue it allows religion to be used to skirt anti-discrimination laws and would be another way to discriminate against LGBTQ communities.

Demonstrators also voiced their opposition to a handful of bills impacting the state’s transgender community. House bills 112 and 427 would ban transgender women from participating in K-16 sports and prohibit transgender youth from receiving specific gender-affirming care. And, Senate Bill 280 would force trans people to obtain a court order to change their gender on their birth certificate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear HB 112 and 427 Wednesday.

Activists said it is a crucial time to mobilize as legislatures across the country have introduced a record number of anti-trans bills.

“It’s very frustrating,” Reagor said about the amount of anti-LGBTQ and trans rights bills being introduced across the country and in Montana. “It’s part of a national movement, and [Republican legislatures] feel emboldened by the makeup of the legislature and having a Republican governor.”

House majority leader Kim Abbott said Republicans bluff on the campaign trail while talking about jobs and the economy.

“Then they show up here, and they show what their real priorities are, and we have to hold them accountable for it,” she said.

Despite feeling targeted by these bills, speakers said they will stay resilient in advocating for themselves.

“I will never leave my traditional homelands. No matter how many bills you pass and how uncomfortable you make it for my fiance and me,” said Steven-Bear TwoTweeth, who identifies as a transgender indigenous man and is a Blackfeet activist with the Indigenous Organizers Collective.

Kyndra Nevin agreed and told the crowd, “every two years, we have to show up here and fight for humanity and try to explain to a bunch of suits why we’re, in fact, people.” Nevin added, “I’m not leaving. This is the only home I’ve ever known. I’m not leaving. No matter how hard they make it for me.”

In hearing after hearing, LGBTQ activists have pleaded with lawmakers to stop what they call attacks on their communities. Despite the Republican makeup of the legislature and support for the bills, Howell said there is still hope in shutting these bills down.

“We’re going to fight them all the way to the end. There is always a chance that legislature will come together and do the right thing,” Howell said. “It is challenging knowing that these bills have moved as far as they have, but we’re trying to do everything we can to kill these bills. I do think there is a shot.”