Montana House Republicans discipline transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr over protest

Zephyr was barred from the chamber floor for raising a mic Monday to protesters chanting, “Let her speak!" on debates about gender-affirming care for minors.

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Republican lawmakers in Montana voted to bar Rep. Zooey Zephyr from the chamber floor for the remainder of the legislative session after the state’s only transgender lawmaker spoke out against a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.

Zephyr, a freshman Democratic lawmaker who represents the college town Missoula, is banned from the floor and gallery in Helena, the capital, but would still be able to vote by Zoom. On Monday, she raised her microphone toward supporters in the Statehouse gallery above as they chanted, “Let her speak!”

Voting went along party lines, with 68 Republicans in favor and 32 Democrats opposed. Republicans had also considered her expulsion.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr
Zephyr stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the House gallery on Monday. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

Zephyr said on Wednesday that in the last week she “rose up in defense of my community” and of “democracy itself.”

“I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body,” she said, speaking for the first time on the House floor in more than a week. “And when the speaker asks me to apologize, on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent.”

“When my community is facing bills that get us killed, he's asking me to be complicit in this Legislature's eradication of our community,” she added, delivering her five-minute speech in a calm yet assertive tone. “And I refuse to do so and I will always refuse to do so.”

Zephyr said that since she’s been in office she has fielded calls from families of trans youth in peril, including one family whose trans teenager attempted to take her life while watching a hearing on one of the anti-trans bills.

“So when I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic,” she said.

Zephyr tweeted Tuesday evening that she had been informed “there will be a motion to either censure or expel me.” The motion was the latest development in what critics have called attempts to silence the legislator. Last Tuesday, in an impassioned speech on a proposal that would ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, Zephyr told Republicans that they would have "blood on [their] hands" if they went through with the plan.

Law enforcement forcibly clear the Montana House of Representatives gallery during a protest
Law enforcement forcibly clear the Montana House gallery during a protest after the speaker of the House refused to acknowledge Zephyr on Monday. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

In response, Republicans called Zephyr’s comments inappropriate and disrespectful. Later that evening, a group of conservatives known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded disciplinary action against her, deliberately misgendering her in a letter and tweet. Zephyr has been barred from speaking on the House floor by Republican state House Speaker Matt Regier until she apologizes for her remarks.

On Monday, seven people were arrested for protesting in support of Zephyr in the House chamber, while dozens more demonstrated outside on the Capitol steps. Republicans described the scene as a “riot” and likened it to an “insurrection.”

Republicans speaking in favor of the action Wednesday afternoon said it was necessary and about respect for the work of the House. Rep. Casey Knudsen said the measure was about enforcing “self-protection,” while Rep. David Bedey called Zephyr’s support of the protesters an “assault on our representative democracy.”

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, who introduced the measure against Zephyr, concluded her remarks by saying, “We must regain the decorum of this body not only now, but also to set precedent for the future. Therefore, good cause has been established and I urge the body to vote in favor of this motion.”

In a brief statement to reporters on Tuesday, Regier called the arrests “a dark day for Montana,” blaming Zephyr and journalists for not telling “the entire story.” He then canceled Tuesday afternoon’s House session without an explanation.

A cyclist rides over the Beartracks Bridge in Missoula, Mont.
A view of Missoula, Mont., the college town that elected Zephyr to the state Legislature. (Tommy Martino/AP)

“Headlines that have happened over the last week, stating that Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone [are] false,” Regier said. “Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied. All 100 representatives will continue to be treated the same.”

Regier did not take any questions and did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Speaking prior to the vote, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat, said that while she agreed that the rules allow Republicans to punish Zephyr, she urged them against it.

“It should not go without saying, and I think it's obvious to a lot of us, that there is an opportunity cost to choosing this path,” Abbott said. “We don't have a state budget. We don't have a plan for housing. We don't have a plan for child care. We don't have a plan for permanent property tax relief. We don’t have a plan for mental health. We don't have a plan for provider rates. And today we're on this floor debating this motion, and hopefully we can get back to work. I sure hope so."

Anti-trans efforts build across the country

An anti-LGBT protester
A protester along the route of a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, N.Y., in 2016 that included LGBTQ participants. (Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The actions by the Montana Legislature demonstrate two apparent trends among Republican state legislators: disciplining — and subsequently elevating — Democratic representatives as well as pushing anti-trans legislation at a breakneck pace nationwide. Many, including Zephyr, have drawn parallels between what’s unfolding in Montana and what took place earlier this month in Tennessee, where two Black Democratic lawmakers were expelled over gun control protests on the state House floor in the wake of the deadly Nashville school massacre. The two have since been reappointed.

The language used to describe protests in Helena by Republicans echoed that of Tennessee GOP legislators, who described constituents raising their voice in the gallery in support of more gun restrictions as a scene equal to or worse than the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol that left multiple people dead and resulted in hundreds of arrests.

