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Montana transgender lawmaker silenced: What to know

For days before voting to discipline her, legislative leaders in the GOP-controlled statehouse had not allowed Rep. Zooey Zephyr to speak during debates because she said colleagues who voted to ban gender-affirming care for youth would have “blood” on their hands

Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr leaves the House chamber after a motion to bar her passed, at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana, U.S. April 26, 2023.
Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr leaves the House chamber after a motion to bar her passed, at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana, U.S. April 26, 2023.MIKE CLARK (REUTERS)

The latest high-profile example of statehouses deciding who can be heard during legislative debates is playing out in Montana, where a transgender lawmaker on Wednesday was barred from speaking on the House floor for the remainder of the session.

For days before voting to discipline her, legislative leaders in the GOP-controlled statehouse had not allowed Rep. Zooey Zephyr to speak during debates because she said colleagues who voted to ban gender-affirming care for youth would have “blood” on their hands

The remark provoked outrage from Republicans who said the language was belittling and an affront to civil discourse. Zephyr rebuffed demands from legislative leaders to apologize for her remarks, leading to days of standoff between her and lawmakers in the majority party over how to move forward.

The silencing of Zephyr’s microphone drew hundreds of protestors to the Montana Capitol. After Zephyr’s request to speak on a proposal was denied Monday, they erupted in chants of “Let her speak!” and forced the House to temporarily adjourn. Police in riot gear were sent in to clear the gallery, leading to seven protestors being arrested on trespassing charges.

The standoff between Zephyr and House Republicans originated in a debate over gender-affirming care for minors. It’s evolved to dovetail with a nationwide debate over the robustness of democracy in politically polarizing times.

Montana is among the wave of GOP-controlled states passing legislation to ban gender-affirming care over ardent objections from the transgender community and its advocates. Montana lawmakers advanced a measure last week, sending it to Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has indicated he will sign it.

Here’s what you need to know:

Who is the transgender lawmaker at the center of this?

Last year, Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature — putting her among a record number of transgender lawmakers who began serving across the U.S.

The 34-year-old Democrat is from the left-leaning college town Missoula, where she’s been a staffer at the University of Montana. She has spent much of her life advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and worked behind the scenes during the 2021 legislative session to help block efforts to ban gender-affirming health care.

Following her November election, she said she wanted to enlist moderate Republicans to push back on what she called “extreme and dangerous attacks” and help people understand transgender adults like her.

Instead, she and fellow members of the Democratic minority have been powerless to stop Republicans from passing proposals focused on transgender kids. In addition to banning gender-affirming care for minors, lawmakers also passed legislation that says misgendering or deadnaming students is not illegal discrimination unless it rises to the level of bullying.

Deadnaming refers to using the name a transgender person used prior to transitioning.

Zephyr has been unfazed by calls from Republican leaders and legislative staffers to apologize, scale back her remarks or calm protesters.

In a speech on Monday, Zephyr likened gender-affirming care bans like the one that passed in Montana to “eradication,” echoing fears raised throughout the transgender community that stripping transgender youth of access to care endangers their lives and mental health.

What started this dispute?

On April 18, as the House debated the governor’s proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors, Zephyr spoke against the bill while making a reference to the body’s opening prayer.

“I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” she said.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican, immediately called Zephyr’s comments inappropriate and disrespectful. That evening, a group of conservative lawmakers known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded Zephyr’s and deliberately referred to her using male pronouns in a letter and tweet. That’s known as misgendering — using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender identity.

The move to discipline Zephyr and keep her from the House floor for the remainder of the legislative session stemmed from her participation in Monday’s protests, not the initial remarks themselves.

What does the disciplinary action do?

The House voted along party lines to prevent Zephyr from participating in debates — speaking or voting — from the floor of the Montana House of Representatives or the gallery. It allows her to participate and vote remotely but effectively prevents her from speaking during debates on proposals and amendments for the remainder of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end in early May.

It does not limit her participation in committee hearings, House Speaker Matt Regier told reporters after the vote.

Does this have a precedent?

The only known attempt to censure lawmakers in the Montana Legislature was almost a half-century ago, according to Eve Byron with the Montana Historical Society.

In 1975, Democratic lawmakers sought to reprimand three Republicans who were accused of placing false and misleading election advertisements, according to news articles provided by Byron.

The censure motion failed after a House committee determined the ads were misleading but not out of line with advertisements placed by other lawmakers, according to an article that appeared in the Independent Record newspaper.

There are no further records of Montana legislators being expelled or censured, Byron said.

Who has led the charge to silence Zephyr?

Although Montana has long leaned Republican, for years voters crossed party lines and elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and governor’s mansion. But the state has recently shifted rightward. Republicans now command control of state government, which they’ve used to push legislation restricting abortion and loosening gun laws.

One reflection of such a shift is the newly influential Montana Freedom Caucus, which includes at least 21 of the Legislature’s 102 GOP lawmakers.

Its ideological leader is U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale, a hardline conservative who backed former President Donald Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election and was among a core group of Republicans who opposed electing U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.

Efforts to punish Zephyr originated in the caucus, whose members said Zephyr’s comments displayed a “hateful rhetoric” and called for a “commitment to civil discourse” — similar to criticisms leveled against Democrats who were expelled from the Tennessee statehouse for joining in gun control demonstrations. The caucus later issued a statement calling Monday’s protest and arrests an “insurrection” and accused Zephyr of encouraging it.

No property damage or threats to lawmakers have been reported. But Republicans from the statehouse to Montana’s congressional delegation have called the protesters violent and condemned their interruptions.

Who is the House Speaker enforcing the gag order?

Zephyr’s punishment has thrust leaders in Montana’s Republican-majority Legislature into the spotlight, including Regier, who was elected House Speaker in January.

Throughout his tenure, Regier, a real estate investor from a northwestern Montana political family, has spearheaded legislation to restrict local governments from enacting gun control measures. His proposal to ban the type of abortion most commonly used after 15 weeks passed the Legislature this year. Gianforte hasn’t acted on the bill.

Kalispell, where Regier is from, is the largest city in Montana’s deeply Republican Flathead County. County commissioners there opposed mask requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Library directors and staff have resigned over efforts to ban books about gender identity, sexuality and race.

The region is known for agriculture and as a tourist gateway to Glacier National Park.

Is this related to the Tennessee lawmakers being expelled?

Not directly, but the dispute reflects tensions and harsh rhetoric around culturally divisive issues — including firearms, racial justice and rights for the LGBTQ+ community — that currently dominate much of America’s political discourse.

The Tennessee expulsions stemmed from a dispute over gun control. It drew accusations of racism after Republicans removed two Black lawmakers following their participation in a protest but retained a third lawmaker involved who was white.

In her Monday speech, Zephyr connected the fight over her words to the struggles facing marginalized groups throughout the country, including those “who have the audacity to stand up and say this legislation gets us killed” and have been met with punishment.

On Tuesday, Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, who was expelled and reinstated as an interim lawmaker 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.

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