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  22 November 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Beyond picketing: Building an LGBTQ-inclusive Bozeman

If you're just now returning from a month-long sojourn in the Beartooth WIlderness, you'll be surprised to learn that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is back at it again, this time in Bozeman. The group, which profits by suing counter-protesters for First Amendment violations, will be protesting Bozeman's LGBTQ tolerance for 30 minutes at Montana State University and Bozeman High School on Monday, September 9th at 2 p.m.

My first run-in with the WBC was on February 14th, 2005, when the group protested St. Paul's United Methodist Church, the Helena church I grew up attending. Our church leadership included an openly lesbian youth pastor, and our motto "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," speaks to our inclusion of LGBTQ people. (In the top photo taken in '05, the author is third from left.)

As a high schooler, I linked arms with my youth group and many members of the church, forming a visual barrier, 200-people strong between St. Paul's entrance and the paltry WBC representatives holding their "God Hates Fags" signs and trampling the American flag. Clean in my mind is the apathy on the faces of the WBC demonstrators: what they were doing was routine and uninspiring for them. I had expected them to be seething with hatred and bigotry, chanting homophobic slurs. Instead they looked normal. Like anyone you'd see in the grocery store, if fire and brimstone placards were the usual accessories to those perusing the broccoli selection.

Queer in Montana by Ellie NewellThe Bozeman progressive community, although divided in its responses to the WBC's protest, is unified in its disgust for the WBC's hate-mongering message.

Levi Barbao, a self-described alternative Bozeman community member, founded the Facebook page "The Invisible Protest" which encourages participants to go about business as usual on Monday rather than directly engage with or even acknowledge the WBC's presence in Bozeman. Barbao and I spoke this past Saturday about the origins and goals of the Invisible Protest. "It stems from a sociological and psychological perspective on how to deal with a negative stimulus," said Barbao. "The only credibility that [the WBC] have is the attention that they receive."

According to Barbao, the WBC's choice of target communities can be read as a barometer of sorts. "We have a tolerant community. That's why they're here," he said, surveying the Saturday afternoon foot traffic on Main Street. The MSU student, who has publicly identified as gay for 16 years, is optimistic about the future of queer rights. "Our rights are on the way, on local, state, and federal levels. That's not going to stop. We shouldn't waste time and resources on a group that can't even boast a membership of 40 people."

Although he was pleased that Bozeman contains a community ready to rally for LGBTQ rights at a moment's notice, Barbao disagrees with any movement that is a "direct interaction" with the WBC. Citing the church's history of funding themselves through First Amendment violation lawsuits, he stated, "Being resistant against them gives them wind in their sails. It gives them everything they want."

I pressed him, arguing that a lack of unification in the progressive community is a positive thing, as communities benefit from a diversity of opinions and culture of continual self-reflection. "We're all in this for the greater good," he acknowledged, adding that he was critical of the knee-jerk response to appear an activist. "We need to stop looking for external affirmation of our queer identities," he said, challenging the LGBTQ community to rise above the hate-based rhetoric of the WBC and spend our energy building a progressive community.

Although she plans on approaching the WBC's presence in Bozeman differently, Forward Montana Field Organizer Kiah Abbey would agree with Barbao's challenge to build a coalition of progressives here. Abbey is organizing a coalition of organizations to peacefully demonstrate for equality Monday afternoon. Forward Montana will be joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Organizing Project, Gallatin Valley Interfaith Coalition, Wildfire Collective, Associate Students of Montana State University, MSU Queer-Straight Alliance, and other MSU student groups.

The demonstration, playfully titled "I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for EQUALITY!" will consist of a peaceful rally on MSU's Centennial Lawn followed by a march to Cooper Park for an ice cream social, courtesy of Wild Joe's Coffeehouse and The Nova Cafe. Abbey was mischievous and tight-lipped about the details, but local musical group Peanut Butter Sandwiches is planning a flash mob for the rally as well.

For Abbey and her coalition, the inspiration behind the gathering stems from an "ethos of celebrating Bozeman rather than of responding to the Westboro Baptist Church." Abbey said that the show will still go on, even if the WBC decides not to show up. "This movement is bigger than just the LGBTQ community," Abbey explained, saying that her coalition promotes the rights of other marginalized groups as well.

Before targeting Bozeman High School, the WBC plans to picket in front of the Wind Arc sculpture, more commonly known as "The Noodle" on MSU's campus. The counter-protest will be held on the Centennial Mall in front of Montana Hall, a location securely out of sight of the WBC's hateful signs. Abbey chose the location to "physically and emotionally take people away from conflict with the WBC."

"We respect free speech," Abbey said in the fading light of Saturday evening, before adding that she wanted to draw on the fact that the WBC is "unilaterally despised" by people from all over the sociopolitical spectrum. "Honestly, the Westboro Baptist Church coming is a blessing in disguise because it's an incredible opportunity to excite these people who are unlikely allies and get to the point where we can have productive conversations about how we can make this community and campus more inclusive, welcoming, and safe."

Abbey's face lit up as she imagined the "new activists, those who have never been to a protest, and those who maybe have never thought about queer rights before." She hopes that many of these newly-minted actives will join in the follow-up events and conversations occurring around Bozeman as we move forward from Monday's rally.

I can still conjure up the feeling of my first big protest, linking arms and belting out "All You Need Is Love" with full 14-year-old enthusiasm. It was of community, of pride, and of progress toward measurable ends. In the intervening eight years since that grey morning, Montana has inched closer to political recognition of queer rights, although there is still much work to be done. It is my hope that the energy raised in protest against the WBC tomorrow, whether expressed in private conversations or stenciled on a banner, will be put towards working for a more peaceful and equitable world.


Looking for ways to get involved after Monday's protest?

-The Wildfire Collective will be hosting "Continuing the Conversation" on Monday, September 16th at 7pm, kicking off a six week speaking series on social justice and civic engagement.

-MSU's Sustained Dialogue training will be held October 11-13 and include discussions about how our identities are shaped.

-MSU Diversity Awareness Office will be collecting and publishing letters from professors, department heads, and deans formally in support of marginalized (and especially LGBTQ) students.

-Forward Montana is hosting Progressive Happy Hour on Wednesdays from 4-6pm at Colombo's. This week's focus will be equality, and 5% of sales will benefit Forward Montana.

Ellie Newell
interns for
The Magpie, advocates for survivors of domestic violence at HAVEN, and is proud to be a queer Montanan.

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