How Zooey Zephyr, Montana's 1st trans legislator, became a national celebrity

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

It’s hard to walk more than 50 feet in downtown Missoula, Montana, with Rep. Zooey Zephyr without her being stopped by someone who wants to meet her, thank her or take a photo with her.

In April, Zephyr, the first transgender woman elected to her state’s Legislature, shot to national fame after Montana Republicans blocked her from speaking on the House floor because of comments she made about a bill that would prohibit transition-related medical care for trans youth.

“I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” Zephyr, a Democrat, said while debating the bill on April 18.

For three days, Republicans didn’t allow Zephyr to speak on any bills.

Protesters gathered at the Capitol on the third day, April 24, and chanted “Let her speak!” from the gallery while Zephyr defiantly raised her microphone in the air. Two days later, the House voted 68-32, along party lines, to censure the first-term lawmaker for the remainder of the session, officially barring her from participating in debates on the House floor.

But in using their power to silence her in the state, Zephyr’s colleagues inadvertently amplified her message across the country.

In the four months since, Zephyr, 34, has become a national celebrity and the pride of her home city.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed chat with a constituent at Cylde Coffee in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed chat with a constituent at Cylde Coffee in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

While standing in Clyde Coffee, a bright and modern cafe in downtown Missoula, three people approached her within 15 minutes, two of them visiting from out of state.

Most of the windows of downtown businesses have a poster of her holding her microphone in the air on the House floor alongside what has become a rallying cry for her supporters, “Let her speak.”

During a hike on the Pattee Canyon Trail overlooking part of Zephyr’s district, which is framed by green and blue rolling mountain ranges, a passing hiker, slightly out of breath, eagerly waved and said, “Hi Zooey! Keep going.”

That fame — which has led to national speaking engagements and an appearance on ABC’s “The View” — hasn’t been entirely easy. The national attention has led to online harassment and even death threats against both Zephyr and her fiancée, the independent journalist and prominent trans advocate Erin Reed.

Yet still, Zephyr said she didn’t regret anything she did during her first legislative session.

“I feel personally determined to do everything I can going forward to help shape a version of Montana and this country that is kinder and more accepting, and I would not change anything,” she said.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr in the upper level of Gild in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, where she held her election night watch party in November. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr in the upper level of Gild in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, where she held her election night watch party in November. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

A censure heard round the country

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier said the media “got it all wrong” while covering Zephyr’s censure.

In a phone interview, Regier, a Republican, said Zephyr initially wasn’t allowed to speak for three days because her comments on the transition-related care ban violated rules on decorum, and she wouldn’t apologize for her remarks.

“If you don’t do that, it turns into the riot that we had,” he said, referring to the April 24 protest at the state Capitol. “This is the first time we had a representative that was that defiant to the other 99 — not just the caucus — but the other 99, saying, ‘Nope, I’m gonna play by my own rules, not the House rules.’”

Zephyr said she wouldn’t apologize for her comments because they were not hyperbolic.

“We received an email from an ER doctor in the state of Montana who had a trans teen come in suicidal,” Zephyr said. “When they asked, ‘What’s going on, why are you feeling this way?’ the teen kept saying, ‘My state doesn’t want me.’”

Regier said some news outlets reported that Zephyr was censured because of her “blood on your hands” remark, but he said the final straw was Zephyr raising her microphone in the air during the protest as people chanted “Let her speak!” instead of leaving the House floor, as Regier had ordered all representatives to do.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, alone on the house floor stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the house gallery on April 24, 2023 in the Montana State Capitol.  (Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, alone on the house floor stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the house gallery on April 24, 2023 in the Montana State Capitol. (Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP)

“We had seven people arrested, and Rep. Zephyr was encouraging that as it was happening,” he said. “That was over the line for the entire Republican caucus.”

After the arrests, Zephyr said, she went to the jail with a group of activists until the protesters were released, and then the group went out to dinner at the Windbag Saloon & Grill in Helena.

