Out in Missoula: An Open, Visible, and Generally Accepted LGBT Community

Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By TOR HAUGAN, UM Student Journalist

In the early ’80s, people would drive from Helena to Missoula to hang out with the gay bartender at AmVets, Missoula’s now-defunct bar claimed by the LGBT community.

Those days are over. AmVets closed last fall after a failed health inspection. But although they may not have signs with rainbows on them, there are a few Missoula spots unofficially replacing the city’s unofficial gay bar. Deano’s, a casino located in a travel plaza off Airport Boulevard, hosts drag shows, and Harry David’s, a tucked-in place in a shopping center, is popular with the lesbian crowd.

In 2007, the Advocate, a national LGBT magazine, listed Missoula as one of the 10 best places in America for gays and lesbians to live. Although the town’s LGBT community has grown multifaceted over the years, it remains open, visible, and generally accepted.

AmVets was designated by many members of the LGBT community as Missoula’s “gay bar.” It shut down last year. Photo by Tor Haugan.

“It’s probably one of the better communities in the state to be gay,” said Nick Engler, a gay man who’s been a part of Missoula’s LGBT community on and off for 30 years.

Throughout his time in Missoula, Engler has served on the Western Montana Community Center’s board of directors and was on the board of PRIDE, the statewide organization that, along with several same-sex couples, brought a lawsuit against the state that resulted in the ruling that made the deviant sexual conduct law unconstitutional.

Missoula has a lot of activities and resources for the LGBT community. The Western Montana Community Center hosts a gay men’s night and group for women from all walks of life, whether or not they identify as LGBT. Missoula is also home to a chapter of PFLAG — Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — and a gay men’s chorus.

During his time in Missoula, Engler has seen the LGBT community change. It’s less cohesive than it used to be, and the transgender community has blossomed in the past five years.

Acton Seibel, a transgender man who is the content editor of Out Words, the newspaper that serves as the “voice of Montana’a LGBTIQ community,” said the local transgender community is large and vibrant for a town of Missoula’s size, and attitudes toward transgender people are generally positive.

When Loren Cameron, a transgender photographer and activist, made a presentation at the University of Montana’s Urey Lecture Hall 10 or so years ago, there were some people who were unhappy about the booking, but the lecture hall filled for the presentation, Seibel said.

Erin Scott, a local business owner and transgender woman, says Missoula’s the kind of town where she can attend Chamber of Commerce events with her wife and feel accepted. Photo by Tor Haugan.

Acceptance in Missoula isn’t universal. Seibel has been called “faggot” for being perceived as gay, an action that Seibel says is “inexcusable.” But overall, the LGBT community in Missoula is visible and open, he said.

“I just see more gay people here at events, at the grocery store, the farmers’ market, and at businesses. It’s a little more obvious here,” he said. “It doesn’t feel it’s as secretive as it was before.”

Erin Scott, a transgender woman from Virginia, moved to Missoula about a year ago. When she first passed through Missoula heading west, she picked up on a nearly inexplicable quality about the area.

“The energy is drastically different,” she said. “It’s just something you sense.”

Scott, who has worked for some of the largest engineering firms on both coasts, now owns a business, Scott Solar LLC, which brings solar energy to households and businesses in Western Montana.  She is a member of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, and she feels accepted by Missoula’s business community when she goes to the big monthly events with her wife.

“It’s very obvious that we are a couple, and we have nothing but a very warm reception,” she said.

Erin Scott talks with fellow attendees between workshop sessions at the third annual Montana LGBT Summit, which was organized by the Montana Pride Network. The daylong summit on Sept. 24 at the UM University Center was themed, “A State of Change: Building a Cohesive, Strong, Healthy Montana.” Photo by Tor Haugan.

In January, Scott began Missoula WomensNight, a social group for women of all walks of life, whether or not they are a part of the LGBT community.  The group meets at the Western Montana Community Center in downtown Missoula on the second, third, and fourth Fridays of each month. It has gotten a good response from the community: The Facebook page for Missoula WomensNight has more than 540 friends.

Despite the overall acceptance of the LGBT community in Missoula, many people have the impression that the town is not as accepting as it actually is.

“There’s this perception —  and I only say perception — that Missoula has an air of closed-mindedness,” Scott said, “but what I see is the exact opposite.”

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LGBT EVENTS

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Tor Haugan is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Montana.