Montana lawmaker fights on during first day of exile

The lawmaker was thrust into the national spotlight last week when she was prevented from speaking in the House after telling lawmakers backing a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors that they would have blood on their hands

Rep. Zooey Zephyr
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, walks out of the Montana House of Representatives after lawmakers voted to ban her from the chamber on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in the State Capitol in Helena, MontanaTHOM BRIDGE, Independent Record (AP)

Montana’s Zooey Zephyr spent her first day in legislative exile Thursday on a bench just outside the House chambers from which Republicans voted to banish her a day earlier.

Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker from Missoula, defiantly stayed put even after Republicans said she couldn’t be there and a Capitol police officer threatened to move the bench, where she had set up her laptop to vote remotely.

As cameras snapped and espresso beans churned in a machine behind a nearby snack bar, Zephyr and Democratic leaders said she would remain in the public eye unless Republicans elected to further restrict where she could go in the Capitol.

“There are many more eyes on Montana now,” Zephyr said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But you do the same thing you’ve always done. You stand up in defense of your community and you ... stand for the principles that they elected you to stand for.”

Republicans had wanted Zephyr to participate from behind the doors of the House Minority’s offices a day after they voted to ban her from the House floor for the rest of the session.

The motion Republicans passed bans Zephyr from the House, the gallery and a waiting room, but not the public space in the hall where she set up. Minority Leader Kim Abbott said the lawmaker would be voting there, within public view. Abbott said she told Regier that if he wanted to further restrict Zephyr’s access, he could amend the motion.

Zephyr was thrust into the national spotlight last week when she was prevented from speaking in the House after telling lawmakers backing a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors that they would have blood on their hands.

The Republican response to her comments, and her refusal to apologize for them as demanded, have transformed the lawmaker into a prominent figure in the nationwide battle for transgender rights and placed her at the center of the ongoing debate over the muffling of dissent in statehouses.

The attention is a new phenomenon for Zephyr, a 34-year-old serving her first term representing a western Montana college town after being elected in November.

Lawmakers banned her from the House in response to participation in a protest that disrupted Monday’s floor session. Protesters upset that she was prevented from taking part in House debates after making her comments packed the gallery and chanted, “Let her speak!”

She stood by the remarks even after House Speaker Matt Regier said they violated decorum rules and demanded that she apologize.

“The Montana House will not be bullied,” Regier said this week. He said the only person preventing Zephyr from speaking was Zephyr herself.

In her interview with the AP, Zephyr likened efforts to silence her to the decision by Tennessee lawmakers to expel two Black representatives for disrupting proceedings when they participated in a gun control protest after a school shooting in Nashville that killed three children and three adults. The two were quickly reinstated.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, is when young Black men stand up and say, ‘We have a gun violence problem in this country and you are failing to recognize it, you’re failing to take action on it,’” she said.

Tennessee lawmakers not only rejected gun control laws, but by expelling the lawmakers they sent a message saying: “‘Your voices shouldn’t be here. We’re going to send you away,’” Zephyr said.

GOP leaders in Tennessee had said their actions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.

Zephyr’s stand has drawn attention from lawmakers throughout the country. On Tuesday, Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, one of the lawmakers who was expelled earlier this month, called the Montana standoff anti-democratic.

“We will not let our democracy die without fighting for every voice. We are in this fight from Memphis to Montana!” he tweeted.

“The attack in Montana on Rep. Zephyr is an attack on all of us,” said Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt.

Hunt, who has a transgender son, has spearheaded the charge against a similar proposal to ban gender-affirming care. She was served notice Wednesday of an official complaint filed against her that she said was an effort to silence her voice on the issue.

“It’s so important that we not be silent about this from state to state to state. And it’s so important that people stand up against this rising movement, this radical movement, and say it is not welcome,” Hunt said.

Zephyr is undeterred. She said throughout the events of the past week, she has both aimed to rise and meet the moment and continue doing the job she was elected to do: representing her community and constituents.

“It’s queer people across the world and it’s also the constituents of other representatives who are saying, ‘They won’t listen’ when it comes to these issues. It’s staff in this building who, when no one is looking, come up and say ‘Thank you,’” she said.

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