“We sang ‘Solidarity Forever,’” she said, a popular trade union anthem written in 1915, “recognizing the importance of standing up to those who would wield power to hurt others.”

Izzy Milch, who met Zephyr in 2019 while a barista at a Missoula coffee shop Zephyr frequented, was one of the protesters. Milch, who wasn’t arrested, waited at the jail with Zephyr and attended the dinner.

“That just felt like a microcosm of this world that we imagined that we can create eventually,” Milch said of the action-packed day. “All of us were kind of in shock and talked about the Legislature and what had happened so far in the session, but then just also talked about the reasons that we were there and the reasons that we believe that Montana can be a place where we can do things like this and where we can have people like Zooey represent us.”

Some of Zephyr’s supporters said she was held to a different standard than other representatives in the House for her comments on the transition-related care ban.

Transgender rights activists hold signs as they march through the University of Montana campus on May 3, 2023 in Missoula, Mont. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file)
Transgender rights activists hold signs as they march through the University of Montana campus on May 3, 2023 in Missoula, Mont. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr walks out of Gild in downtown Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr walks out of Gild in downtown Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

Former state Rep. Mallerie Stromswold, a Republican from Billings who served from January 2021 until January 2023, said Zephyr’s comments were “perfectly normal” for the House floor.

“There’s many times when people have made similar comments in relation to abortion legislation,” Stromswold said. “It was obviously going to upset people, but I think the reaction and then the snowball of everybody’s reaction, everything that transpired after was just so ridiculous.”

At the same time, she said, she’s conflicted about Zephyr’s decision to raise her microphone in the air.

“When things like that happen, it slows the process,” Stromswold said, adding that she would have “just let my supporters do what they do and stand to the side.”

Stromswold was elected to a second term in 2022, but she resigned early due, in part, to what she described as a “hostile” climate in the House, particularly surrounding LGBTQ issues. During her second week in office, she said, some of her Republican colleagues were angry with her when she voted against two bills that targeted the LGBTQ community. Then, at the start of her second term, Regier called the Republican women representatives into his office and asked them how they felt about Zephyr using the women’s restrooms in the building, Stromswold recalled.

“I remember being really, really mad that this is what we were talking about — that Regier had won speakership less than two hours ago, and that’s what we were talking about,” Stromswold said.

She added that locks were added to the doors of the women’s bathrooms, so that someone could use the entire multi-occupancy restroom alone.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a supporter at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023. (Tommy Martino / AP file)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a supporter at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023. (Tommy Martino / AP file)

Regier would neither confirm nor deny that the meeting happened, but he said there are many personnel and logistical issues that come up at the start of a session, and that he had a variety of meetings at the time.

While Zephyr was barred from speaking on the House floor and after her censure, the Montana Freedom Caucus — a group of 21 Republican legislators who led calls for Zephyr’s censure — released statements that misgendered her, using male pronouns to refer to the state lawmaker.

When asked whether he agreed with that language, Regier responded, “Right now we’re talking about the behavior of a representative. If you want to talk about pronouns, or bills or sex identification, that’s a whole different topic.”

Regier did not use any pronouns to refer to Zephyr during an 18-minute interview.

Life before politics 

While politics is central to her life now, Zephyr said that wasn’t always the case. In fact, she said she didn’t have plans to go into politics until just a few years ago.

Zephyr spent the first decade of her life in Billings, until she and her parents moved to Seattle, where she remained until she received her bachelor’s degree.

Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Zephyr was a competitive wrestler. She would come home after wrestling practice, eat dinner and then practice more with her dad on a wrestling mat her family had at home. She still quotes her former coaches to this day, using sports analogies for everything from speeches in the House to dealing with hate.

She said she often returns to guidance a wrestling coach gave her when she was 9 years old and nervous ahead of a tournament: “If you’re not nervous, you’re not ready,” Zephyr recalled the coach saying.

