Missoula’s LGBTQ+ community set to celebrate Big Sky Pride post-pandemic

Attendees of the recent Big Sky Pride event in Helena. (David Stalling/Missoula Current file)

With the start of July marking the end of Pride Month, the LGTBQ+ community of Montana has faced a unique set of challenges this past year, including the COVID-19 pandemic canceling 2020 Pride celebrations, along with several bills passed by the state targeting transgender youth.

Andy Nelson, board secretary and operations administrator of the Western Montana LGTBQ+ Community Center, originally moved to Missoula 10 years ago from his hometown of Culbertson, population 700, to attend the University of Montana.

The center opened in 1999 and has continued to serve thousands of Montana’s LGTBQ+ persons by hosting events and support groups, and doing community outreach. Nelson joined the center six years ago while in college after coming out and became more and more involved.

The center plans pride celebrations throughout June, some of which had to be dramatically changed to fit a virtual format due to the pandemic limiting social events and interaction. Last year’s pride also had a new focus in the wake of the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd murders that occurred last summer.

“Many LGTBQ+ circles wanted Pride last June specifically to focus on racial inequalities as well as LGTBQ+ activism,” said Nelson. “In our online presence and our communication we had with folks, we thought that was very important to honor the people of color within our community and put them in the forefront of the conversation then.”

This year’s Pride month occurred at the tail end of the pandemic, with increased vaccination rates among the public allowing for more events to take place. The LGTBQ+ community within Missoula was once again able to celebrate Pride together.

The largest event hosted by Imagination Brewing was “Queers and Beers” taking place two Saturdays ago, June 26th.

“It was a full day’s worth of music [with a] live band, we had a DJ, a drag show to kick off the day, and all sorts of socializing, which people haven’t done yet in particular with our community in a cohesive way,” said Nelson.

Hundreds of people from across Montana march down Last Chance Gulch in Helena during this year’s pride parade. (David Stalling/Missoula Current)

The statewide Montana Pride celebration, Big Sky Pride, will be taking place in Helena all week from July 11th to July 17th.

Kal Aksmit, who identifies as a transgender male and is a student at the University of Montana, believes that Pride events are an important tool for connection between the LGTBQ+ community and Allies.

“Pride is important because it’s taking something that I feel every day and letting people know it’s genuinely ok to feel good about yourself and your identity. It’s important for my positive outlook on the world for when Pride is happening, I feel seen.”

Nelson sees Pride as “one, a celebration, two, as a time to reflect and recognize how far we have come and three, a time to reflect and recognize how far we have to go.”

Within the past year, the Montana State Legislators has passed multiple bills that would prohibit doctors from performing gender-related surgeries on transgender youth, as well as laws that prevented transgender students from participating on sports teams with the same gender that they identify with.

In response, the Missoula City Council proposed a resolution that fully disapproved of these actions as a representation of Missoula while also devaluing the rights of transgender youth.

Askmit believes that the passing of these bills is a clear attack on transgender people and the LGTBQ+ community and not simply related to the ability to practice freedom of religion, which is an argument used in support of the bills.

“Why is this affecting anyone except our queer and transgender youth? How is it affecting anyone but them, especially with the recent bills? Because it’s not affecting the people who are sitting in our government building, that is not who it is impacting. It’s impacting a group of people who don’t have a voice within our state government,” said Aksmit.

The first public hearing of the resolution will occur next Monday, July 12 at 3 p.m