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As judge considers lawsuit, Billings leaders split on anti-drag bill

406 Pride flag flies in the wind
Posted at 7:38 PM, Jul 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-28 15:08:11-04

BILLINGS — This week at the state capital: a lawsuit challenging House Bill 359, the recently passed bill restricting drag performances in front of minors. Billings city leaders have split opinions on that bill and whether the judge should temporarily block enforcement.

Billings Pride is a week-long annual event at the end of June but this year looked a little different.

“It was absolutely bigger than expected. Last year in 2022, we had I believe about 70 vendors sign up and there was an estimated 3 or 4,000 people there. This year we had over 110 or close to 120 vendors I think. So almost double the amount of vendors,” said Kat Elam, an organizer for Billings Pride and volunteer board member for 406 Pride, on Thursday. “We definitely were trying to, like, expand our region, involve more of the community than ever. But I think also it was part of that Montanans taking a stand."

Kat Elan
Kat Elan

This follows the passage of House Bill 359, which restricts drag performances in front of minors in public spaces or state-funded locations.

“It was very apparent through all of these different hearings that, while our legislators may not be listening, most Montanans really do support this community. And I feel like that’s really important to remember as we come up against these different laws that are really targeting the LGBTQ+ community,” Elam said. “It’s showing that the legislators are not really representing the people of Montana. They’re just representing their own agendas or like out-of-state agendas kind of thing."

That causes worry for the start of Helena’s Pride week this Sunday.

"I know that right now a few members of that community are trying to get an injunction to pass. I looked it up and I don’t think it’s passed yet. An injunction meaning that they can still go forward with their events because the city has not issued their permits I believe, because they’re waiting to see what the law says because everyone’s open for liability," Elam said. "So I really hope that they get that injunction, and even if they don’t, I really hope that they’re able to make that decision to continue forward with those things. Because it’s crucial for our community to feel seen and to feel appreciated, and to know that they’re not alone."

A number of organizations and individuals filed suit earlier this month challenging HB 359. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris heard testimonies as he considered whether to issue a temporary restraining order to block enforcement of the law.

Protest in Helena
Protest in Helena

A law that some Billings city officials don't like.

MTN News reached out to all Billings City Council members via email but only heard back from two: Danny Choriki and Pam Purinton. A spokesperson for the city provided the following written statement to MTN on behalf of the council:

“The Billings City Council will work collectively to determine what will happen if a restraining order is issued for HB 359. Until then, the City of Billings will follow policy based on State law."

Drag Queen Story Hour at ZooMontana, 2022
Drag Queen Story Hour at ZooMontana, 2022

Purinton explained she was out of town, but also provided the following written statement:

"I thought it unfortunate that the legislators had to take time with this type of legislation. That said, I applaud their efforts," the statement reads in part. "Drag shows, from what I have seen, are not appropriate for children. In my opinion, the way 'performers' are clad, is salacious, thus, in its very nature, meant to be sexually titillating. Again, to my point, not meant for children... My hope is that this judge does not get in the way of legislation, which IS the voice of the people."

Choriki, who represents Ward 3 in Billings, agreed to an interview with MTN.

"The whole reason the United States is the United States is that there are different levels of government, and different levels of the government have the opportunity to do different things," Choriki said on Thursday. "Seventy-six people up in Helena think that they know better than the rest of everybody in the entire state."

Danny Choriki
Danny Choriki

Choriki says the city should be able to make its own decisions.

“Montana is a home rule state, which means that local governments are supposed to do what they want. But the state Legislature has a long history of going against that. All the way back to not putting deposits on pop cans and bottles. There’s a lot of that that has been going on,” Choriki said. “It is all about no separation between church and state. The reality is that the people who came to America from Europe were running away from governments that were trying to impose religious standards on everybody. And that was the 100-Year War and all of that."

But Choriki said this isn't the first time the state has overstepped.

“Twelve years ago, Bozeman and Billings were ready to implement traffic cameras in order to give out tickets for people who were running lights. They literally were ready to do it. They made the announcement in December, just before the Legislature started meeting," Choriki said. "In three months, there was a bill signed by the governor saying, ‘No, you cannot do that.’ And that’s just one of a whole bunch of different examples."

It’s not a problem specific to Montana.

“This bill that we’re talking about here right now, Montana is by far not the only state that’s doing it. I believe that the one we got was pretty much a carbon copy from the one that came from Texas. So it’s a trend. And the most upsetting thing about that trend is some people are trying to use the government to force everybody else to conform to their beliefs," Choriki said. "And the really sad part about it is that it’s pretty much a minority within the country who have figured out how to take control of the system and try to impose their will on the rest of us."

406 Pride flag flies in the wind
406 Pride flag flies in the wind

It's something Elam agrees with.

"There’s always going to be a very vocal minority, and unfortunately, it is often from out of state,” Elam said.

For now, Elam says there’s a strong sense of community here in Montana that makes daily life a little easier.

“I really want folks who are part of the LGBTQ Two-Spirit + community to know that they’re not alone here. And to know that, despite the very vocal and loud minority, that they are loved, that they are held, and there is joy to be found in Montana," Elam said. "So it’s important to keep connecting to each other and to allies in the community because that’s how we survive. When legislators aren’t listening, we need to collectively find our power together and move it forward that way."