“No doubt there are connections,” Zephyr told CBS News on Tuesday evening. “I think what we're seeing is that when marginalized communities, communities who are impacted the most by legislation, rise up and speak to the harm, whether it’s me speaking on trans issues, whether it’s young Black men speaking on gun violence, those folks in power, particularly on the far right, do not want to be held accountable for the real harm that these bills bring.”

The anti-trans effort by conservatives across the nation has taken both legislative and cultural forms. Montana would follow more than a dozen other states that have passed bans on gender-affirming care for minors, as the push against treating gender dysphoria (a condition in which a person’s gender identity conflicts with the biological sex they were assigned at birth) and banning trans youths from playing sports on teams that match their gender identity spreads across the nation. Missouri’s Republican attorney general took further steps this month, placing restrictions on care for trans adults. LGBTQ advocates in the state are hoping to carve out Kansas City as a safe haven for those seeking trans care.

Supporters of the bills banning gender-affirming care for minors say they’re doing so in an effort to protect children, often focusing on the surgical aspect of care, which is rare among those under 18. The treatments they’re barring are evidence-based and supported by a wide range of medical professionals, including the American Medical Association, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“We believe it is inappropriate and harmful for any state to legislatively dictate that certain transition-related services are never appropriate and limit the range of options physicians and families may consider when making decisions for pediatric patients,” the AMA wrote in a 2021 letter to the National Governors Association.

A Washington Post analysis published last week found that more than 400 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country since January, more than the number introduced in the previous four years. The legislation is the culmination of a years-long project to push laws targeting transgender Americans that was spearheaded by a network of anti-trans activists, according to reporting by Mother Jones last month.

Anti-trans efforts in Montana

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte at a Republican Governors Association conference last year. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Montana's Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he would sign the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors and suggested amendments to make it stricter. The state GOP has also pushed a bill that would codify biological sex as either man or woman into a state law that would eliminate legal recognition of intersex, transgender and nonbinary residents.

Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that focuses on the LGBTQ community, has already promised to take legal action alongside the ACLU by challenging any state ban on gender-affirming care in court.

“The ban is destined to be struck down because it is rooted in stigma and discrimination,” Sasha Buchert, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, told Yahoo News. “The legislation rains down harsh prohibitions on certain treatments for transgender youth but goes out of its way to explain that the same exact care will continue to be available for non-transgender youth. That is, by definition, impermissible discrimination that is prohibited by law.”

Buchert called the attempts to silence Zephyr “disgraceful” and dispelled misconceptions about what gender-affirming care is.

“It is important to clarify that no one is ‘pushing’ for young people to obtain care,” Buchert said. “The reality is that the treatments that are banned by this kind of legislation have proven clinically effective for treating gender dysphoria, based on decades of peer-reviewed science.”

Could Republican efforts backfire?

Matt Rosendale, right
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., tweeted Tuesday that there is “no room in the public square for political violence” in response to Zephyr’s comments.

And his Republican colleague Sen. Steve Daines — who recently endorsed Donald Trump for president — said there is a responsibility to “avoid extreme rhetoric and violence.”

“Spirited debate is encouraged in our democracy — it’s part of what makes our country great but with that comes a responsibility to be civil and to avoid extreme rhetoric and violence,” Daines tweeted Tuesday. “Endangering lawmakers and their staff is unacceptable.”

But Sara Rushing, a professor of political science at Montana State University, believes Republicans’ attempts to silence Zephyr could do the complete opposite of what they intend, instead amplifying her position and the reasons behind them. The “Tennessee Three,” for instance, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising efforts as they faced expulsion earlier this month.

“There is a long and dark history of mobilizing civility discourse to silence the voices of marginalized people, when they speak plainly about the human costs of their oppression,” Rushing told Yahoo News. “In this sense, what is happening in Montana is following a predictable script. But as we saw in Tennessee a few weeks back, those who deploy this tactic can’t always control the outcome. In fact, silencing such voices can function to amplify them, creating national awareness of their cause and a robust fundraising platform.”

A flag in support of LGBTQ rights
A flag in support of LGBTQ rights adorns a desk on the Democratic side of the Kansas House of Representatives. (John Hanna/AP)

Though Rushing said any bill signed into law by Gianforte will immediately see challenges, she also admits that any kind of legislation like this will have a “clear chilling effect” on medical practitioners and on caregivers seeking to advocate for trans youth.

Passing such legislation, she said, will tell “certain young people that their lives are not worthy of respect and autonomy, and [tell] their parents that the medical privacy and parental rights that the Freedom Caucus has spent the last years championing, in the wake of COVID-19, do not apply to them.”

Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, says what’s happening to Zephyr sets a dangerous precedent in the Statehouse.

“What is peculiar in this situation is that the speaker is refusing to allow Rep. Zephyr to speak for reasons that appear to be extraneous to the rules involving parliamentary procedure,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “In other words, as far as I can tell, Rep. Zephyr offended the Republican majority but did not break any rules doing so. Therefore, this is a situation without any precedent that I can remember.”

Johnson called Wednesday's vote "shocking," unsure how Zephyr's actions resulted in her discipline. "The sanction imposed did not seem to be commensurate with the stated infraction," he said.

Thumbnail: Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP