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Montana transgender lawmaker silenced again as backers erupt

Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr hasn't been allowed to speak on Montana's statehouse floor since Thursday.
Montana transgender lawmaker silenced again as backers erupt
Posted at 6:36 PM, Apr 24, 2023

Republican legislative leaders in Montana persisted in forbidding transgender Democratic lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from participating in debate for a second week as her supporters brought the House session to a halt Monday — chanting "Let her speak!" from the gallery before they were escorted out.

In the initial moments after proceedings were paused Monday afternoon, Zephyr defiantly hoisted a non-functioning microphone into the air as her supporters interrupted proceedings for nearly half an hour, after Republicans denied her requests to speak about a proposal that would restrict when children could change the names and pronouns they use in school,  and require their parents' consent.

The interruption is the latest development in a three-day fight over Zephyr's remarks to lawmakers who support a ban on gender-affirming care. Zephyr, who is transgender and a first-term Democrat representative from Missoula, hasn't been allowed to speak on the statehouse floor since Thursday, when she told her Republican colleagues they would have "blood on their hands" if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

Zephyr's supporters were escorted from the gallery above the state House floor on Monday, including several who were escorted by force. Leaders cut the sound on the video feed and Zephyr remained on the floor holding her microphone. Zephyr did not return after lawmakers reconvened and wrote on Twitter that she would be back after showing "support for those who were arrested defending democracy."

Zephyr told The Associated Press she was headed to the county jail with the half-dozen protesters who were arrested.

The display followed a promise Zephyr made earlier on Monday, when she told supporters on the statehouse steps that she planned to continue speaking forcefully against legislation that members of the transgender community, including herself, consider matters of life and death.

SEE MORE: Transgender Montana lawmaker refuses to back down after silencing

"I was sent here to speak on behalf of my constituents and to speak on behalf of my community. It's the promise I made when I got elected and it's a promise that I will continue to keep every single day," Zephyr said before walking into the House chamber.

Supporters waved pride flags and chanted "Let her speak!" while she connected the transgender community's plight against gender-affirming care bans to the political fights animating other marginalized groups throughout the United States.

"When those communities who see the repercussions of those bills have the audacity to stand up and say, 'This legislation gets us killed,' those in power aren't content with just passing those hateful harmful bills," she said. "What they are demanding is silence. We will not be complicit in our eradication."

Proponents of the ban on Zephyr speaking view her 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 suicide.

The standoff is the latest example of emergent discussions around civility, decorum and how to discuss political issues many perceive as life and death.

Zephyr was silenced and deliberately misgendered by some Republican lawmakers in response to her charge last week. She planned to keep trying to speak on the House floor Monday despite Republican leaders insisting that wouldn't happen until she apologizes. House Speaker Matt Regier and his Republican colleagues indicated they had no plans to back down. Near the start of the proceedings Monday, they pushed an item Zephyr requested to speak on to the end of the agenda.

SEE MORE: Utah lawmaker's home vandalized after sponsoring anti-trans bill

After speaking and before the House convened, Zephyr entered the crowd gathered at the statehouse to support her stand. A 21-year-old from a small southwest Montana town teared up as he told her about his fears of coming out as trans in his community. Others hugged her, thanked her for fighting and apologized that she had to do so.

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.

Months after Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, the state joined a long list of legislatures passing new restrictions on transgender kids. Legislation this year has addressed issues ranging from the health care they can access to the sports teams they can play on, to the names they can go by. Though proceedings have been subjected to heated debate in more than a dozen statehouses, Zephyr's standoff with Republican leaders has given the legislative battles over transgender kids newfound attention.

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.

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