Montana Woman Who Faced Housing & Employment Discrimination Testifies for LGBT Non-Discrimination

Kathleen O'Donnell • Laurel, MT

Last year Kathleen O’Donnell and her wife Casey were at a family gathering in Billings, Montana, sharing stories and laughs with Kathleen’s large, supportive Irish-Catholic family. Conversation soon turned to recent attempts to pass a local LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance in the city of Billings.

“Well, this is something we really need here – because discrimination happens,” Kathleen said.

Her family looked confused – even her wife Casey didn’t seem to recall exactly what she was sharing. But Kathleen went on to tell her story of facing clear discrimination the year prior, while looking for a place to rent and call home. At an open house in town, she completed a tour and at the end asked the landlord for an application.

The landlord looked at Kathleen and asked who else would be living in the house. Kathleen explained that her fiancée Casey and their son would also be living there. Casey was at work though, and their son also didn’t accompany Kathleen to the house hunt.

“Is Casey a girl or a boy?” the landlord asked.

“A girl,” Kathleen said, reluctantly, unsure where the landlord’s train of thought was taking him.

Almost without thinking, the landlord looked Kathleen directly in the eye and explained, “I do not rent to your kind.”

Kathleen and Casey were denied the rental because they are a same-sex couple – and in Montana, there is no state law explicitly prohibiting housing discrimination (or any discrimination at all) based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

When Kathleen told the story at the family gathering, Casey explained that she had never heard the story before.

“I didn’t want my family or wife to feel that way – because it felt bad,” Kathleen said. “It was not a situation you wanted to be in.”

It felt especially hard to be denied after telling the truth. For a few years prior, Kathleen and Casey lived together in Great Falls, where they met and where Kathleen was raised, but they told their landlord at the time that they were just roommates. “We didn’t know how that would play out, really.”

With the situation in Billings, they had their answer – and it was discouraging and discriminatory, making them feel less than and also making an already challenging housing search much harder than it was for other couples.

* * * 

A few weeks after the gathering, Kathleen’s uncle Kelly McCarthy, who is serving his third term as a Montana state Representative, approached Kathleen about sharing her story more publicly – at the Montana State Capitol, as supportive testimony for comprehensive LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination legislation he wanted to introduce.

Rep. McCarthy has long been a supporter of LGBT equality. “His thought process is, if you’re a person and you pay taxes, you should get everything, just like everyone else,” Kathleen explained. 

Kathleen agreed – and in February she went to Helena to share information with lawmakers on why the state’s non-discrimination laws must be updated to ensure no one faces discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Her housing discrimination wasn’t the only story she shared that day – like many LGBT people, she has experience direct discrimination multiple times in multiple different ways, so she also shared how just over a year after being denied a lease, she was also fired from a job because of her sexual orientation.

In 2015 Kathleen worked at a car dealership in Billings, following nearly two years at a similar dealership in Laurel. She worked hard, pulling long hours and exceeding her sales goals. Shortly into her employment there, she was even promoted, serving in the new position and doing it well alongside people with many more years of experience. 

But a few days before her six-month probationary period ended, Kathleen was approached by her manager, with whom she had a good rapport. “He admitted that the new owner and his son ‘did not like me,'” Kathleen remembered. “I was to be terminated before Monday.”

When Kathleen asked why she wasn’t well-liked, her manager explained, “Because you are gay.”

Kathleen was subsequently unemployed for three months, losing income and the ability to support her family. And again, no state law protected her from this obvious and clear discrimination.

For Kathleen it felt especially bad to experience this discrimination, which was jarring given that she served in the Army National Guard starting in 2009, under the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Although she hadn’t experienced personal discrimination under DADT, it was a constantly looming threat, one that blocked Kathleen from bringing Casey to events or other occasions. But when DADT was repealed and Kathleen stopped serving in the military, she thought she had left such blatant state-sanctioned discrimination behind her. 

* * * 

Now Kathleen works alongside her wife at WellsFargo Bank, a strong supporter of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination. And working in an LGBT-friendly company with core values of fairness and respect for all employees has been vital for the past year.

It’s partially what allowed Kathleen to testify so publicly before the Montana House Judiciary Committee, an empowering experience for her.

“This was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Capitol,” Kathleen said. “And this experience really changed the way I look at things. I’m usually a quiet, more reserved person. I show up, I go to work, my wife and I live a very calm, normal life. So it was a little nerve-wracking because I hadn’t publicly spoken since high school. It was also nerve-wracking because it was my personal story, and sharing that is a vulnerability I had never really experienced.”

Still Kathleen is grateful she got the chance to share – and even though the committee ultimately did not advance the non-discrimination legislation, she knows that they took the first step toward listening and beginning to understand rampant discrimination that plagues the LGBT community.

“People always say that these stories never happen – so I chose to tell everyone mine,” she said.

At the end of the day, Kathleen loves Montana, the state where she was born and raised, and she is ready to fight to strengthen the state and make it an easier, safer, and more welcome place for LGBT people like her.

“People always say that these stories never happen – so I chose to tell everyone mine.” – Kathleen O’Donnell

“Our state is conservative, but it’s not full of bad people,” she said. “It’s full of amazing people who are welcoming and nice. Montana has always been my home. It’s where my family is, and that’s really important to me. It would be pretty amazing for LGBT non-discrimination to pass statewide here. I think it would feel like we are more part of the community, that people see us and respect us for who we are instead of blowing us off. My situation is different now, but I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t have the same protections I have at work.”

In fact, she has heard directly from many of these individuals, who reached out to her following the hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, excerpts of which appeared in the local paper and news.

I had some people reach out to me after I testified,” Kathleen said. ”  have had some people who said, ‘I was told I couldn’t rent,’ and they said that meant a lot to them that I spoke out. It’s crazy to me that people who experienced this reached out to say thank you.”

LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination is something that Kathleen knows would strengthen Montana immeasurably – it’s a vital step forward that is critical to ensuring no one faces discrimination because of who they are or who they love. But Kathleen also understands the politics behind legislation like this – and she urges lawmakers to stop thinking about those politics and consider the real-world impact. 

“This has to be less about politics and more about people,” she said. “This has to be about the people really impacted by this discrimination.”



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