Missoula appears poised to become the first city in the state to make discriminating against gay and transgender people illegal.
"We want there to be equality," says City Councilwoman Stacy Rye.
Currently, firing someone from a job or denying housing based on sexual orientation or gender expression remains legal under Montana law. That would change if an ordinance being drafted by Rye and Councilman Dave Strohmaier passes. The new ordinance would make it a crime to deny employment, housing or services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people based on their sexuality or gender identification.
Laws already in place prohibit discriminating against people based on skin color, religious affiliation or biological sex. Such discrimination claims can be filed with the Montana Human Rights Commission. But that avenue is closed to homosexuals and transgender people, says Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy group. The Montana Human Rights Network, Forward Montana and Montana Equality Now are lobbying state and local lawmakers to grant homosexual and transgender citizens the same right.
"Coming from a statewide level, we don't have any legal recourse," Greer says.
Gay rights organizations have been pushing unsuccessfully for years to make discrimination against LGBT people illegal in the state. Greer hopes that if the Missoula ordinance passes it will serve as a model for other Montana cities.
"I think it's possible in less than five years," he says of statewide legislation.
Nationally, more than 100 cities have signed similar anti-discrimination ordinances, Greer says. Just last week, lawmakers in Caldwell, Idaho, passed such a law.
In Missoula, the ordinance could reach council chambers by spring. While the specifics must still be ironed out, Rye says any complaints would likely be handled by the city attorney's office or the Montana Human Rights Commission. In the meantime, she says the conversation itself helps the community curb intolerance.
"It's interesting to have these political discussions," she says, "because it opens peoples' eyes."