A makeshift memorial near the Club Q nightclub, site of a mass shooting, continues to grow on November 21, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Colorado Springs isn’t so far away. Not by mileage and not by attitude.
What happened there – God forbid – could happen here. And this is not just pearl clutching by some scared snowflake. I saw it firsthand.
When I covered the “Drag Queen Story Hour” at ZooMontana in Billings in June, I ignored plenty of the heckling and some of the worst comments directed at the LGBTQ community, figuring that showcasing the worst of the sentiments of protesters at the event tarred all of them with the same hateful brush, and that those horrible-but-deeply-held beliefs didn’t need amplification. It’s not novel to say that drag queens are pedophiles. It’s a tired talking point that continues to be conjured up as a scare tactic, despite the overwhelming research that drag queens are not molesters.
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The danger for Billings – and really all of Montana – is that we believe a Colorado-style shooting could not happen here. Or even worse, we don’t believe that the protesters who lined the entrance and exit to the Zoo during the story hour give license to those who might believe they can treat the LGBTQ community as citizens to be mocked, despised or killed.
If several hundred people line the streets of Montana’s largest city to assert that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identification is not only a pretext for pedophilia and abuse, but that they are also hellbound in the eyes of the Lord, then it sends the message that members of the LGBTQ community are less than human and therefore disposable and worthless. You really can’t take any other message from the signs, or the people taking pictures of the license plates and then posting them to social media, suggesting that parents who brought their kids should be turned in for child abuse.
Words always precede actions. They give cover for all sorts of action.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the protesters, which, by a generous estimate, could have been a couple of hundred, were a small fraction of the several thousand who turned out to support the event.
Our state-sanctioned vilification of the LGBTQ community is also troubling as lawmakers lined up in 2021 to target transgender athletes and already struggling children. For any lawmaker who voted to support these anti-trans bills, I ask this question sincerely: How do those actions look in the light of the Colorado Springs shooting?
Clever politicians, including ones in Montana, will work to convince you the two things aren’t related, and a bunch of people in Helena cannot be held liable for what happens two states away. But, actions like a calculated night club shooting targeting a specific group of people, don’t just happen. It’s not a new idea.
Closer to home, we have a state senator who likens homosexuality to a disease, and claims that it’s more risky than smoking. And Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, will leave Helena at the end of this term not because his views were anathema to the voters but because voters loved him so much that he termed out.
Meanwhile, protesters, exercising their First Amendment rights, held up signs outside the “Drag Queen Story Hour” outside ZooMontana in June, which said, “Groomers Walk of Shame,” the blue letters dripping with blood.
That’s more than a bit menacing because it suggests violence and death. And you don’t have to think very long whose death they’re contemplating.
Hyperbole scrawled on some old bedsheets? Probably. However, we cannot become so callous to condone or ignore these types of messages that are no longer hidden in our community, only discussed when the “right” people are around the table. Instead, they are put on display and showcased in our community. If we’re OK with those messages and signs, what other messages are we sending?
I am happy to stand up for our First Amendment, and to welcome their protest as part of the civic discourse and discussion. I would defend their right to be there, to make the signs, whatever the message. However, exercising the First Amendment is not a vaccine against criticism or responsibility. Those thoughts and ideas writ large on posters suggest deeply held beliefs in our communities across Montana.
We cannot become so callous to condone or ignore these types of messages that are no longer hidden in our community.
Lawmakers preparing to come back to Helena in just a little more than a month have an opportunity to send a different message. Sexuality and gender doesn’t have to be a partisan issue.
I can hope the events of Colorado Springs afford these same lawmakers who have a supermajority the opportunity of reconsideration: The notion that maybe our laws, our rhetoric and positions were too extreme and went too far.
Montana has struggled mightily to tell the world that we’re open for business. The governor has championed a campaign that asks Montana kids who left for college and careers to come back home.
Now, we need to send the message that there’s plenty of room in the state for all types of people, or run the risk of becoming a haven for bigots.
Trust me, Colorado Springs is a lot closer than we’d like to think.
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