The year was 1999 and the month was June. Some 24 years ago. I was just days into my new job as a staff writer with Between The Lines when I ended up on the phone with Jeffrey Montgomery. I was green and not with envy. Rather, it was with raw, immature energy and drive and a reckless lack of knowledge and skill. Oh, I knew a thing or two. I was three years into the journalism program at Wayne State. But I was clearly a newbie on the job.
Jeff, I’m sure, sensed that. But he was kind and gracious. When I told him that after two months of freelancing I had been brought on staff, he didn’t miss a beat. “Congratulations,” he told me. “You’re now a full-time homo.”
It was true. Working for the statewide queer news and arts weekly, I was constantly outing myself. My sexual orientation had not heretofore been a secret, but I wasn’t walking around wearing a sandwich board screaming “Queer here. Queer here.”
Now, every time I introduced myself as a BTL reporter to someone — a story source, a police sergeant, politician or priest — I was essentially saying, “My name is Jason, and I’m a homosexual.” As you can imagine, that didn’t always go over too smoothly. But I digress. Back to Jeff Montgomery.
I was a couple months into the job when I had the opportunity to really witness Jeff in action. We were covering the retrial of Jonathan Schmitz, accused, and eventually convicted twice, of killing Scott Amadure after a tragic crush reveal went horribly wrong on the Jenny Jones show. Schmitz drove to the ATM and then to a gun shop, where he bought a shotgun and ammo, and then to Amadure’s trailer where Schmitz proceeded to shoot him twice in the chest. Despite the obvious planning, Schmitz had only been originally convicted of second-degree murder. Now, at his retrial, he was hoping to get his conviction lowered to manslaughter.
Schmitz’s legal team employed something they called the “gay panic defense.” Jeff was on hand to debunk it. The theory was that Schmitz was so humiliated and so offended at being revealed as the subject of Amadure’s crush that he justifiably killed him.
Jeff sat in court each day following the trial intently. Sometimes we’d have lunch together in the courthouse cafeteria. Sometimes he’d be called upon during lunch break to make a live appearance on Court TV. Jeff was a natural interview subject. A reporter’s dream. He lit up as soon as the camera started recording and he made powerful and persuasive arguments against the gay panic defense. Jeff told it like it was, and held little back.
After the trial and for the next decade or so, I continued to rely on Jeff for great comments. He made my job easy. He and Triangle were the subject of dozens of stories I’d write throughout the years. From his exposure of the Detroit Police Department’s Bag-a-Fag operation in Rouge Park, to the annual release of the hate crimes report to promoting a new and exciting community ad campaign, I watched Jeff do his thing.
Montgomery was a tireless defender of justice. His energy appeared to be endless. But, of course, it wasn’t. Jeff, like the rest of us, suffered. In fact, he suffered more than most. His health eventually began to fail. He battled polyarteritis nodosa, a painful necrotizing inflammation of blood vessels, in his legs. He was living in great pain and, tragically, he fell off the wagon and lost his grip on his longtime sobriety. It was either alcohol to treat the pain, Jeff told his brother John, or opioids.
The drinking would ultimately bring about his downfall. He was showing up intoxicated to events around town and, indeed, the country. I encountered him clearly inebriated only once. It happened at a Triangle dinner in Dearborn. And it was not a good look. Jeff began blowing big opportunities. He was essentially forced out of his position at Triangle and his health only further declined after that.
Jeff died of a heart attack at the age of 63 in 2016. I covered his memorial service, which took place on the campus of Wayne State. I reported that Jeff was remembered as a one-of-a-kind, larger than life character. The praise heaped upon him was heavy. He was, to many, a hero.
After writing the story of his memorial service, I figured my association with Jeff would end. I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong. Director Daniel Land and producer John Montgomery, Jeff’s brother, created a documentary that chronicled Jeff’s life. I wrote a story about it, yes. But then I was asked to do more.
I now emcee select screenings of the documentary, titled “America, You Kill Me,” around Metro Detroit. It’s a honor and a privilege to assist in preserving Jeff’s legacy in this way. I respected the man. He always made himself available to me. Even after he was forced out of his job.
Jeff’s legacy is succinctly captured in the documentary. Beautifully haunting music by award-winning Detroit songbird Audra Kubat compliments it perfectly. It’s a powerful story. Also a sad one at times. But I suppose that was Jeff. Powerful, gifted, witty — but also a little sad.
After the screenings, I usually lead a Q&A after the film and take questions along with Land and John Montgomery. They speak on the film and I talk about working with Jeff and his impact on the community, as well as its condition today. I guess it’s only fitting I participate. Land and John Montgomery are both straight. And some jobs require the touch of trained full-time homo.
"America You Kill Me," the new documentary about gay civil rights icon Jeffrey Montgomery, will be shown at a special event Tuesday evening, June 27th at Affirmations in Ferndale located at 290 West 9 Mile Rd. This will be an exclusive reception and screening of the film as well as a look at an exhibit of Jeffrey Montgomery memorabilia in the Affirmations gallery. The evening will include a performance by composer Audra Kubat, plus a Q&A featuring the film makers and Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia. Complimentary Wine and Beer are included. Tickets are $20 and available by going to Americayoukillme.com. Doors open at 5:30pm. Film screening at 6:30pm.