By MATTHEW BROWN, AMY BETH HANSON, and SAM METZ
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The latest high-profile example of statehouses deciding who can be heard during legislative debate is playing out in Montana, where a transgender lawmaker on Monday challenged in court a decision to remove her from the House floor for the remainder of the session.
Leaders in the GOP-controlled statehouse have not allowed Rep. Zooey Zephyr to speak during debates since April 18, after she told colleagues who supported a ban on gender-affirming care for youth that they would have “blood” on their hands.
The remark provoked outrage from Republicans who said the language was belittling and an affront to civil discourse. Zephyr rebuffed demands from legislative leaders to apologize.
The silencing of Zephyr’s microphone drew hundreds of protesters last week to the Montana Capitol. From the House gallery they erupted in chants of “Let her speak!” and forced the House to temporarily adjourn. Police in riot gear forcibly cleared the gallery, seven protesters were arrested on trespassing charges and Zephyr was banished from the House floor.
Zephyr’s attorneys are asking a state district court in Helena to issue an injunction that would allow her to return to the House floor for the final few days remaining in the legislative session.
The standoff between Zephyr and House Republicans originated in a dispute over gender-affirming care for minors. It’s evolved to dovetail with a nationwide debate over the robustness of democracy in politically polarizing times.
Here’s what you need to know:
WHO IS THE TRANSGENDER LAWMAKER AT THE CENTER OF THIS?
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 34-year-old Democrat is from the left-leaning college town Missoula, where she’s a former administrator at the University of Montana. She has spent much of her adult life advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and worked behind the scenes during the 2021 legislative session to help block efforts to ban gender-affirming health care.
Following her November election, she said she wanted to enlist moderate Republicans to push back on what she called “extreme and dangerous attacks” and help people understand transgender adults like her.
Instead, she and fellow members of the Democratic minority have been powerless to stop Republicans from passing proposals focused on transgender kids. In addition to banning gender-affirming care for minors, lawmakers also passed legislation that says misgendering or deadnaming students is not illegal discrimination unless it rises to the level of bullying.
Deadnaming refers to using the name a transgender person used prior to transitioning.
Zephyr has likened gender-affirming care bans like the one that passed in Montana to “eradication,” echoing fears raised throughout the transgender community that stripping transgender youth of access to care endangers their lives and mental health.
WHAT STARTED THIS DISPUTE?
As the House debated the governor’s proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors, Zephyr spoke against the bill while making a 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.
The words have been used numerous times by others in American politics without consequence, including in recent years by the governor of Texas, a GOP congressman in Florida and a city councilwoman in Denver.
But a group of conservative lawmakers known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded that Zephyr be disciplined and she was stopped from speaking on the floor by the House speaker.
The group’s members have deliberately referred to Zephyr using male pronouns. That’s known as misgendering — using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender identity and the caucus’ chairwoman has indicated it will continue.
Following last week’s protests the House voted to banish Zephyr from the floor of the House of Representatives and the House gallery. The legislative session could end as early as this week. Zephyr has been casting votes remotely, including on Monday from a statehouse snack bar while she awaited a ruling in her lawsuit against Regier and House Sergeant-at-Arms Brad Murfitt.
WHO HAS LED THE CHARGE TO SILENCE ZEPHYR?
Zephyr’s punishment has thrust leaders in Montana’s Republican-majority Legislature into the spotlight, including Regier, who was elected House Speaker in January.
Throughout his tenure, Regier, a real estate investor from a northwestern Montana political family, has spearheaded legislation to restrict local governments from enacting gun control measures. His proposal to ban the type of abortion most commonly used after 15 weeks passed the Legislature this year. Gianforte hasn’t acted on the bill.
Although Montana has long leaned Republican, for years voters crossed party lines and elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and governor’s mansion. But the state has recently shifted rightward. Republicans now command control of state government, which they’ve used to push legislation restricting abortion and loosening gun laws.
One reflection of such a shift is the newly influential Montana Freedom Caucus, which includes at least 21 of the Legislature’s 102 GOP lawmakers.
Its ideological leader is U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale, a hardline conservative who backed former President Donald Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election and was among a core group of Republicans who opposed electing U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.
Efforts to punish Zephyr originated in the caucus, whose members said Zephyr’s comments displayed a “hateful rhetoric” and called for a “commitment to civil discourse” — similar to criticisms leveled against Democrats expelled from the Tennessee statehouse for joining in gun control demonstrations.
The caucus later issued a statement calling the protest and arrests an “insurrection” and accused Zephyr of encouraging it. No property damage or threats to lawmakers were reported, and the GOP rhetoric mirrored other cases where Republicans have tried to equate nonviolent protests with insurrection.
IS THIS RELATED TO THE TENNESSEE LAWMAKERS BEING EXPELLED?
Not directly, but the dispute reflects tensions and harsh rhetoric around culturally divisive issues — including firearms, racial justice and rights for the LGBTQ+ community — that currently dominate much of America’s political discourse.
The Tennessee expulsions stemmed from a dispute over gun control. It drew accusations of racism after Republicans removed two Black lawmakers following their participation in a protest but retained a third lawmaker involved who was white.
Zephyr has connected the fight over her words to the struggles facing marginalized groups throughout the country, including those “who have the audacity to stand up and say this legislation gets us killed” and have been met with punishment.
Last week, Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, who was expelled and reinstated as an interim lawmaker, called the Montana standoff anti-democratic. “We will not let our democracy die without fighting for every voice. We are in this fight from Memphis to Montana!” he tweeted.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City and Brown reported from Billings.