Montana House of Representatives sidelines trans lawmaker

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

The emboldened Montana House of Representatives on April 26 barred out trans State Representative Zooey Zephyr from the floor for the rest of the legislative session, further inflaming a controversy over her comments about a bill restricting gender-affirming care for youth.

The state’s GOP-dominated lower house voted 68-32 to punish Zephyr, a first-term lawmaker who was already being silenced in the chamber but will now be limited to remote voting for the rest of the legislative session. Zephyr’s punishment stems from remarks she made a week before when she said Republicans would have “blood on their hands” for voting to ban gender-affirming care for youth.

The latest move immediately sparked national headlines and swift condemnation from LGBTQ leaders, legal groups, and others just weeks after state lawmakers in Tennessee faced fierce criticism when they voted to expel two Black state representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, over a gun control protest. Both lawmakers were eventually reinstated after the State Legislature faced major blowback. In March, Oklahoma Republicans similarly punished a Black non-binary lawmaker, Representative Mauree Turner, after they accused Turner of stonewalling their efforts to question a trans rights activist who allegedly assaulted a police officer during a demonstration on trans rights.

In a lengthy written statement on April 26, Zephyr — the first out trans member of the Montana State Legislature — described the punishment as a “distributing affront to democracy” and said the move stifles her “ability to represent my 11,000 constituents in debate.”

“In recent months, the legislature has launched a relentless assault on the LGBTQ+ community, introducing bills that aim to undermine our art forms, our literature, our history, and our healthcare,” Zephyr said. “As I confronted the ban on gender-affirming care and exposed the grievous harm these bills inflict, I held those responsible to account. Subsequently, Speaker Regier denied me the right to be heard on any bill moving forward.”

The punishment was handed down after Zephyr faced pressure to apologize for her remarks. She refused to budge and, as a result, was denied an opportunity to speak on April 24 as protesters descended on the Capitol Building and chanted “Let her speak!” The protest prompted lawmakers to adjourn for the day and police arrested some of the demonstrators. Tuesday’s session on the floor of the House was canceled.

As for the fate of the anti-trans legislation, Republican Governor Greg Gianforte expressed his general support for the measure and indicated that he would propose amendments stipulating that Medicaid or the state health insurance plan would not cover puberty blockers or hormones.

The ACLU, the ACLU of Montana, and Lambda Legal vowed to bring the healthcare law to court if it is enacted. On April 26, the ACLU issued a written statement blasting the Montana House for punishing Zephyr.

“This is an anti-democratic effort by House leadership to censor one of their own colleagues for using her voice and platform to represent her constituents,” said Keegan Medrano, policy director of the ACLU of Montana. “Rep. Zephyr is a duly-elected member of the legislature and entitled to represent the people of their district. In voting to take away her microphone, the House is attempting to silence Montanans and trans people from speaking to the harm of all these bills. This is another shameful day in our state’s history and we’re determined to protect every transgender Montanans from these vile, bigoted attacks on their dignity and equality.”