Big Sky Pride returns to Billings for weeklong celebration

Last year, Big Sky Pride was in Great Falls and the year before that in Missoula. It was last in Billings in 2008. (Big Sky Pride)

Big Sky Pride is bringing its annual LGBT celebration back to Billings for the first time in nearly a decade, and organizers say it will be the biggest one ever.

The weeklong celebration will kick off with a Community Night at Hooligan’s Sports Bar this Monday and end with a “Recovery Brunch” on Sunday, June 18, at the Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill.

In between there will be karaoke, live music, “queer comedy,” an LGBT film weekend, dance parties, a drag show, the annual parade and rally, happy hours and an interfaith service.

Big Sky Pride President Kev Hamm of Helena said there will also be a record number of family-friendly events, including a Pride Fest at North Park on Saturday the 17th, featuring games, food trucks, live entertainment, a kickball tournament, speed dating, children’s games and activities, and tables set up by sponsors, who will be talking about what they do for the community.

“I think we really took it to the next level,” said Morgan Ditto, a member of the core group of volunteers who have been working on the Billings event.

This is the 24th year of what used to be known as the Montana Pride Celebration, and the annual events have been organized by several different groups. The latest, Big Sky Pride, was founded as a nonprofit in 2014.

It used to be that host cities would have the celebration two years in a row, but in recent years it has moved around the state every year, Hamm said. Last year, Big Sky Pride was in Great Falls and the year before that in Missoula. It was last in Billings in 2008.

The tagline for this year’s celebration is “We Believe in Magic.” Billings has been known as the Magic City since its founding the last 1880s, supposedly because of how quickly and seemingly miraculously it grew.

“And in our melting pot of diverse, kind and caring community members,” Ditto said, “we think we have the opportunity to rapidly create something magical.”

“The LGBT community and its supporters have to put aside their differences quickly, open up their arms to one another, and embrace what it takes to create change in our great Big Sky state,” Ditto continued. “When that happens, we’ll see the magic happen.”

She made those remarks in an email. In an interview, she said each major city in Montana has a certain feel, or something for which it is best known. One aim of this year’s celebration, she said, is “to recognize Billings as the eclectic, diverse place that it is. Billings really is the big melting pot.”

Ditto, who now works for Kinetic Marketing and Creativeand formerly spent five years as director of the Yellowstone AIDS Project, said another goal of this year’s celebration is to bring people together to start working on other projects, including the creation of an LGBT resource center in Billings.

Supporters are also interested, she said, “in starting a conversation so we can begin breaking down the stigma that still surrounds the LGBT community.”

She said one good sign already was the outpouring of help and sponsorships from the local business community, as you can see on Big Sky Pride’s website. Fundraising has also been going well, to the point that the local group will have enough to cover expenses for the celebration and still be able to give some of the money to Big Sky Pride, Ditto said.

Hamm said organizers are expecting to have as many as 4,000 to 5,000 people in this year’s parade. About 5,000 people took part in the Missoula parade two years ago, he said, and Great Falls had about 3,500.

“That’s why we have so many venues,” Hamm said of the Billings celebration. “No one venue can hold so many people.”

Another important goal next week, Hamm said, will be to encourage people to vote and to file for office in municipal elections coming up across the state this fall. That includes Billings, where five City Council seats and the mayor’s job are up for grabs this year.

One of the best-known performers at the Big Sky Pride celebration in Billings will be singer-songwriter Danielle Egnew, who coincidentally filed on Thursday to run in the mayor’s race (see sidebar, above), bringing the number of declared candidates to four, with one other person saying he intends to file.

“It’s great to have these celebrations,” Hamm said, “but it’s also a chance to remind people that if you really want to effect change, it’s time to step up.”

Hamm said he and other members of Big Sky Pride also hope to sit down, sometime during the week of celebrations, with Mayor Tom Hanel, who is prevented by term limits from running again this year, to talk about why he cast the deciding “no” vote against Billings’ proposed nondiscrimination ordinance three years ago.

“We want to have a long talk with the mayor, and it’ll be the most comfortable talk in the world with him,” Hamm promised.

Despite the defeat of the ordinance, which would have extended civil rights protections to LGBT people, a lot of gay and transgender people are still proud to call Billings home and are committed to making the city a more welcoming place, Hamm said.

At events like the Big Sky Pride celebration, he said, “people are reminded that we exist, and that is fundamentally the goal of Pride. … When you discriminate against us, you discriminate against people you know. You hurt people you know.”

Hamm’s protestations to the contrary, it’s hard not to focus on fun if you look at all the events scheduled during the weeklong celebration.

Many of the them will be held at the Loft, a dance club at 1123 First Ave. N., described on the Big Sky Pride website as “Montana’s oldest and only LGBTQI-owned and operated club.” (There are many similar acronyms out there; this one stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex.)

The Pub Station, 2502 First Ave. N., will also be a busy place and will host the premier event of the week, a comedy show on the 16th called “Queer on Their Feet and Frank Liotti,” with an opening performance by Egnew.

Other venues include the Art House Cinema & Pub, which will be screening a series of LGBT movies Thursday-Sunday, June 15-17; American Legion Post 4, 1540 Broadwater Ave., which is hosting a “happiest hour” on the 16th and a Pride Night Dance Party on the 17th.

The Big Sky Pride Parade is set for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, in downtown Billings, followed by a rally from noon to 1 on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse and then the Pride Fest at North Park from 1 to 6 p.m.

We left out a lot. For a full schedule of events, go here. You can also keep up with events on the Big Sky Pride Facebook page.