Silenced Montana trans lawmaker upholds stance in dispute

CORRECTS SPELLING TO ZOOEY NOT ZOEY Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, second from right, stands with members of the minority party on the house floor on Thursday, April 20, 2023 at the state capitol in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)
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Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Supporters of a transgender lawmaker who legislative leaders in Montana have prevented from speaking gathered outside the statehouse on Monday, waving pride flags chanting “Let Her Speak!” as a standoff over fiery remarks she made moved into its second week.

Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr hasn’t been allowed to speak on the statehouse floor since Thursday because she told her Republican colleagues last week that they would have “blood on their hands” if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

Zephyr, a Missoula Democrat, was silenced and deliberately misgendered by some Republican lawmakers throughout last week. Zephyr was silenced for a second day Friday as her Republican colleagues refused to let her speak on the chamber’s floor about a bill that would prevent minors from seeing pornography online.

She plans to keep trying to speak on the House floor Monday despite Republican leaders insisting that won’t happen until she apologizes. House Speaker Matt Regier and his Republican colleagues have indicated they have no plans to back down from their stance.

“There are 10,000 Montanans whose voice will not be heard because their representative will not be allowed to speak, and that makes me really sad,” said Rep. Connie Keogh, another Missoula Democrat, as proceedings opened on Monday afternoon.

The standoff is the latest example of emergent discussions around civility, decorum and how to discuss political issues many perceive as life and death. Ban proponents see Zephyr’s remarks as unprecedented and personal in nature. She and her supporters say they accurately illustrate the stakes of the legislation under discussion, arguing that restricting gender-affirming care endangers transgender youth, who many studies suggest suffer disproportionately from depression and suicidality.

Katy Spence, a constituent of Zephyr’s who drove to the Capitol from Missoula on Monday, said the standoff was about censoring ideas, not decorum.

“She’s been silenced because she spoke the truth about what these anti-trans bills are doing in Montana — to trans youth especially,” she said of Zephyr.

As proceedings began, Zephyr’s supporters filled the statehouse gallery and supplemental Montana Highway Patrol stood by to monitor developments. Zephyr voted on various measures, but leadership pushed discussion of a bill she requested to speak on to the end of the agenda.

House Speaker Matt Regier and his Republican colleagues have indicated they have no plans to back down from their stance, meaning the standoff is expected to resume when the Montana House reconvenes Monday afternoon at the Capitol in Helena.

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 dispute started last Tuesday when the House was debating Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors. Zephyr spoke up in 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 censure and deliberately referred to her using male pronouns in their letter and a Tweet. That’s known as misgendering — using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender identity.

Zephyr previously upset legislative leaders with emotional testimony earlier this session.

The bill banning gender-affirming care for minors is awaiting Gianforte’s signature. He has indicated he will sign it. The bill calls for it to take effect on Oct. 1, but the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have said they will challenge it in court.

Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to finish for the year sometime next week.