MT World AIDS Day Award Acceptance Speech

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up in a small town- in a time when things were said to be simple- but they were not.

For him.

He was unlike the other kids in ways that weren’t always noticeable to the people around him. He felt things a bit more keenly. He noticed things that other kids didn’t. He wasn’t great at sports, he wasn’t big and strong.

But he was smart.

And sometimes that meant he got picked on even more than other kids.

So he used that.

It made him tough. His parents were good, loving people. His church provided comfort. His books helped him escape.

Maybe it was God, maybe it was chance- it doesn’t really matter what made him different. He just was.

The fact remained that this boy- indistinguishable from a million other little boys- just wanted to be loved, even though he was different.

And when he grew up, he still wanted to be loved – sometimes desperately. Sometimes he trusted people who weren’t trustworthy- simply because the promise of love is often enough to make us overlook danger and potential tragedy.

The promise of love.

That’s what brings us here today.

That’s why I got infected. That’s how I got infected.

The promise of love. Not what you think about when you think of AIDS.

But I want you to think about it.

When I moved back to Montana almost seven years ago, I made a promise: that no gay kid would ever be so starved for love and support- would not be so handicapped by shame- that they couldn’t stay here and have a happy, successful, healthy and safe life if they wanted to. I would do everything in my power to make it happen.

So I came out as gay- and HIV positive- just to show that there is no shame in having a disease. It’s a virus, it’s not a judgment.

A microscopic being that happens to live in my body. And I want to keep it from living in any one else’s.

And so do you, I hope.

This disease  has been around for over three decades. And yet the state of Montana has never allocated state funds for its prevention. Not a penny.

Which begs the question- why?

Is it because of the shame at how the disease is transmitted?

Is it because we might have to talk about sex, needles, addiction and shame and fear?

Isn’t thirty two years long enough to avoid having this hard conversation?

In the Montana that little boy grew up in- that I grew up in- we prided ourselves on helping out where it was needed. We filled sandbags, we stopped when it looked like people were in trouble on the road, we ran to the fire house when the siren rang.

But not for HIV. Not for AIDS. Well, let me correct that.

A few very brave people did stand up. They braved ridicule and stigma to hold candlelight vigils and to hold the hands of people whose parents were too afraid to touch them. I know. I was there. I held some of those hands. And so did Laurie Kops and probably a few others in this room.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but it’s important that we get back to something very basic here in the state of Montana.

Caring for our people.

ALL people.

It’s time to recognize that all people deserve the promise of love in their lives. Deserve the dignity and respect that I believe God gives everyone simply by being born. Deserves the respect of having information and materials at their disposal provided by the state that is charged with enabling public health and well-being.  It’s what I want out of my taxes- I hope it’s what you want from yours.

There are a few legislators here you can tackle on the way out….

My life is good. I have family that love me, a partner who is always there for me and more friends than any man ever deserves.

But it could be better.

Somewhere in the state of Montana there is a kid who doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of love.

And he’s part of our responsibility. Because he does deserve love. And he deserves help to be healthy about it.

Shame is keeping us from health.

Kinda crazy, isn’t it?

It’s time to have those hard conversations.

It’s time to stop shame in its tracks.

It’s time to return the promise of love to all Montanans.

Thank you for listening- and for this awesome award.

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2013 World AIDS Day honorees Stephanie Cole, Chris Gehring, Chantz Thilmony, Greg Smith Lisa Fairman with Gov Bullock and DPHHS Director Opper

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Me and a really cool Governor

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Former Felons Celebration Thursday

From the Facebook event page:

mtgayflagSenate Bill 107 is on its way to the Governor’s desk for his signature and last week’s historic vote deserves a celebration!

SB107 finally removes the unconstitutional language from Montana law that labels gays and lesbians felons, punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and/or up to ten years in jail. It was ruled unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court in 1997, but remained on the state’s law books because of homophobia and fear. Last week it passed the Montana House on a 64-35 vote, after passing the Montana Senate 38-11.

The passage of SB107 is a “decades in the making” event that deserves some celebrating!

Come enjoy heavy hors d’oeuvres, music and fun sponsored by the Montana Human Rights Network, Planned Parenthood of Montana, ACLU of Montana, Pride Foundation, and generous personal donations from Senators Tom Facey, Christine Kaufmann, Pat and Carol Williams, Diane Sands, Jamee Greer and Linda Gryczan.

What: Former Felons Celebration
When: Thursday, April 18th at 5:30pm
Where: Jorgenson’s Ballroom, 1714 11th Ave. in Helena
Cost: Free, although donations accepted!

** Governor Steve Bullock will sign Senate Bill 107 earlier that day in a special signing event in the Montana Capitol Building Rotunda at 12:30pm.
All supporters are welcome to attend!

And yes-I’ll be at that signing. No way I’d miss it…..

Help Expand Medicaid in Montana!

