Why you should care

Because pride shouldn’t depend on geography.

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In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?

Walt Donges
Billings, Montana

How did I feel? Man, I was sitting on top of the world.

We started by getting everything set up by North Park. We put a booth up, an 8-by-8 pop-up tent, some tables, chairs. We passed out literature on the Southeast Montana Prime Timers, telling people what our organization is about — we’re a group for older gay guys, focused on opportunities for those 55-and-up. It’s the only organization of its type in a five-state area: North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

We went over and lined up for pride. There were little kids in electric cars going everywhere, the dykes on bikes led us, and the chicks with sticks — they’re drummers — ended the parade. There were the bears — gay guys with a bigger build, usually hairy, furry and bearded, not slim twinks or gym bunnies — and a number of drag shows inside the bars. Now, this was not a big-city parade. About five blocks, a couple of fancy cars with dignitaries, maybe a thousand bystanders on one side of the street and a thousand on the other.

It was a beautiful day: light clouds, you could still smell the scent of Russian olive trees, hints of flowers wafting across — it’s a sweet smell, the air is fresh here. On a day like this, the air just smells sweeter, the sky looks bluer, everyone feels a little bit calmer and a little more secure in themselves, a little safer.

People were energetic, engaged, clapping, hollering and hooting. I shouted back, “Thank you!” and they would yell even louder. My daughter and granddaughter were there, they also enjoyed it. I achieved one of the goals I’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time: to show that we are just families. I don’t mean LGBT rainbow family. Just family like anybody else.

Suddenly it was me raising two children in a city that had branded me as homosexual long before I had gotten to that bridge.

It was exactly what I feel is going to help move Billings forward. What might work in Missoula doesn’t work in eastern Montana, in Billings. We’re not liberal, we don’t have that base. We’re farmers, ranchers, energy workers. Sexually, we’re not puritanical, but it’s still very conservative. People don’t like seeing bare butts and shafts, or a lot of guys gyrating, or women’s breasts. And so my experience, having raised my family here as a single gay parent, was that I got the most support when people saw me as a father. Gay or straight, you get a parent with kids and we all have the same shoes on. That’s been my angle.

I was born in Billings. Raised within 100 miles my whole life. Went to college here. When I was 20, I went to work at the Montana Power Company, the public utility at the time. I got a job working $3.20 an hour in 1976, back when minimum wage was $2.60, so I was kicking a big one there. And I had a 40-year career working at the coal plants in Colstrip, rising from entry level to a leadership position while working with engineering teams and management. The only gay man — at least the only one out.

I got married in 1986 to a woman I had been having a good time with and loved, but after a few years, alcohol started becoming an issue. She went to treatment, but she got into more stuff and divorced me.

Suddenly it was me raising two children in a city that had branded me as homosexual long before I had gotten to that bridge. The community wasn’t very supportive in Colstrip, with me being a single dad and also rumored to be gay, so I moved my kids back to Billings and commuted a half to a third of the days each month. It worked out. My son went into the Army, served five years and two wars. My daughter is raising my granddaughter. I ended up on top, and respected by the vast majority of Colstrip.

I’m 61 years old. The value of the Prime Timers is that we know older gay men of my generation, if they’re not coupled, they isolate. We’re not visible. So we try to pull guys out of their houses, give them a vision of what they can do, some political aspirations. We started on April 10, 2016, and now have 51 members. Yes, we are invisible, and we are overlooked. But I did have a younger guy say to me at the pride parade, “I know y’all don’t hear this much, but I know that I’m standing on your shoulders and everyone that came before you.”

I was at the last version of this event here, nine years ago. While it was great, it didn’t have near the turnout it had this time. Billings needs to have something like this every year, no matter how small or with how few resources. We also had youth events, for teenagers. For many of these young LGBT kids, it was the first time they could dance at a social as same-sex couples. They got to be gay for the first time in their lives. This group of young gay people becomes the next older group. We move the community forward by doing this every year, and showing them that we are the same.

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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