Jeff Montgomery, who turned his own personal tragedy into a crusade for justice, died Monday in his hometown of Detroit, Mich. He was 63.
Although friends told the Detroit Free Press his health had been declining in recent years, it’s not known what malady claimed the life of this local legend. Montgomery was hailed as a kind, gentle soul with a strong passion for justice, and a heart full of compassion.
“He was a pioneer in understanding that the issues of any oppressed community is the issue of all oppressed communities,” said Jim Lessenberry to Freep. Lessenberry was a member of the board of the Detroit-based group Montgomery helped found, the Triangle Foundation.
The name came from the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps, according to the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, another group Montgomery helped found.
Triangle began its work in 1991, chartered to help the victims of antigay crimes, to work with police and prosecutors who until that time didn’t commit the same resources to crimes involving the LGBTQ community. It was the murder of Montgomery’s boyfriend in the 1980’s, unsolved to this day, that sparked his involvement. Michael was gunned down outside a gay bar in Detroit, and a Wayne County prosecutor told Montgomery that investigators saw the case as “just another gay killing.”
The work by Montgomery and others with the Triangle Foundation led to the creation of Equality Michigan, whose executive director talked with Freep about his impact:
“It’s a little bit hard to overstate the legacy,” said Stephanie White. “At a time when a lot of us were afraid to come out of the closet, he was very public and very unapologetic. He inspired a generation of activists. He was a little rock with a big ripple.”
He made one of those ripples 21 years ago, when he was a sought-after speaker on the so-called “Jenny Jones murder case.” In 1995, a man confessed he had a crush on another man on a talk show, hosted by Jones. Three days after the taping, Scott Amedure was killed at his home near Detroit. The man he identified as his crush, Jonathan Schmitz, was charged with murder.
“What kind of a society is this where a person can’t express attraction without fearing that they’re going to be murdered for it?,” said Montgomery, as quoted in a 1995 article in The New York Times.
“If the person who came out with the secret was a Jewish woman or a black woman or an Asian woman, and he went over to her house the next day and killed her because he was so repulsed and she had embarrassed him that way on national television, nobody would be writing stories on the TV show’s responsibility. Everyone would be writing stories about this racist, this anti-Semite.”
Ricci Levy, president of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, wrote that until Michael’s murder, “Montgomery used to describe himself as a ‘mind your own business’ kind of gay guy, one who wrote a check to a ‘gay’ organization once a year and lived his life of privilege unconcerned about others. A member of the Detroit Montgomery family, Jeff was raised in mansions living a life of luxury.”
A documentary detailing Montgomery’s life debuted in July 2015: America, You Kill Me. A clip is available on YouTube.
“I am heartbroken at Jeff’s death, said Levy.
“I know many words will doubtless be written about Jeff, but none can convey the depth of loss – personal loss and loss to our movements – felt at Jeff’s death. Jeff was a brilliant strategist, a remarkable teacher, a powerful leader, and, above all, my friend. For all the ferocity of his refusal to let others suffer harm, Jeff was a gentle soul. He cared deeply for those he served for so long, speaking out for human rights for almost three decades through his advocacy against violence, homelessness, HIV, and the recognition of the diversity of family, sex and sexuality.
“Every word spoken for freedom, every statement demanding human rights – the right to love as we wish and be who we are – will forever summon Jeff to our minds and hearts. Our hearts go out to all the members of his family, and that includes the hundreds and thousands of lives made better because Jeff lived and because Jeff cared enough to create the change he wanted to see. ”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.