In the summer of 2014, the city of Billings, Montana was engaged in a vigorous discussion about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The City Council was considering a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance that would extend protections to LGBT residents in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. Public hearings were held, one-to-one conversations occurred over hundreds of kitchen tables, and Montanans across the city were beginning to understand why these basic protections are so important to the city’s LGBT community.
When the vote finally came on the comprehensive ordinance, however, the decision was deadlocked, and Mayor Tom Hanel of Billings cast the deciding vote against it stating, “I needed to ask myself, is this fair to everyone, beneficial to everyone? Will it build goodwill and friendships? I can’t say for sure.” With no explicit federal or state non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, the community was left vulnerable.
Zac Linton and Kody Christensen, a same-sex couple who had been together for three years by the time of the vote, were among those in Billings disappointed. They knew how important these protections were for their friends and neighbors.
They recall their friend Debbie speaking out in favor of the ordinance before the Billings City Council, delivering testimony to support her son, who is gay.
“We’ve never faced discrimination for being gay,” Kody said. “Both of us have been lucky to have jobs where it wasn’t an issue.” Kody worked at a financial institution, with an explicit LGBT non-discrimination policy, for six years – and now, he and Zac own their own business together. They’re personal trainers in the city and are quickly expanding.
Zac and Kody know that others haven’t had it so easy. “There are a lot of people who don’t agree with LGBT people or don’t approve – but that shouldn’t keep you from getting a job or receiving a promotion,” Kody said. “It doesn’t make sense that you have to worry about who you are or who you’re in love with when you’re trying to live your life.” Kody knows that everyone, including LGBT people, just wants to be judged for their work performance and be given a fair shot – nothing more, nothing less.
It doesn’t make sense that you have to worry about who you are or who you’re in love with when you’re trying to live your life. – Kody Christensen • Billings, MT
He mentioned several friends who can’t tell co-workers or their supervisor key details of their lives – family illness, obligations with their spouse – because it could lead to the end of their employment. Constantly being on watch of what you say and how much you disclose – simply because you aren’t explicitly protected by your state from employment discrimination – is exhausting and ultimately, restrictive to your personal freedom.
Kody, who was born and raised in Montana, said that he is proud of his state for moving forward. No problems were reported for same-sex couples trying to marry once the freedom to marry took effect in November 2014. And several municipalities across the state have already passed LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections – Bozeman, Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow County, and Helena.
“We’ve progressed a lot over the last 20 years with equality,” Kody said. “We have so many jobs out here in Montana, and so many businesses that will openly accept the LGBT community. We have many gay couples in Montana who married and received nothing but support. Wedding venues, caterers, often show that they’re supportive of equality for all people.”
But despite the upward momentum, the reality is that just a small percentage of Montanans are clearly protected from anti-LGBT discrimination.
“Montana is filled with small towns,” Kody explained. “In between all of the big cities, you often would like to be able to go into a restaurant and eat and feel comfortable. You should be able to go somewhere as a gay person or trans person and do everything just like everyone else.” But in Montana, just like in more than 30 other states, once you leave one of the few cities with non-discrimination ordinances, LGBT people are left open to discrimination.
Zac and Kody aren’t going anywhere any time soon – they just expanded their fitness studio and are glad to be able to stay close to family. “It would be great to be able to raise kids in a state where all people are protected equally, but we are less than two hours away from both of our families. Our future children should not have to go without being able to be close to their grandparents just so we know that as a family we have equal protection under the law as our neighbors.”
Our future children should not have to go without being able to be close to their grandparents just so we know that as a family we have equal protection under the law as our neighbors.– Kody Christensen • Billings, MT
The men are hopeful that soon – as supporters of LGBT non-discrimination continue to speak out and people across the country come to understand why these protections are so important – all LGBT Americans will be treated fairly where they live.
“It’s not something you should have to worry about,” Kody said. “You shouldn’t have to worry about who you are in order to achieve the American dream.”