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Published: 7/5/2003

Detroit activist devotes his life to gay rights

FERNDALE, Mich. - Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of Michigan's largest gay rights group, didn't see it coming. He thought the U.S. Supreme Court might throw out Bowers vs. Hardwick, the 1986 decision that essentially said it was perfectly fine for states to make laws against adult gay behavior.

But he never imagined that this mostly conservative court would issue an opinion that would do for gay rights what Brown vs. Board did for integration in this country.

Yet on June 26, the world changed legally for every gay person in America. Justice Anthony Kennedy - not one of the court's more liberal members - wrote a majority opinion saying that gays “are entitled to respect for their private lives.” He added that “the state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

That night, some gay people shed tears of happiness. Others celebrated, and still others tried to take it all in. Mr. Montgomery got ready to go back to work. “Our first task is to get rid of all remaining sodomy legislation. You know some people think that when the Supreme Court issues an opinion, the state attorneys general get out their law books and take a little eraser ... uh-uh. Look how long it took to get integrated schools.”

Nor does he have any illusion that the nation has seen its last hate crime against gays. That's what got him into all this in the first place. Now 50, Mr. Montgomery had no intention of devoting his life to gay rights. His “coming out” was gradual, and for a long while he thought it was no big deal. During his 20s and 30s he was much more interested in a years-long battle to save Detroit's historic Orchestra Hall, and in just living. “I wasn't one of these gay people who felt oppressed,” he remembers, over coffee in an older Detroit suburb known for its gay-friendly attitude.

That was until the night in 1984 when his boyfriend, Michael, was murdered outside a bar in Detroit in what Mr. Montgomery is convinced was a hate crime. He was devastated by his death - and perhaps more so when the police and the prosecutors told him they didn't plan to waste much time on it.

“To them, it was just another gay killing,” he says with contempt. It took him some years to get himself together. Eventually, in December, 1991, he and two friends founded the Triangle Foundation, which was first formed to fight crimes against gays.

They took the name from the pink triangles the Nazis made homosexuals wear in the concentration camps. “Everybody knows what happened to the Jews, and most know about the gypsies and the mental defectives, but not about us.” This group, he felt, might be a way of giving that terrible symbol a new meaning.

Triangle gradually grew, as the gay community, not knowing where to turn, brought more issues and problems to its Detroit doorstep. Its outreach expanded, too, to the entire state. Today, Triangle has a mailing list that tops 20,000. The staff includes folks who work on everything from fund-raising to policy planning.

To some extent, it is amazing how much he has accomplished. Most politicians were at best uneasy about getting close to the gay community a dozen years ago. But since then, Mr. Montgomery has twice been honored by the Michigan Legislature for his struggles for gay rights and against crimes on the gay community.

Earlier this spring, Gov. Jennifer Granholm called him “a hero and a living legend.” He also has considerable skill with the media. He has been a commentator on network TV during several highly publicized trials, including that of the Wyoming murder of Matthew Shepard and the “Jenny Jones” case in Michigan, in which one young man killed another after he revealed for a televised audience that he had a crush on him.

He worries some that the high court's ruling, wonderful as it was, may incite further violence against gays. Mr. Montgomery blames religion for much of this. “They tell people from an early age that God hates what we do, and that we are less than human.” Mix that with people uncertain about themselves, and the combination can be lethal.

Mr. Montgomery does have one thing in common with his right-wing enemies: He agrees the court's decision means gay marriage should, and will, come, but that there are bound to be tremendous court battles ahead. He doesn't expect to live to see the day when his work is done. But not only do the Detroit police no longer refuse to solve gay murders, Mr. Montgomery is now a crime prevention adviser to the chief.

What message would he like to send non-gay America? Taking a last drag on his cigarette, he smiles “Get over us.” Or in other words, just live and let live. There are worse ideas.



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