On Wednesday, the Republican-led Montana House of Representatives voted to punish State Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-Missoula), the state’s sole transgender lawmaker, barring her from entering the state House for the remainder of the legislative session.
The motion to bar Zephyr from the chamber, approved on a party-line 68-32 vote, was taken as retribution for a sharp-tongued speech she gave on the House floor opposing a bill to bar transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care.
During that speech, Zephyr said that lawmakers who supported the bill would have “blood on your hands,” as the bill could leave youth struggling with gender dysphoria to potentially contemplate suicide. (In a 2022 survey by The Trevor Project, more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth reported having seriously considered suicide over the past year, with nearly 1 in 5 actually attempting suicide.)
Republicans balked at Zephyr’s speech, arguing that her rhetoric was inflammatory. According to the motion to expel her from the chamber, they argued she “violated the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, integrity, or decorum of the House of Representatives.”
Some Republicans, including the right-wing Montana Freedom Caucus, even suggested that Zephyr’s words might inspire violence, such as the mass shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee last month, and called for her censure.
In the following days, House Speaker Matt Regier (R-Columbia Falls) refused to allow Zephyr to speak on bills brought to the House floor until she apologized for her rhetoric.
Zephyr refused, and accused legislative leaders of trying to silence her.
Regier’s continued refusal to recognize Zephyr came to a head on Monday, when protesters demonstrated on the steps of the Montana Capitol and filled the House gallery on Monday, shouting, “Let her speak!”
During the protest, Zephyr held up a microphone to amplify the protesters’ voices, and Regier ordered the gallery cleared by police, resulting in the arrests of seven individuals.
Republicans cried foul and characterized the protest as a “riot” and an “insurrection.”
Regier, Speaker Pro tempore Rhonda Knudsen, and Majority Leader Sue Vinton issued a joint statement referring to the protesters as “far-left agitators” and claiming their actions “damage[d] our discourse and endangered legislators and staff.”
Seeking to punish Zephyr, Republican lawmakers insisted that she had broken House rules and scheduled a session — viewable only online and not open to the public — to decide whether to “impose disciplinary consequences” for her actions.
GOP lawmakers ultimately decided not to expel Zephyr from the House, instead choosing to bar her from state Capitol grounds while permitting her to vote remotely during the remaining days of the legislative session, which ends on May 10.
Defending herself and her actions, Zephyr said in a floor speech that she was speaking honestly about the harms that anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation can wreak on vulnerable or marginalized communities.
She also noted that when Democrats objected to inflammatory testimony given before the House Judiciary Committee, in the name of “decorum,” they were rebuffed by Republican leaders, who allegedly argued that “a lot of people have a lot of opinions” on certain matters.
Zephyr also argued that apologizing for her words during the debate on the trans health care ban would essentially force her to remain silent on issues affecting members of the LGBTQ community and make her complicit in any harm caused by legislation approved by the body.
“If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you are doing is using ‘decorum’ as a tool of oppression,” she said. “Additionally, when the Speaker disallowed me to speak, what he was doing was taking away the voices of the 11,000 Montanans who elected me to speak on their behalf.”
She characterized the effort to gag her as a “nail in the coffin of democracy” and to avoid accountability.
“I will do what I have always done. I will rise in support of my community. I will take the hard and moral choice, and stand up in defense of the people who elected me to do so, and the people in our communities, and I will say, ‘I’m grateful for those who stood up in defense of democracy.'”
Montana is one of more than a dozen states in which Republican lawmakers have passed bills barring medical providers from prescribing gender-affirming treatments. They argue that such treatments are experimental and harmful, and that those who undergo them may later regret their decision.
However, major medical organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics — oppose such bans, arguing that denying care can have serious ramifications for young people and infringes on both patients’ rights and the rights of their parents to make medical decisions for their children.
Montana is also considering other measures targeting the transgender community and gender-nonconforming individuals, including a bill that would define “sex” as binary and based on whether a person produces eggs or sperm in state code — effectively denying any recognition of gender transitions or transgender identity — and another preventing students from changing their names or pronouns in school.
Both of those bills, as well as the ban on gender-affirming care, are expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has expressed skepticism about transgender identity and called gender-affirming care a misleading term, comparing it to “Orwellian newspeak,” according to The New York Times.
LGBTQ advocacy organizations condemned the move by Republican lawmakers as yet another infringement on free speech.
Many advocates have compared the treatment of Zephyr to two other incidents involving Democratic lawmakers in Republican-dominated legislatures.
The first involves the expulsion of two Black lawmakers in Tennessee for participating in a protest on the House floor — along with a white female colleague, who avoided expulsion — calling for greater restrictions on high-powered firearms following the Nashville shooting.
The second involves the censure of Oklahoma State Rep. Mauree Turner, a Black Muslim lawmaker who is the state’s first and only nonbinary elected official, for allegedly offering her office as shelter to the spouse of a protester who tried to physically intervene with law enforcement authorities during a protest.
That person’s husband, a transgender man, was arrested after throwing water at a state representative and engaging in a physical altercation with an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper during a protest against a bill that not only bars trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care but bars insurance companies that operate in the state, and Medicaid, from covering transition-related treatments, even for adults and even when such treatments have been deemed medically necessary.
David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told Metro Weekly that attempts by Republican-led legislatures to discipline lawmakers for exercising their free speech, or weaponize Capitol security against dissident lawmakers — as seen in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Montana — are nothing new, pointing to the arrest of Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) in 2021 for protesting a bill imposing additional voting restrictions.
“At this point, at least three things are happening, which is that Republican majority-controlled legislatures are attempting to leverage parliamentary procedure to silence people who are not only doing the jobs that their constituents elected them to do — as is the case with both Zephyr in Montana and Mauree Turner in Oklahoma, as well as Park Cannon in Georgia — but who are also speaking to the efforts of these Republican legislators to erode democracy,” Johns said.
“These occurrences are not new,” he continued. “I think that what is new is that there are more people paying attention. In spite of the fact that legislatures continue to prioritize attacking trans people, LGBTQIA+ students, or attempt to dismantle our weakened democracy, including through schools, a lot of those efforts are inconsistent with the beliefs that polling data and conventional wisdom say the vast majority of people throughout the country hold.
“There are more people who are supportive of us having access to the same fundamental rights that are enshrined or otherwise protected in our democracy.”
“The silencing and censure against Rep. Zephyr for speaking up in support of transgender Montanans is an attack on our nation’s democratic ideals and free speech values,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement. “The attack against Rep. Zephyr is the latest in a disturbing trend across the country as LGBTQ and ally lawmakers in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and other states have also faced recent threats of censure simply for speaking up for their constituents.
“Speaking up is literally what they were elected to do. This news is a strong reminder that our voices are our power. When we speak, extremist lawmakers can’t help but hear us.”
The LGBTQ Victory Institute also condemned the censure of Zephyr.
“For anti-LGBTQ lawmakers to launch a verbal and legislative war against transgender Montanans and censure the state’s only trans lawmaker for telling the truth — that they will have blood on their hands — is destructive and absurd,” Elliot Imse, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “Her comment is incomparable to the harmful and hateful rhetoric of these anti-LGBTQ lawmakers and incomparable to the undeniable harm this legislation will have on trans people.”
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!