State Rep. Zooey Zephyr begins her first day of remote voting at the State Capitol, on April 27, 2023 in Helena, Mont. (Brittany Peterson / AP file)
State Rep. Zooey Zephyr begins her first day of remote voting at the State Capitol, on April 27, 2023 in Helena, Mont. (Brittany Peterson / AP file)

“Being nervous is your body’s way of telling you that something is important to you,” she said. “If I’m going into my censure speech nervous, good.”

Zephyr graduated from the University of Washington in 2011 with a bachelor’s in business administration and creative writing, and then she moved to Missoula in 2015 with $1,000 to her name to get her master’s in creative writing and literary criticism at the University of Montana. She wanted to be — and still hopes to be — a writer.

She also worked at the university from 2015 to December 2021, first as the graduate program coordinator for the biology graduate programs, and then as the program manager in the provost’s office.

She came out as trans in August 2018, when she was a student working at the university, and she said her family did not support her in this. She doesn’t like to dwell on it, because too often trans people’s stories are defined by their trauma, and not enough by the community and family that they choose, she said, pointing to Reed and her 8-year-old son.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed at Gild in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, where she held her election night watch party in November. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed at Gild in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, where she held her election night watch party in November. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

When her family didn’t support her, she said, Missoula embraced her and took care of her. She taught Lindy hop swing dance classes downtown, where she said her students were always supportive.

Emily Weiler was one of those students. She met Zephyr in 2017, shortly before she came out as trans, and the two teamed up for a Missoula dance competition.

“She radiates now in a way that she didn’t before, when she wasn’t fully herself, and it’s been a wonderful transformation to watch,” Weiler said.

‘She wasn’t going to ever go quietly’

Zephyr said she decided to run for office in 2021, after two bills targeting transgender people passed the House by one vote. She had nearly completed her master’s degree, and her adviser told her she could put it on hold for as long as she needed to.

Weiler said she was excited when Zephyr decided to run for House District 100, which at the time included an area southwest of downtown Missoula and west of the University of Montana, and represented just under 12,000 Montanans, though there has been redistricting since.

“She’s always been one to put her money where her mouth is,” Weiler said. “She was very much the type of person that wanted to leave a lasting impression out there. She wasn’t going to ever go quietly. She would be known.”

In November, Zephyr defeated her Republican opponent with 80% of the vote in the liberal district.

She held her election night watch party at Gild, a three-story bar in Missoula with wooden booths downstairs and mid-century modern decor upstairs. It was the first place Zephyr dressed feminine in public. The basement is an arcade, where Zephyr, a former competitive video game player, enjoys playing the Nintendo game “Super Smash Bros.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr and her fiancée Erin Reed kiss in between funnel cake at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr and her fiancée Erin Reed kiss in between funnel cake at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

Love entered Zephyr’s life not long after politics. Zephyr and Reed met in the spring of 2022, while on calls with other activists to organize in response to Texas initiating investigations into the parents of trans minors. Reed, who is based in Maryland, said she fell in love with Zephyr in part because she is easy to talk to. When they first started dating, they would fall asleep while talking to each other on the phone.

“The fact that she was passionate about things and the fact that like we’re in the same work together, like we understand the pressures that are involved in this work, we understand what it’s like to have to be there for all of these big, sometimes very powerful, but also harmful moments around the community and being able to be there for one another, it was really big for both of us,” Reed said.

Zephyr proposed to Reed at a Queer Prom event in Missoula in May, but they don’t yet have a date for the wedding.

Reed said it’s been great to watch her son fall in love with Zephyr as well.

At the Western Montana Fair early last month, Zephyr was “ride mom” to Reed’s son, because rides make Reed dizzy. Zephyr got on a ride with the 8-year-old that lifted riders straight up into the air, high above all the fairgoers, many of whom were kids in cowboy boots. The ride held them there for a few seconds and then suddenly dropped them straight down.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, riding rides and taking photos with constituents. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr and fiancée Erin Reed at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023, riding rides and taking photos with constituents. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

The state fair was not devoid of political talk, and Montanans across the political spectrum approached Zephyr at the fair.

A man waited to speak to her while she bought Reed’s son a snow cone. He introduced himself as John Driscoll, the former Democratic speaker of the Montana House from 1977 to 1979.

