Bozeman, Missoula stand out while others flounder in 2021 LGBTQ+ evaluation

Of the eight Montana cities evaluated, only two scored more than 58 out of 100 points.

By: - December 2, 2021 4:57 pm

A large group gathers at the Montana Capitol on March 15, 2021 during a LGBTQ rally (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

Montana received mostly negative marks from the national Human Rights Campaign’s annual evaluation of how well cities support LGBTQ+ residents — of the eight municipalities evaluated in Montana, only two received a score higher than 60 out of 100.

Missoula landed at the top of the heap and earned an “All-Star” ranking, but on the other end of the scale, Great Falls raked in just 6 out of 100 points.

Each year, the HRC releases the Municipal Equality Index that demonstrates how cities support the LGBTQ+ people who live and work there. This is the 10th year HRC has released the report, and overall, trends show increased support for LGBTQ people at the municipal level. In 2012, the first year the MEI report was released, only eight percent of cities graded received a perfect score, compared to a record 22 percent this year.

In 2021, the HRC evaluated 506 cities around the country. Of those, 110 cities received a perfect score of 100 — an MEI record — and eight received 0. The average score for all cities was 67, another MEI record.

Kevin Hamm, president of Big Sky Pride, said he was happy to see high scores in Bozeman and Missoula but recognized there is still work to do.

“We will not, and cannot, stop fighting for equity and equality for all Montanans, and this just goes to show that even in towns where we can feel safe, we aren’t done with the work,” he said.

At the same time, he said, looking at the scores for 2021 alone makes it hard to see the bigger picture.

“I’d be more concerned if we had an obvious backslide, but given that it appears we are right around where we were in 2016, things stalled with the rise of the alt-right, but we haven’t lost too much ground in Helena,” he said.

According to the HRC, more than 40 states largely driven by Republican-controlled legislatures introduced anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 2021, and a historic number of those passed.

In Montana, the GOP passed bills barring transgender women athletes from participating in K-16 women’s athletics and limiting the medical care transgender youth can receive. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was also passed by lawmakers who said it will protect Montanans’ religious rights, but critics say it gives people a free pass to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Because of the past legislative session, Andy Nelson said there is a lot Montana cities have to do to make sure municipalities are inclusive. Nelson is the executive director at the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center.

One thing cities can do, he said, is pass non-discrimination ordinances. There are no non-discrimination protections at the state level, but Whitefish, Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Helena and Bozeman have all passed them locally.

“(NDOs) are really important,” Nelson said. “They aren’t going to solve all the problems in the world, but it is a great first step because it basically shows in writing that the community is welcoming.”

Nelson, based in Missoula, was proud of the city’s score of 99 out of 100 but said there is still work to do.

“There’s a long way to go. Not just in Montana, but in our city of Missoula, where folks tend to wave that inclusive flag all the time, which is great, but we have a long way to go,” he said, adding that he would like to see more visibility of LGBTQ people in local politics.

The HRC praised municipalities for the work they have done to ensure inclusivity but said more is needed at the federal level.

“Local leaders continue to pave the way forward on equality, there remains an unacceptable patchwork of laws for LGBTQ+ people across the country,” the HRC told the Daily Montanan in an email. “This reinforces the need for the federal Equality Act that would provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people across key areas of life…”

Each town is graded on a 100 point scale divided into six categories: Non-discrimination laws, municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality. This year, the HRC evaluated eight towns in Montana: Kalispell, Butte-Silver Bow, Helena, Whitefish, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Billings.

The report also suggests that little has been done in the last year at the local level in Montana to improve life for LGBTQ people as only one town, Bozeman, who recently elected Montana’s first black openly queer city commissioner, improved its score from 2020. Nationally, 35 state averages increased in 2021.

With an average score of 48, Montana out-performed neighboring state Wyoming, which had an average score of 28 but was beat by North Dakota’s average score of 59.

Montana cities scored as follows:

Great Falls: 6/100

Great Falls scored a zero in every category except “Municipality as Employer,” for which it received six points for having transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits.

Kalispell: 18/100

Kalispell also scored six points for having transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits. The city also scored 12 points for reporting 2019 hate crime statistics to the FBI. According to the FBI crime data explorer, Kalispell reported three hate crimes in 2019, and two were labeled as anti-transgender.

Billings 20/100

In Billings, the city received two points for having a city contractor non-discrimination ordinance, five points for having a human rights commission, and one out of five points for leadership’s public position on LGBTQ+ equality. It also received 12 points for reported 2019 hate crime statistics to the FBI, when the Billings Police Department reported four hate crimes. Of the four, one targeted a person’s sexual orientation, two targeted race/ethnicity/ancestry and one targeted religion.

Butte-Silver Bow 36/100

With a total score of 36/100, Butte-Silver Bow sits in the middle of the pack of cities graded. The city received six points for its city contractor non-discrimination ordinance and 30 points for its non-discrimination laws. The non-discrimination laws category is broken down into three sections where towns can score up to 10 points for non-discrimination laws regarding employment, housing and public accommodations. Butte-Silver Bow scored 10 in each category.

Helena 58/100

Helena came close to matching Butte-Silver Bow in the non-discrimination laws category but fell short, only scoring 27 out of 30 points. However, it scored 16 points in the municipality as employer category, scoring 14 points for non-discrimination in city employment and two points for its city contractor non-discrimination ordinance. Helena received three points for its leadership’s public position on LGBTQ+ equality and scored 12 points for its reported 2019 hate crime statistics. The Helena Police Department reported two hate crimes for race and religion in 2019.

Whitefish 58/100

Whitefish tied with Helena with a score of 58. LWhitefish scored 30 points for its non-discrimination ordinance. It also scored 7 points in the municipality as an employer category for non-discrimination in city employment and a bonus point for allowing city employees to share benefits with domestic partners. And 12 points for its reported 2019 hate crime statistics in 2019, when it reported two hate crimes — one anti-white and one anti-transgender.

Bozeman 80/100

In second place was Bozeman. Like Butte-Silver Bow, Bozeman swept the non-discrimination laws category scoring 30 out of 30 points. It also received 26 points in the municipality as employer category: 14 points for non-discrimination in city employment, six points for transgender-inclusive health care benefits and six points for its city contractor non-discrimination ordinance.

The city also scored five points for its leadership’s public position on LGBTQ+ equality and two points for its pro-equality legislative or policy efforts. And 12 points for reported 2019 hate crime statistics to the FBI. The Bozeman Police Department reported one hate crime that year targeting a person’s race.

Missoula 99/100

And in first place was Missoula. 

Missoula was considered an “MEI All-Star” municipality for receiving such a high score despite being in a state that does not have a non-discrimination law that expressly includes LGBTQ+ people.

The city swept every category except for municipal services, where it only scored five out of 12 points. However, the city scored enough “flex points,” which are criteria not currently accessible to all cities, to bring its score to a 99. By issuing a statement condemning state law restricting transgender youth athletes, it received three flex points for testing limits of restrictive state law. It also received one flex point for having city employee domestic partner benefits, and two points for providing services to people living with HIV or AIDS. It was also the only city in Montana that received points for having an LGBTQ+ liaison in its police department.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.