Greg Gianforte, the Bozeman entrepreneur whose planned commencement speech at Montana Tech in Butte sparked talk of a boycott, offered to “step down” from giving a similar speech at Rocky Mountain College next month.
But Robert Wilmouth, president of the private college in Billings, insisted that Gianforte give the commencement address as planned.
Gianforte and his wife, Susan, are scheduled to deliver a joint address at Montana Tech on May 17. Greg Gianforte is scheduled to make a solo appearance at the Rocky commencement on May 3. People opposed to their appearances say the Gianfortes have funded far-right-wing groups that advocate discrimination against gays and a creation museum in Glendive that advances the idea that humans co-existed with dinosaurs.
In Billings, though, even some people who take strong exception to Gianforte’s beliefs are hesitant to say he shouldn’t be allowed to speak at Rocky.
Former Mayor Chuck Tooley is a Rocky trustee and chairman of the group organizing a gathering in Billings this summer to mark the 20th anniversary of Not In Our Town, an organization that sprang up in response to hate mongering and vandalism aimed at Jews, gays and people of color late in 1993.
Tooley said he “would not invite a person who is opposed to human rights to speak at my commencement,” but he doesn’t intend to press the issue with the other college trustees.
Liz Welch, the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender coordinator for the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was torn between opposition to Gianforte’s activities and the ACLU’s bedrock belief in free speech.
Although she is not encouraging anyone to protest Gianforte’s appearance in Billings, she said, “I think it’s unfortunate that Rocky’s not looking at the totality of who they’re bringing in.”
Wilmouth explained in a recent email to faculty and staff — a copy of which was provided to Last Best News — that Gianforte called him “and said that he would gladly step down because he did not want to take away from the ceremonious atmosphere at our graduation.”
Wilmouth said he assured Gianforte that he was still invited and “that we would be honored to have him.” He also told faculty and staff that the decision to bring Gianforte in “was one that was well thought out with due diligence.”
Wilmouth said Wednesday that he had nothing to hide and was confident in his decision. And he prefaced his remarks by saying “how disturbing I find it that internal communications are shared with the public.” His email was not intended to be read by anyone but his faculty and staff, he said.
When he first invited him, Wilmouth said, Gianforte, a computer scientist whose company was once the largest private-sector employer in Bozeman, made it clear that he only wanted to speak about the importance of education and achieving success after graduation. When he called recently and offered to withdraw, Wilmouth said, Gianforte actually began telling him exactly what he planned to include in his address.
Wilmouth said he cut him off and told him, “I trust you. I trust the process and we’re looking forward to hearing your words of wisdom for our young men and women.”
In an email interview Thursday — he was traveling and couldn’t use a phone — Gianforte said he has always believed “that discrimination of any kind is wrong, and is not the Montana way.”
“When I was building and running businesses,” he continued, “I wanted to have the best people around me based on their ability, not ideology or orientation. I believe in just and fair treatment for all. Individual freedoms make this country great. I also believe these freedoms protect citizens from being compelled by the government to act in a way that is inconsistent with their beliefs.”
Gianforte said he has “been reaching out to members of the LBGT community” in an effort to “increase understanding on both sides.”
He met for an hour on March 25 with Caitlin Copple, an openly gay member of the Missoula City Council. Copple said she appreciated his efforts, but that her meeting with Gianforte was no endorsement of him.
She said they talked about all sorts of things, including their mutual love of backpacking and the Beartooth Mountains, and then specifically about gay rights and related issues. Missoula has already passed a non-discrimination ordinance extending standard civil-rights protections to LBGT people, and Bozeman and Billings are both in the early stages of considering such an ordinance.
Copple said she told Gianforte of growing up in rural Idaho and feeling isolated and shunned because of who she was. When she arrived in Missoula in 2005, she said, she liked how the setting reminded her of home, but without the “religious zealotry.”
Copple said Gianforte asked her how fair it would be if Petra Academy, a conservative Christian school in Bozeman that his four children attended and which he has funded, were forced by city laws to hire gay teachers who openly defied the school’s teachings.
She said she responded, “What self-respecting LBGT person is going to apply to teach at your school, given your beliefs?”
When she asked him whether he thought people decided to be gay, Copple said, Gianforte said he didn’t know. She also said that Gianforte has “deeply held religious beliefs that are pretty fundamentalist,” and she doesn’t think their conversation had any effect on those beliefs.
Copple said she didn’t feel comfortable weighing in on whether Gianforte should be allowed to speak at Montana Tech or Rocky, but “I think it’s great that faculty and students are talking about it.”
At Montana Tech, some professors said they will skip the commencement ceremonies, and some students have talked of organizing their own alternative ceremony if the Gianfortes give the address.
Gregory Smith, an ordained Catholic priest who left the Catholic Church and is now an openly gay pastor at St. James Episcopal Church in Bozeman, said he has also been invited to meet with Gianforte but hasn’t done so yet.
Smith said he looks forward to telling Gianforte that while some churches in Bozeman are opposed to a non-discrimination ordinance, faith leaders from 15 mainline Protestant churches are supporting it.
