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Fighting for LGBT Rights in the Midwest

It took a tragic death for Jeffrey Montgomery to go from a "mind your own business" kind of gay guy to a "mind our own business" kind of gay activist.
 
 
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Looking back, Jeffrey Montgomery says he used to be a "mind your own business" kind of gay guy.

But that was before his boyfriend, Michael, was fatally shot outside a gay bar in Detroit.

The murder was horrifying. But what fundamentally changed Montgomery's way of thinking was the attitude of the cops.

The police just didn't care. They had no intention of investigating what, to them, was just another gay homicide, he says.

Shocked and appalled, Montgomery began transforming himself into a "mind our own business" kind of gay guy.

That transformation led him in 1991 to help found the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation, named after the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps.

"Using the pink triangle as our logo was a way to liberate it from its Holocaust past," Montgomery recalls. "We were finally going to be doing something to help people who had suffered from the same kinds of violence. And, unlike what had happened in Michael's case, we were going to hold the police accountable to do their job."

Sixteen years later, the Triangle Foundation (tri.org) has a $1 million budget, 10 staffers and a new branch in conservative Grand Rapids, Mich.

Now, sadly, the executive director who became the face and voice for so many gay and transgender people too fearful -- or just too preoccupied -- to stand up for themselves has decided it's time to pass the baton. He'll be missed.

In its early days, Triangle focused on helping people beaten up outside gay bars. Montgomery often went to police stations with victims "to make sure they were being treated respectfully" -- and to make sure crimes were reported and attackers prosecuted.

Then calls came in from folks who'd been fired or kicked out of apartments after bosses or landlords found out they were gay.

"I knew what it was like to look for help and not find it," Montgomery says. "And being fired is the same principle as being beaten. So I said, 'Yes, let's see what we can do for you.'"

One of Triangle's biggest successes came in 2002.

In a suit handled by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Triangle and six courageous men sued the city of Detroit and won a $170,000 settlement that put an end to what used to be called in anti-gay police circles as "bag-a-fag" stings: Undercover male cops had been arresting men in Detroit's Rouge Park for merely returning winks or waves. Sting victims had to pay $950 apiece to get their cars back.

The settlement included gay-sensitivity training for police and changes in ordinances to prevent similar entrapment in the future.

The wreckage left behind by such outrageous stings has been fresh in Montgomery's mind since Sen. Larry Craig's high-profile arrest in a Minnesota restroom. An undercover cop deemed Craig's foot-tapping and hand gestures to be illegal come-ons for public sex.

The Idaho Republican has a long anti-gay record. But, not surprisingly, Montgomery says his first thought upon hearing the news was, "We should help him with his case."

Thanks largely to that kind of big-heartedness, Montgomery has not just helped Michigan's gay and transgender community but also helped the state begin transforming itself into a more caring place.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.