On Sunday June 11, 1995, about 500 people marched through downtown Helena, some toting bright signs or banners, others walking arm in arm with a loved one – women with women, men with men.
It wasn’t the first gay-pride parade in Montana, but it was the capital city’s first. Many of those involved wore their hearts on their sleeves and, even though many of them were afraid, they smiled – and smiled big. But not everyone was happy about the event.
The Independent Record reported that the city had received a few complaints prior to the event, many of them arguing that the parade was against Montana law.
“We will certainly keep it peaceful, and the police are aware of people’s concerns,” then-Mayor McKenna was quoted as saying. “We will hope everyone is tolerant.”
Not everyone was tolerant or, for that matter, peaceful.A group of picketers shouted epithets at parade participants. There were several reports of men pelting marchers and their vehicles with eggs. One gay man told parade organizers he was attacked as he left the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. He reported punching the man after being shoved. Another gay man told organizers that a man asked if he was in Helena for the parade. When he said he was and asked if the other man was here for the same reason, the other man said he was “here for the shooting.”
Current school-board member Michael O’Neill, his wife and their young daughters marched in the parade as a show of solidarity. In a recent interview, O’Neill said he was walking home by himself when a group of picketers mistook him for a gay man.
“They came storming out of the old Red Meadow Bar (on Rodney St.) saying, ‘Here’s one of them queers,’” he said.
O’Neill didn’t react very quickly, but just kept walking until the men surrounded him. Fortunately, he said, another Helenan who was working across the street intervened.
“This guy came over with a fence post,” O’Neill said, adding that the Samaritan swung the post at the men until he was able to escape.
A group of picketers in that same vicinity also followed several women parade participants, insulting them as they tried to walk to their car. A 32-year-old Helena man hit one of the women in the head with a half-gallon jug of water, then pelted her car with eggs. He later pleaded guilty to an assault charge. Judge Myron Pitch fined him $155.
The PRIDE! Parade came to Helena next in 2000. Picketers showed up for that one, too, once again taunting marchers and toting signs that read, among other things, “Go back in the closet,” “Montana is for steers not queers” and “Homo on the range – NOT!”
Then-PRIDE! Montana director Karl Olson was reported saying that in the interceding years the parade had also been held in Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman, but that “virtually no incidents have occurred in any other city. Just here.”