By Shea Howell
September 18, 2016
About 150 people gathered to remember Jeffrey Montgomery on Saturday on the Wayne State University campus. Jeff died on July 18, 2016, shortly after the annual Motor City Gay Pride event he championed.
Jeff was a leading voice demanding dignity for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from the mid 1980s through the beginning of the 21st century. Often he was the lone voice in a hostile world.
After his partner Michael was shot to death in front of a gay bar in 1984 Jeff turned grief and anger into activism. The police had told Jeff they had no intention of investigating the murder. It was just another gay killing.
Jeff refused to accept this. From that day on he devoted his considerable intellect, energy, and humor to challenging the police, state lawmakers, and ultimately the federal government.
I loved Jeff for his commitment and courage and for his confidence that people could be better. We worked closely together shortly after he co-founded the Triangle foundation in 1991.
We shared an appreciation for the radical tradition in America. I still vividly remember the first time I visited his apartment. Hanging in a place of honor above the fireplace was a framed covers of the graphic socialist magazine, Masses.
Masses was published between 1911 and 1917 when it was shut down by the government for encouraging people to refuse to be drafted. Jeff’s grandfather had been a contributor to the magazine and was a well-known member of the Detroit Socialist Party. It was a history that delighted Jeff. He kept a copy of the Masses credo that declared:
A Free Magazine — This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humour and no respect for the respectable; frank; arrogant; impertinent; searching for true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found; printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers — There is a field for this publication in America. Help us to find it.
It was a statement that captured much of how Jeff lived his life.
In the early 1990’s he helped forge the National Coalition of Anti Violence Programs. It recorded crimes against LGBTQ people in cities across the country. This work became the basis of national hate crimes legislation and challenged the idea that LGBTG people were disposable.
Jeff became a leading voice challenging the “homosexual panic” defense. This was a strategy arguing that killing a person who is LGBTQ is excusable. People panic in the mere presence of someone who is gay. Jeff’s insistence on our shared humanity and searing arguments shattered this idea. He helped convict Jonathan Schmitz who murdered Scott Amadure in Oakland County in 1995. Amadure had revealed on the nationally televised Jenny Jones show that he had a secret crush on Schmitz. A few days later, Schmitz shot him.
It was Jeff’s voice that helped the country come to terms with the killing of Mathew Shepard. He publically supported the prosecution and helped eliminate the panic defense. Meanwhile, he privately helped Mathew’s family come to terms with their grief.
Confronting the daily cruelties of America took a heavy toll on Jeff. He struggled most of his life against its pull.
Jeff’s life affirms the power of people to create change. But it also cries out for us to acknowledge that those who refuse to conciliate, who fight for basic dignity, become wounded in the battle. As we see a new generation of warriors emerging, we all need to make sure their lives not only matter but are filled with love.