“I thought she did a great job,” Driscoll, now a registered Republican, said. “I admired her courage; I admired the way she conducted herself, and she brought a lot of respect to what she was doing.”

Without mentioning Regier’s name, Driscoll added, “When you’re the speaker, I always felt the job was to create the conditions for people to talk to each other and have conversations — not to kick them out.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr chats with constituents at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr chats with constituents at the Western Montana Fair in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

Landon Roberts, an 18-year-old trans man, and his friends asked to take a photo with Zephyr next to the carousel.

“I appreciate that Zooey is a trans person who is fighting for everybody but also facing a lot of discrimination for a facet of who she is and still continuing to fight regardless of what other people are saying about her,” he said.

Roberts said Missoula is mostly accepting of transgender people, but he noted that pockets of the city still feel unsafe, and it’s part of the reason he decided to move to Boston for college in the fall.

‘Is this the best use of my voice?’

Since Montana’s legislative session ended in May, Zephyr has been transient. She lived in a temporary apartment in Helena during the session and moved out of her apartment in Missoula. She put her belongings in storage and spent the summer traveling with Reed and speaking.

Among the items in her storage unit is a box of postcards and letters from supporters.

“Thank you for having the boldness to speak on behalf of this community and for using words that were honest, heartfelt and true,” one person wrote. “Your work means a lot to me as a lesbian woman, but more so to my transgender child living in this state, who is directly impacted by this legislature. Your words also impact her. Your fight impacts her.”

A campaign manager with Rep. Zooey Zephyr changes campaign signs from House District 100 to 95 after redistricting; Rep. Zooey Zephyr goes through mail she received and has been unable to read since the legislative session. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
A campaign manager with Rep. Zooey Zephyr changes campaign signs from House District 100 to 95 after redistricting; Rep. Zooey Zephyr goes through mail she received and has been unable to read since the legislative session. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

When asked about her future, Zephyr recalled a conversation she had with former state Sen. Bryce Bennett in the summer of 2021, just a few months after she announced she would run for a seat in the House. She said she told Bennett, the first openly gay man to serve in the Montana Legislature, that she wanted to find the room where her voice could do the most good.

“He said, ‘Not only is this a room that your voice can do good in, it’s the room your voice is needed in right now,’” Zephyr said. “So, I ran, and that stuck with me a lot. Everywhere I went, that’s been a thing I’ve been looking for — a place I can do good.”

Zephyr said doors to many different rooms have been opened for her since her first term in the Montana House, and she always asks herself the same questions: “How can I do good in this room? Is it worth my time, being in this space? Is this the best use of my voice?”

As she trudged up a hill on the Pattee Canyon Trail overlooking part of her district, she said people have been increasingly asking her if she’d consider running for Congress, given her new visibility. She noted, laughingly, that the trail she was on was about to fork off into two separate paths.

The more she thought about Congress, she said, the more she realized that “state legislatures are the place where the harm is coming from. That’s where you can directly impact quality of life of your community.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a constituent who stopped her to chat while walking through downtown Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)
Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a constituent who stopped her to chat while walking through downtown Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 9, 2023. (Rebecca Stumpf for NBC News)

In the coming months, she plans to speak with county Democrats and go door to door to ask her constituents what they would like to see happen in the next session.

“I had 6,000 of those conversations in 2022, and I will try to have as many if not more,” she said. “It’s less pitching myself and more trying to see what good I can do next session.”

For now, she said, she’s enjoying “mom-ing.” She shuffles Reed’s son along the trail, carries him on her back at certain points, and stops to show him invasive plants. Zephyr rounds a corner and the landscape opens up — trees dot the canyon and clouds sit low in front of the distant mountains.

Looking forward, Zephyr said she’s excited to help other people like her, who are frustrated with the state of things and want to change them.

“That’s what I’m most excited about — that I could try and find people who feel the drive to do good, to be kind and to get in the room where their voice can make a difference, and I can be a hand to help them along that path.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com