Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent doesn't often concern himself with the happenings of the Billings City Council, but that city's recent debate over a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance couldn't help but catch his attention. The council voted 6-5 on Aug. 12 to table the legislation, which, similar to a Missoula measure passed in 2010, would have made it illegal to deny housing, employment or services to people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Nugent heard about a long line of Billings residents who warned that passing such an ordinance would enable cross-dressing predators to flood bathrooms and locker rooms, where they would victimize women and children. Opponents also predicted queers would file "frivolous" lawsuits against family friendly retailers, landlords and bosses who denied them services, housing or employment. One letter stated "all peoples safety will be in jeopardy, especially young children, women, etc. Men should go in men's bathrooms and locker rooms ... As far as trangenders, there is no such thing. God either makes male or female."
All of this caught Nugent's attention because four years ago he heard the same sorts of fears in Missoula—and not a single one came true.
"It doesn't surprise me that they're using the same arguments," Nugent says, "because they're easy and convenient arguments to throw out and muddy the water."
For starters, no Montana law governs who uses what bathroom. "Who's ever heard of a law about bathrooms?" Nugent asks incredulously.
Secondly, despite warnings that the ordinance would make people who discriminate the target of legal claims, Nugent says there have been no complaints filed under Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance to date, let alone lawsuits.
Nugent remembers these arguments so well because he had to go toe-to-toe with the unfortunately named opposition group Not My Bathroom in the months after Missoula passed its ordinance, as they attempted to overturn the law in court. He rattles off a list of Montana constitutional guarantees, including those ensuring equal treatment under the law, when explaining Missoula's rationale for creating the first ordinance of its kind in the state.
"I guess I just don't believe that anyone should be discriminated against," he says.
Nugent typically likes to stay behind the scenes. In this instance, however, he openly questions Billings' decision to table a law that would help ensure all of its residents feel safe.
"It's disappointing to see when the leaders and the people who should be the leaders in a community," he says, "basically fail to lead."