“Theologically, I don’t think discrimination has a leg to stand on,” Smith said. He also said that Gianforte, by his support of biblical creation accounts, ignores the physical sciences, just as he rejects the social sciences by ignoring evidence that people don’t “choose” a sexual orientation.
Last Best News specifically asked Gianforte whether he believes, as the Glendive museum teaches, “that the Earth is several thousand years old and that man co-existed with dinosaurs.” He did not respond to that question.
Smith said too many people “tend to worship the Bible rather than Jesus.”
“I am a gay man,” he said. “I have never had feelings toward a woman. … That’s not how I was created. I can’t deny that experience. It’s real.”
Welch, with the ACLU, questioned Gianforte’s statements about his willingness to hire people regardless of their sexual orientation. Gianforte was the founder and former CEO of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, which he sold in 2011 to Oracle Corp. for $1.5 billion. (And that didn’t make him a billionaire, as we previously reported. Please see correction below.)
Welch said that after Oracle bought Gianforte’s company, it immediately adopted “LBGT-inclusive” policies. Oracle has a 100 percent rating on the Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign, Welch said. Regardless of what Gianforte said his beliefs were in regard to hiring, she said, “the company that bought him out actively changed the policy he had in place.”
Jamee Greer, a lobbyist and organizing director for the Montana Human Rights Network, said he thought Gianforte’s meeting with LBGT people was just window dressing.
“He can have coffee with people, but he has also funded efforts to criminalize LBGT people,” Greer said.
He was referring specifically to the Gianforte Family Foundation’s support of the Laurel-based Montana Family Foundation. When the 2013 Montana Legislature was considering scrapping a state statute classifying homosexual sex as a deviant criminal act on par with bestiality, Jeff Laszloffy, the Montana Family Foundation president, urged lawmakers not to repeal the law.
The law, which was repealed last year, had been ruled unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court in 1997. But Laszloffy insisted that repeal wasn’t simply a housekeeping measure, and that the law was, in the words of an Associated Press story at the time, “a vital component to one of the greatest moral debates of the last 20 years.”
Gianforte, asked specifically whether he agreed with Laszloffy that “gay sex ought to have remained criminalized,” again declined to respond.
IRS records show that in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, the Gianfortes’ foundation gave $112,222 to the Montana Family Foundation, which Greer described as “a big chunk of their budget.” Gianforte declined to answer questions about past and more recent support for the group.
Closer to home, Laszloffy said in a recent podcast on the Montana Family Foundation website that the Billings chapter of Not In Our Town has been “hijacked to promote the homosexual agenda” and that “its leadership is controlled by secular progressive liberals.”
Tooley has said previously that while everyone working to organize the 20th anniversary gathering for Not In Our Town most likely would support a non-discrimination ordinance, they have as yet had nothing to do with promoting it.
Tooley also said that most of the conference events will be in downtown Billings, but two pre-conference workshops for law enforcement people and educators will be held on the Rocky campus.
“I promise you we will not be inviting Gianforte to that,” he said.
Tooley said he understood why Wilmouth asked Gianforte to speak at the commencement. Tooley and Wilmouth both attended an economic development summit last year at which Gianforte spoke, and he was inspiring, Tooley said.
And when he heard that Gianforte had been invited to Rocky, “I had no negative feelings about it,” Tooley said.
His feelings changed as he has learned more about Gianforte’s beliefs and activities.
“If we’d known in advance, maybe Dr. Wilmouth would not have invited him,” Tooley said.
Correction: We previously described Greg Gianforte as a “Bozeman billionaire,” but Gianforte said he is not that wealthy. He sold RightNow Technologies to Oracle Corp. in 2011 for $1.5 billion, but he owned less than a majority interest in the company, he said.
More on Gianforte’s response: Here’s what Gianforte wrote in answer to 12 specific questions:
“A lot of my views have been misrepresented in the media, and I appreciate the opportunity to clear the air. I believe — and have always believed — that discrimination of any kind is wrong, and it’s not the Montana way. When I was building and running businesses, I wanted to have the best people around me based on their ability, not ideology or orientation. I believe in just and fair treatment for all. Individual freedoms make this country great. I also believe these freedoms protect citizens from being compelled by the government to act in a way that is inconsistent with their beliefs.
“I think civil, respectful dialog has been lost somewhere along the way and for my part I have been reaching out to members of the LBGT community and having coffee with them one-on-one. We do not agree on everything, but I have enjoyed meeting them and working to increase understanding on both sides.”
Last Best News also asked if he had any plans to run for political office, to which he replied:
“I am not running for office. I am working to improve the economy of Montana because we are 49th in the country in wage scale and I think that is a worthwhile cause and something, based on my experiences, where I can contribute. Too many of our kids have to leave the state to find gainful employment. I want to change that.”
He also provided a link to the website where he lays out his plan for creating more high-paying jobs in Montana, and he referenced the op-ed he recently wrote and which appeared in, among other newspapers, the Billings Gazette.