Montana Republicans banned transgender representative Zooey Zephyr from the statehouse floor for the rest of the session after she told colleagues they would have “blood on your hands” if they voted to outlaw gender-affirming medical care for trans youngsters. Zephyr can vote remotely but cannot participate in floor debates for the rest of the legislative session.
The Democratic congresswoman was barred from speaking for a week after Republicans called her remarks indecent. On Monday, protesters demanded Zephyr be allowed to speak, shutting down the statehouse. Republicans accused Zephyr of endangering legislators and employees by encouraging rallies in the parliament. Montana lawmakers have not punished a colleague in nearly 50 years.
Zephyr defiantly spoke for the LGBTQ+ community, Missoula residents, and “democracy itself” before lawmakers voted on Wednesday. She accused Republican House Speaker Matt Regier of silencing her 11,000 constituents and “nailing democracy” to the coffin. “Using decorum to silence people who hold you accountable is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” she remarked.
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She branded the vote a “disturbing affront to democracy” that prevented her from representing her constituents. “Though the Republican supermajority has voted to strip me of my ability to debate, I remain steadfast in my commitment to my community,” she stated. “I will continue to make difficult moral choices to represent those who entrusted me.”
As I left the House chambers, I pressed my light to speak—a reminder that this legislature is removing 11,000 Montanans from discussion on every bill going forward.
I will always stand on behalf of my constituents, my community, and democracy itself. pic.twitter.com/H3CLZufy6E
— Rep. Zooey Zephyr (@ZoAndBehold) April 26, 2023
Zephyr tapped her light to speak as she exited the rooms as “a reminder that this legislature is removing 11,000 Montanans from a discussion on every bill going forward”. Zephyr’s punishment has sparked a debate about governance and who has a voice in democracy in politically polarized times, similar to the Tennessee statehouse’s expulsion of two black lawmakers for disrupting proceedings with a post-school shooting gun control protest.
Tennessee lawmaker Justin Pearson supported Zephyr. “Voices across the country continue to rise for justice and expose the anti-democratic behavior of people in Republican-led states,” he tweeted. “We will fight for every voice.” The Missoula politician refused to apologize for her comments on the proposed ban last week, so Montana Republicans wouldn’t allow her to speak.
Since the statements, conservative Republicans have misgendered Zephyr. Zephyr’s words, and the Republican response, set off a chain of events that ended in a gathering outside the capitol at midday Monday. Protesters chanted “Let her speak” in the statehouse gallery and halted House proceedings. Her fans and critics rallied around the scene. Capitol police nabbed seven.
In a letter to Zephyr, Republican leaders locked the gallery on Wednesday “to maintain decorum and ensure safety” after Tuesday’s floor session was canceled without explanation. Republicans said Zephyr incited the chambers brawl that resulted in Monday’s protester arrests. “This is an assault on our representative democracy, spirited debate and the free expression of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of turmoil and incivility,” Republican David Bedey said on the house floor.
Missoula, a liberal college town where 80% of voters elected the first openly trans politician, was shaken by the events. Erin Flint, 28, feared “they’re going to limit her power” when she fled. She didn’t anticipate Zephyr’s utter silence. Montana has historically favored libertarianism over cultural warfare. For decades, Democrats won the governorship and occasionally one or more legislative chambers.
Andy Nelson came out as homos*xual in his final year of college at the University of Montana in Missoula, when he volunteered at the Center, a local LGBTQ+ community group where he is currently executive director. He recalls protracted talks about whether such an organization was still needed after homos*xual marriage was legalized nationally in 2015. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign changed that.
Trump won both years. Republicans retain all statewide and congressional seats, but Democrat Jon Tester holds one of the state’s two US Senate seats, a prominent GOP target in 2024. Last year, GOP Republicans won a supermajority in both chambers after Zephyr was elected in her Missoula district of around 11,000 citizens.
One of the Center’s board members, Zeke Cork, 62, said the 1970s were terrific in Missoula, but he had to obey regulations to stay safe. In 2015, railroad dispatcher Cork returned to Montana. He transitioned two years ago. Since its introduction, Cork has traveled to Helena’s state capitol to oppose transgender legislation. Zephyr joined dozens of Missoulans at the capitol this week after being silenced.
“We would much rather live quiet lives, out of the spotlight, living under the radar, living our best lives,” Cork remarked. “I’d rather not fight,” Cork said the community has no option. Cork, a Zephyr resident, stated, “She speaks for me and I sent her to that house.” “We’re defending democracy.”