Supporters of silenced Montana transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr won't face trespassing charges

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana prosecutors are declining to pursue misdemeanor trespassing charges against seven people who were arrested in the state House gallery for protesting after Republicans denied transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr the right to debate bills near the end of the 2023 legislative session.

The Lewis and Clark County Attorney's Office filed motions in Justice Court to dismiss the charges “in the best interests of justice.” A justice of the peace signed three of the seven motions on Tuesday, court officials said. The remaining four were signed Wednesday.

Zephyr's silencing drew scores of protesters to the state Capitol and renewed nationwide debates about manners in politics. It also took place as conservative lawmakers nationwide have introduced a flurry of anti-LGBTQ+ bills this year.

One of the defendants, Paul Kim of Missoula, said his attorney told him the county decided to drop the charges. Phone messages seeking comment Tuesday from County Attorney Kevin Downs and Deputy County Attorney Deanna Rothwell were not returned.

The plaintiffs were arrested on April 24 after a group of people disrupted the floor session for about 30 minutes when the Republican majority denied Zephyr, a Democratic representative from Missoula, the opportunity to speak on a bill that would require parental consent for children to change the names and pronouns they use at school.

Zephyr defiantly hoisted her microphone into the air as her supporters chanted “Let her speak!”

Zephyr had been silenced for telling fellow lawmakers that if they supported a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth they would have blood on their hands. Republican lawmakers then banned Zephyr from the House floor for violating decorum during the protest, leaving her to watch the deliberations and vote on bills from a hallway outside the House chambers.

House Speaker Matt Regier did not immediately respond to a phone message Wednesday seeking comment on the dismissals. But Republican House leadership at the time described the disruption as a “riot” and an “ insurrection " that put lawmakers and staff in danger. No property damage or threats to lawmakers were reported.

Kim, one of those who was charged, said he was at the Capitol that day for a rally in support of Zephyr and the LGBTQ+ community. The loud protest in the gallery, he said, was a “spontaneous moment.”

Once law enforcement officers — some in riot gear — tried to clear the gallery, Kim said he made a decision for himself that “I was not going to be corralled out of there.”

Zephyr issued a statement Tuesday saying she was “overjoyed” to learn that the trespassing charges were being dismissed.

“When I find the strength to stand up in the legislature, I do so knowing that I am standing in solidarity with a long history of those who stood up to defend democracy,” she said. “That history now includes each of you.”

During the 2023 legislative session, Montana's Republican supermajority passed bills to limit drag shows and ban drag queen reading events at public schools and libraries and to define “sex” in state law as only male or female, something LGBTQ+ advocates say will deny legal recognition to nonbinary and transgender people.

The ban on gender affirming medical care for minors is set to take effect on Oct. 1. But a lawsuit is asking a state judge to temporarily block its enforcement until the case can be heard in court. A hearing is set for Sept. 18.