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This session the Montana Legislature has an incredible opportunity to expand access to healthcare for 60,000 Montanans! Doing so would involve a minimal cost to the state, and have a major impact across our communities. Our legislators can do this by choosing to expand eligibility in the Medicaid program for individuals who live at or below 133% of the federal poverty level.  It will take a lot of effort on the ground across the state to pass this policy and we need your help!
We’re asking you to contact your Representative and Senator today and urge them to support Medicaid expansion! If we’re able to pass this expansion, it would be a huge victory for human rights in this state!
You can call and leave a message for your legislators at 406-444-4800 or you can fill out an online form by clicking here.  We’ve included some key facts and talking points at the end of this message.   Click here to find out who your legislators are.
We’re asking for your help because this is a once in a generation chance to expand an effective public healthcare program and get Montanans the care they need! But this policy won’t just help our neighbors who can’t afford health insurance. It will also have an incredible effect in our local and state economies. By expanding eligibility to our state Medicaid program, Montana will be investing in our workforce, creating new jobs, and giving a much needed boost to our economy. For more details on the economic impact of Medicaid expansion click here.
Expanding our Medicaid program is the right choice for Montana.  If we make that choice, 100% of the costs of expansion will be paid for through federal funding for the first 3 years. Beginning in 2017, Montana will pick up a small portion of the costs, paying no more than 10% from 2020 forward. This means that by investing a small amount of state dollars in our administrative capacity to expand the program, we can open access to healthcare for up to 60,000 Montanans.
We are so excited about this opportunity, and we’ll keep you updated as this policy discussion progresses.  For now, we hope you’ll write your legislators and let them know how important it is to support Medicaid expansion! 
Thank you for your continued support!
Sincerely,
Kim Abbott

Racing in the Wrong Direction on Gun Issues

The most common type of gun confiscated by pol...

The most common type of gun confiscated by police and traced by the ATF are .38 special revolvers, such as this Smith and Wesson Model 60 .38 Special revolver with a 3-inch barrel. LaPierre, Wayne (1994). Guns, Crime, and Freedom . Regnery Publishing. p. 58. ISBN 0895264773. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The terrible events in Newtown sent my mind racing this weekend. I kept coming back to where we in Montana stand on preventing gun violence in our state. It was clear that we’re not just moving in the wrong direction on preventing gun violence in Montana we’re racing in the wrong direction.

The best way to illustrate this point is by looking at the work of Sen. Dave Lewis (R-Helena). Last session, Sen. Lewis chaired the Senate Finance & Claims Committee (the primary Senate budget committee), and, as chair, he slashed funding for crucial services- including mental health services. He and his Republican colleagues maintained that the state didn’t have enough money to pay for treating and providing support for those with mental illness (and some other issues as well).

While Lewis was busy slashing services for Montanans, he sponsored a bill that would have given tax cuts to gun ammunition manufacturers to “ensure availability.”

So in Sen. Dave Lewis’ world, we have enough money to give ammunition manufacturers tax cuts, but we don’t have the money to provide mental health counselling for Montana’s most vulnerable people.

While I do find Lewis to be one of the most detestable political figures in Montana history, this post isn’t about him. It’s about the fact that through their decisions, Montana’s elected officials are making our communities more vulnerable to the types of gun violence we’ve seen throughout the country over the past few years.

In the 2011 legislative session, there were 13 bills introduced related to guns and firearms. Only 2 of these bills could be construed as gun control measures. The rest would have done things to allow guns in banks, bars and other buildings. These bills would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons (simply by telling themselves they were allowed to), and would have even allowed students in public schools to bring guns on campus.

We as a state, much like the country, have to get beyond partisan dogfights over guns and gun violence, and have an honest effort to pass policies that will keep our communities safer. These policies must deal with not only rules about who, when, and where you can carry guns, but they must also deal with ensuring adequate mental health services for all Montanans.

I’ll be honest, I don’t expect our elected officials to display the courage to push responsible gun control laws. But I do think we have an opportunity to tackle the mental health aspect of the puzzle.

The Medicaid expansion that is part of the Affordable Care Act is our best chance to expand mental health coverage to tens of thousands of currently uninsured Montanans. This expansion is the part of the Affordable Care Act(ACA) that the US Supreme Court ruled states had the option of whether or no to implement.

Unfortunately, this expansion is sure to get marred by political games by Republicans who refuse to vote in support of anything related to the ACA. While Republicans may hold majorities in the legislature, Democrat Steve Bullock will hold the Governor’s office, and its bully pulpit and veto pen. He should use this bully pulpit and veto pen to ensure the Medicaid expansion is implemented in our state.

Governor Schweitzer accounted for the expansion in his final budget proposal, but thus far Bullock hasn’t said whether or not he’ll push for the expansion.

