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Transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr barred from Montana House after GOP holds censure vote

Protesters filled House gallery on Monday to rally against silencing

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 26 April 2023 22:31 BST
Montana transgender lawmaker silenced again as backers erupt

Republicans in the Montana House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to censure Representative Zooey Zephyr, a Democratic, transgender lawmaker who has been denied the right to debate for over a week after speaking out against a proposed ban on gender-affirming medical care.

The vote means that Rep Zephyr, who represents the city of Missoula, will be barred from speaking during floor sessions or participating in person in House business for the rest of the 2023 session.

During debate about the vote, Rep Zephyr said she wasn’t sorry for speaking out against the medical care bill, then later showing her support as protesters raucously rallied in her defence earlier this week once Republicans started refusing to recognise her on the House floor.

“When I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic,” the Democratic lawmaker said during remarks on the floor on Wednesday. “I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body. When the Speaker asks me to apologise, on behalf of decorum, what he’s really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed.”

This session, Montana Republicans are considering bills that would ban drag shows, allow for the deadnaming and misgendering of trans youth, strip anti-discrimination protections from state law, allow medical providers to deny people care for personal reasons, and ban gender-affirming treatments.

The Missoula lawmaker also told colleagues about receiving calls from LGBTQ+ families that were terrified about the impact of the various bills being discussing in the Montana legislature and shared the story of a trans teenager who attempted suicide while watching representatives discuss one such piece of legislation.

The dramatic censure vote follows days of controversy in the Montana statehouse.

On Monday, riot police descended into the House viewing gallery and arrested seven people, as protesters rallied against the ongoing silencing of Rep Zephyr, the first transgender person elected to the state legislature in Montana history.

“The Montana Republican party and the House Republicans are making a fatal mistake,” Keegan Medrano of the Montana ACLU told The Independent ahead of the historic vote. “I think that they’re showing all Montanans that they’re unafraid to infringe on free speech. They’re unafraid to engage in harassment and discrimination against an individual that they’ve been seeking to legislate out of existence.”

Zooey Zephyr (Thom Bridge/Independent Record)

“The richness of this is all is that they have taken away her microphone but they’ve only amplified her voice. They’ve take a local community leader, a real figure for Missoulians, and turned her into a national and international figure, a sort of distillation of the animus and the legislation they’re seeking to pass,” they added. “I think this will completely backfire on them and I think it already has.”

Montana Republicans defended the vote, saying it was an appropriate response to the protests on Monday, in which demonstrators drowned out lawmakers and Rep Zephyr held up her non-functional microphone in support.

Representative Casey Knudsen said the decision was about the “right to self-protection,” and falsely suggested the protests on Monday were violent.

“The behaviour violated the civil rights and safety of the 99 other members of this body, our staff, our pages, and the public,” he said during debate on Wednesday.

Advocates working on behalf of LGTBQ+, nonbinary, and two-spirited people in Montana condemned the GOP for barring Rep Zephyr from the House.

“Representative Zephyr has courageously broken barriers and spoken truth to power, all while being surrounded by colleagues who misgender and tarnish her,” Quinn Leighton of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana said in a statement to The Independent. “She has been unwavering in her advocacy for her constituents, as well as for all trans, non-binary, intersex, and two-spirit Montanans. We will not be silent and allow the Montana GOP to destroy any vestige of democracy in broad daylight.”

Shawn Reagor, director of equality at the Montana Human Rights Network, told The Independent the vote was a “move against democracy,” and a disproportionate response to peaceful protests against a set of bills that will affect nearly every aspect of life for the state’s LGBTQ+ community if passed.

“There was no violence. There were no weapons,” he said. “The idea that they’re trying to make out what was a peaceful protest to be something  violent follows this train that they have been following all legislative session, trying to demonise and villainise trans, non-binary and two-spirited folks and silence our voices.”

“We’re standing for our rights, our arts, and the freedom to be ourselves. This is a fight they brought to us.”

National leaders also weighed in.

“It is shameful that some of the most extreme members of the Montana House are trying to silence one of the only transgender legislators in the state simply for serving her constituents and the LGBTQ+ community,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “This action is part of a deeply disturbing trend of legislatures punishing leaders for using their voices to protest against discriminatory and dangerous legislation – we’ve seen it in Oklahoma and Tennessee already. Montanans deserve better than this.”

The rapidly escalating dispute began on 18 April, when Rep Zephyr pointedly criticised her colleagues for backing a proposal to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors, telling them they had “blood on their hands.”

Republican lawmakers responded by demanding she apologise, and the state’s right-wing Freedom Caucus released a statement deliberately using the wrong pronouns for Rep Zephyr, condemning the Democrat for “hateful rhetoric.”

The debate in Montana is reminiscent of the recent decision by GOP Tennessee lawmakers to expel two Democratic representatives who joined in with anti-gun violence protesters from the statehouse floor following the Nashville shooting.

The representatives, Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, were both reappointed to the Tennessee House by local officials, and have since become national figures, meeting with President Biden to advocate for more gun laws.

The story of the vote against Rep Zephyr also quickly spread across the country.

During a hearing over a Louisiana bill requiring parental permission for transgender youth to use the name and pronouns of their choice at school, a youth trans advocate quoted from the Montana Democrat.

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