By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Embracing their partners and friends, more than 200 people stood around the Oval on the University of Montana campus on Sunday night to light candles and reflect on the loss of life resulting from the largest mass shooting in the nation’s history.
For members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, the hurt ran deep. And while many were fearful of ongoing violence and hate directed toward the LGBT community, they vowed to stand up and not be “pushed back into the closet.”
“My heart broke,” said state Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “Even if you weren’t in that area (Orlando), or in that nightclub, this effects us all. They’re weren’t targeting the people in that city or that nightclub, they were targeting our community.”
Bennett, the first openly gay male legislator in the state of Montana, addressed a crowd waving colorful LGBT flags and illuminated in soft candlelight. The gathering stood around the Oval in profound silence, even as the clock struck 9 p.m.
“I hope we’ll take an opportunity to think about their families and all the things they had ahead of them in their lives,” Bennett added. “I also hope we think about the resolve we have to move forward and address hate in our community, wherever it is. It’s about pride in who we are, pride in who we love, and pride in just being able to be out in our community.”
The shooting in Orlando, which left 49 dead and at least 53 wounded, renewed the national debate over guns, Muslims in America and the nation’s tolerance for mass violence. But for members of the LGBT community, it also renewed their push for acceptance.
While they stood thousands of miles away from the Pulse Nightclub where the shooting occurred, many members of the LGBT community in Montana still felt as if they were a target. If not this weekend, they said, then perhaps some other day.
“This could happen in our community – it could happen right now,” said Kim Spurzem, director of youth programs at the National Coalition of Building Institutes in Missoula. “Our town isn’t safe. We’re going up on a legislative session, and I hate to soapbox it, but this is going to be the scariest goddamn session we’ve ever seen. We need allies in the community, we need allies to come circle our community, and we need to head to Helena to let people know.”
Spurzem took aim at the perceived intolerance expressed by some candidates running for political office in Montana. She and others present on Sunday night fear that certain Republican office seekers will move to kill nondiscrimination polices covering sexual orientation and gender identity, and work to add a so-called “bathroom bill” to state law.
Several recent governors, including Marc Racicot, Brian Schweitzer and serving Gov. Steve Bullock, each issued an executive order widening the state’s nondiscrimination provisions to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
But the Legislature, held by a GOP majority, has attempted to wind it back and restrict cities and towns from adopting policies not currently in state law. Such intolerance amplifies the events in Orlando, Spurzem believes.
“There’s scary people running for governor – there’s scary people running for every single office in Montana,” she said. “We need to show up and stand up. If we don’t, this is going to continue. It’s going to amplify and it’s going to be at our back door.”
“Our brothers and sisters were killed,” he said. “We were targeted specifically because we chose a lifestyle some people do not agree with. We won’t be shoved in the dark and not advocate because of this.”
Sunday’s crowd placed flowers and candles on the Oval and signed their thoughts to posters reading “Get Better Orlando” and “We Are One.” Given the nation’s political climate, however, some urged caution, suggesting that events in Orlando would politicize several firebrand topics, including guns, Muslims and gays.
“Actions like this come from people not understanding each other and being polarized,” said Reid Reimers of Missoula. “This issue has to do with the LGBT-plus community, but it also has to do with Muslim Americans, it has to do with gun violence, and these are all polarizing issues.
“In the political climate we’re in right now, these issues are going to be twisted in dozens and thousands of myriad ways for people’s own interests and activities,” Reimers added. “As you deal with your grief and outrage, I’d urge you to ensure that you’re not fueling that same kind of polarization. It’s not easy to be the bigger person, but unfortunately that’s our job.”