Stepping up 

Back from D.C., a gay rights activist prepares for session

Montana Human Rights Network organizer Jamee Greer stood outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, waiting to tour the East Wing, and attend a barbecue hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, when he noticed his own shoes. They were scuffed. One had a hole. It was in that moment when Greer wondered how the gay son of a German immigrant mother and a father who worked a Belgrade gravel pit ended up as a guest at the home of the nation's first black president for an LGBT leadership summit.

"For me, it's surprising that I even got the opportunity to do this," Greer says in a recent interview with the Independent. "It's incredibly humbling and honoring."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of Bobbie Zenker
  • This year’s Montana Pride Celebration parade grand marshals were, from left, Jamee Greer, state Rep. Bryce Bennett, state Sen. Christine Kaufmann and state Rep. Diane Sands.

Since 2009, the 30-year-old Greer has been at the center of nearly every LGBT equality debate in Montana. In 2010, he was instrumental in the passage of Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance. More recently, he's been rounding up signatures in Helena in an effort to persuade lawmakers there to pass similar legislation. Greer also testifies regularly in favor of gay rights at the Montana State Capitol. Much of the time when he talks, he keeps it simple, sharing his story about what it's like to grow up gay in Montana.

"I got shoved into some lockers," he says of his days at Bozeman High School. "I dealt with my share of bullying. And I think that I learned maybe some lessons from that."

He draws on those lessons in his career as a lobbyist and gay rights activist. It's not uncommon for him to hear lawmakers and others in Helena refer to gay people as pedophiles, perverts and deviants. In the midst of such rhetoric, Greer has become a target for those who don't like his politics. In February 2011, Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszloffy referenced Greer by name in a radio podcast, saying, "Those with depraved minds are trying to change the very fabric of our society so that we look more like Sodom than Montana..."

Despite such opposition, Montana's gay rights movement is making significant gains. In June, the Montana Democratic Party officially came out in support of gay marriage. The state GOP, meanwhile, removed a plank during this year's convention that called to re-criminalize homosexual acts.

Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, says those gains are due in large part to the work of Greer and a handful of others like him. "I think of Jamee as a stone in a pond and the ripples travel pretty far and wide in Montana," she says.

Zupanic knows all too well that testifying in Helena can be daunting, especially when advocating for LGBT equality.

"When you're greeted day after day with hostile reactions, being called up for questions, when the point only seems to be to try to give you a hard time, sometimes even to try and humiliate you, it is really difficult to get back up there the next day," she says.

Greer says he's happy to take the heat. He does it for others who might not be equipped to do so. "I wear it a bit like a badge of honor," he says.

He's polishing that badge for the 2013 legislative session. The next time state lawmakers convene could be significant for LGBT Montanans. A decision is expected from the state Supreme Court on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of six same-sex couples seeking partnership benefits. The court could order the legislature to craft a domestic partnership mechanism so that gay couples receive the same benefits as their heterosexual peers. It remains to be seen how Montana lawmakers would respond to such a directive.

The Montana Human Rights Network also aims to introduce a statewide non-discrimination bill, similar to Missoula's and the proposal currently under review by Helena city officials.

Greer also anticipates Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance will again be challenged. A 2011 effort by Republican Rep. Kris Hansen of Havre to toss the law and ban others like it died in the Senate.

Gay rights controversies clearly aren't limited to Montana. As the debate rages across the country, it's fitting that Vice President Biden invited Greer, along with five other LGBT rights activists from across the northwest, to the White House for recognition. In May, Biden became the highest-ranking American official to publicly state his support for gay marriage. President Barack Obama followed days later.

Greer says he's pleased with the recognition. But as he peered through the White House gates last month, he couldn't help but think of the other LGBT people who have been there before him. They include activists arrested while demanding HIV treatment funding and military veterans protesting Don't Ask Don't Tell.

"This is me standing on the shoulders of people who have been doing this work for decades," Greer says. "I wasn't there by myself."

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