This New Film About Triangle Foundation Co-Founder Jeffrey Montgomery Examines His Complicated Legacy

America, You Kill Me' unpacks the storied legacy of one of Michigan's most prominent activists

Jason A. Michael

America, You Kill Me,” a new documentary about Michigan LGBTQ+ activist Jeffrey Montgomery, is making its long-awaited world premiere as part of this year’s Freep Film Festival in Detroit. 

The film was first scheduled to debut at the festival in 2020, before COVID-19 caused the festival’s cancellation. In the interim two years, director Daniel Land tweaked his project as producer John Montgomery, Jeffrey’s brother, anxiously awaited to share his brother’s story with the world.

John said that through the film, he’s hoping audiences can see “what one individual can do when they really put their mind, heart and soul into it. We’re trying to get people to become activists.”

“Activist” is, of course, the word that best describes Montgomery and his decades of work. He co-founded The Triangle Foundation, known today as Equality Michigan, in 1993. This was eight years after his lover was killed outside a gay bar. That case was never solved and sources at the time told Montgomery that the police department would do very little about it because, to them, it was just another gay killing.

So Montgomery, who had previously participated in anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations and who worked to save Orchestra Hall from demolition, turned his focus to gay rights and became the face of the movement in Michigan. He went from working the first two years for free to running an organization with an operating budget of over $1 million annually. 

The work was tiresome. He chainsmoked three packs of cigarettes and drank up to 20 cups of coffee in a day on average. He traveled across the state and country, became an expert on the so-called “gay panic” defense and represented the LGBTQ+ community to the media in the cases of Matthew Shepard and “The Jenny Jones Show” murder. 

At the peak of his power, in 2000, Montgomery delivered the inaugural Matthew Shepard Memorial Lecture at Brown University. It was called “America, You Kill Me.” Sadly, there is no surviving video footage of the lecture, so the film, instead, uses a voiceover reading of the speech.

Somewhere along the way Montgomery got tired. He was in poor health and chronic pain, suffering from polyarteritis nodosa, a painful necrotizing inflammation of blood vessels, in his legs. The pain led him to ultimately make a choice: turn to opioids or pick up the bottle, which he had given up almost 20 years earlier. He chose the bottle.

That choice would ultimately lead to his departure from Triangle. During the sadder parts of the film, we see his worsening illness, his eviction from the apartment he lived in for 30 years and his eventual death. A barrage of news clips and photos of Montgomery are among the film’s footage, along with two exclusive primary interviews with historian Tim Retzloff and journalist Craig Fahle. Video footage ranges from Montgomery clean-shaven and dapper, wearing his signature single earring, to sporting long hair and an enormous beard. 

For the most part, Montgomery is frank and honest throughout the film, though there are certain issues he either couldn’t or did not care to recall. Through it all, we see that he lived life on his own terms.

His story has “drama, tragedy, injustice, danger — shot through with humor and humanity; it’s all there,” director Daniel Land told Pride Source. “His story is so full, and it was a fight I knew almost nothing about beforehand.”

Introduced through a mutual friend, Land said he quickly found himself fascinated by Montgomery’s story. “What immediately struck me was his clarity and his wit, which meant he could carry his own messages and carry the film along with them,” Land said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and the more important it felt to tell.”

The film shows the many awards and honors given to Montgomery, conveying the immense weight of his contributions to Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community. That, of course, was never in doubt. But it also shows his darker moments, when Montgomery, let loose from the agency he co-founded, floundered. On that topic, the film features various recollections. 

“Jeff ended his career on an unfortunate note, and a lot of people turned their back on Jeff,” said Montgomery’s friend Ricci Levy.

Those close to Montgomery take the opportunity to attempt to shame Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community for shunning him during his struggles. But Montgomery, himself, does not speak on it.

“As with anything, there were conflicting perspectives, and we tried to navigate that as fairly as possible,” said Land. “I would clarify that Jeff never directly expressed that sentiment himself, and a lot — though not all — of that material in the film reflects things we were informed of after his passing.”

Still, the sort of “putting out to pasture” that Montgomery experienced, his drinking aside, is not unusual in the LGBTQ+ community, Land said. “What we were told over and over again, both on and off record, and by many people, was that this is something that happens too often to elder activists.”

Montgomery died in 2016. But it is indisputable that no matter what happened at the end of his working days, the memory of his endurable activism will live on.

So what, exactly, is Montgomery’s legacy?

“That’s not for me to define here, and I want the film to speak for itself,” Land said. “Hopefully our retelling communicates some of it through his work and those he impacted. There is so much that young activists could learn, from both the highs and the lows of his career.” 

“I will say,” he added, “that his legacy is woefully unsung, and that’s something I want to change.”

“America, You Kill Me” plays 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Redford Theatre and 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the Birmingham 8. 

AMERICA YOU KILL ME | Official Trailer from Daniel Land on Vimeo.


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