I hope that the horrible events of Friday will provide Bullock with a little more incentive to champion the expansion of Medicaid as a means of preventing gun violence in our state, without taking on a battle over gun control laws that he almost certainly cannot win with the legislature. If Bullock does this, we’ll begin to finally take small steps towards preventing gun violence in Montana.

Tim Fox Fails His First Test

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One of the first tests for statewide elected officials in Montana is the decision on their top staff appointments. On Friday, Tim Fox failed the test.

Fox announced 4 straight, white men as leadership in his office, and announced a female executive assistant (not pictured). The most notable of his selections is Jon Bennion, the former lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce. (I’ll have more to say on this appointment in a later post.)

These appointments make it painfully clear that diversity is not a priority for him.

Now, diversity for the sake of diversity isn’t inherently valuable. But when you seek a diverse staff so that you have a broad range of experiences, histories and viewpoints you can make your organization–in this instance the Department of Justice–a stronger entity.

The Department of Justice plays such a huge role in the lives of Montanans that this diversity of experience would improve our state. For example, the DoJ oversees all the law enforcement in the state, and we all know that there has been a history of real and perceived racial profiling by law enforcement in tribal communities. By selecting these men as his senior staff, Fox doesn’t have someone providing him with a first-hand understanding of this issue, so Fox is incapable of making an informed decision to do something about it.

It’s important to understand that building a diverse team isn’t something that happens by itself. It’s something that takes work and a concerted effort to make it a priority. Governor Schweitzer is the model on this.

Anyone who has followed Schweitzer’s time in office knows that he has more Native Americans in his staff and cabinet than all previous Montana governors combined. This emphasis on diversity in his staff has paid off, as Schweitzer has enjoyed a close relationship with Montana’s tribal communities to solve some of the problems these communities have faced.

Schweitzer has also put women and members of the LGBT community into senior staff and advisory positions.

Hopefully Fox will take a page out of Governor Schweitzer’s book, and for the sake of Montana, add a little bit of diversity to his staff.

In other appointment news, I’m closely following Governor-elect Bullock’s appointments. We all know that Bullock stumbled during the campaign when it comes to LGBT issues. Hopefully, he’ll follow our advice and appoint some LGBT people to his staff or cabinet. We have several current and former LGBT legislators that would be fantastic choices.

Steve Bullock Has My Vote

…and so does Jon Tester, Kim Gillan, Pam Bucy, Denise Juneau and, locally, Tom Woods.

And, as I explained in a previous post, here’s why:

I’m voting for the candidate who most represents my views, just as everyone should. I’m against the death penalty, want women to make their own choices about their health, support legal recognition of same-sex relationships, and am a fan of higher education and preserving a clean planet. I want healthcare and insurance companies to be reasonable and efficient- and treat people with mental illness and substance issues with dignity and respect. I want the justice system to be fair to all citizens. I want church and state to be separate. I want the poor and disadvantaged to be given every chance to succeed.

The Democratic Candidates in this election most closely reflect these views.

And, I believe, have the most experience and qualifications under their collective belts.

None of the Republicans even come close.

My Dissent Explained

Last week, I posted about my disappointment with Steve Bullock’s position on marriage equality- and there were several comments here, on other blogs and on Twitter debating whether we (progressives) could afford to not get behind the presumed Democratic nominee.

I simply want to say here, as I have in some responses on other platforms, that I am responding in the spirit of creative dissent. I am not going to lean back, say “Oh well, maybe someday he’ll get it,” act like nothing happened and proceed with business as usual. I’ve come too far- we’ve come too far- to do that.

When I moved back to Montana I made myself a promise- that I would never lie about or be ashamed of my thoughts, feelings or beliefs- even when they were unpopular or provocative. I also promised that, as a middle-aged gay man, I would do everything I could to ensure the continued, progressively advancing sense of dignity for all LGBT persons in the state of Montana. I’ve dealt with too many suicidal kids, too many disowned sons and daughters, too many shame-filled, damaged people to trust that politicians will, on their own, work to protect us.

They have to be convinced. And in order to do that, we first have to get their attention.

Looks like we did. Now, until something further is done, I’m voting for the candidate who most represents my views, just as everyone should. I’m against the death penalty, want women to make their own choices about their health, support legal recognition of same-sex relationship recognition/protection, and am a fan of higher education and preserving a clean planet. I want healthcare and insurance companies to be reasonable and efficient- and treat people with mental illness and substance issues with dignity and respect. I want the justice system to be fair to all citizens. I want church and state to be separate. I want the poor and disadvantaged to be given every chance to succeed.

I’m also a big fan of dialog, not diatribe. And dialog is about the expression of opinion, listening and responding accordingly. That’s all I hoped to accomplish. I am not out to derail the Democratic Party- and I will absolutely vote for the Democrat for Governor in the fall. The alternatives are too creepy to think about. I just wanted to be heard on behalf of the thousands of LGBT Montanans in this state- many of whom hold my views.

That’s all.

Now, about that Republican platform plank….