Trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr returns to work — in the hallway — after Montana GOP discipline

The Democrat has been clashing with Republicans over a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for minors.

Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr returned to work Thursday, one day after Republicans banned the transgender legislator from entering the legislative chamber for the remainder of the session as punishment for a protest.

Zephyr posted a photo to Twitter of her sitting outside the chamber with a laptop and notepads, working remotely. The Montana Legislature voted Wednesday along party lines to discipline Zephyr for raising her microphone to a crowd of protesters supporting her efforts against anti-trans legislation.

According to Montana Public Radio reporter Shaylee Ragar, House Speaker Matt Regier told Zephyr she should be sitting in the Democratic offices around the corner. However, the measure passed by the GOP only barred her from the chamber and gallery and did not explicitly ban her from the hallways in Helena, the state capital. The legislative session runs until May 10. The freshman Democrat, who represents the college town of Missoula, said she wanted to be as close to her desk as possible.

“Though they initially tried to have me removed from the public seating area, I am here working on behalf of my constituents as best I can given the undemocratic circumstances,” wrote Zephyr. “I'm talking to legislators, listening to debate, voting on bills, and fighting for democracy.”

Related: Montana House Republicans discipline transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr over protest

In an impassioned speech last week on a proposal that would ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, Zephyr told Republicans that they would have "blood on [their] hands" if they went through with the plan. In response, Republicans called Zephyr’s comments inappropriate and disrespectful. Later that evening, a group of conservatives known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded disciplinary action against her, deliberately misgendering her in a letter and tweet.

Zephyr had been barred from speaking on the House floor by Regier until she apologized. On Monday, she held her mic up toward protesters who were chanting “Let her speak” in support of her. Seven people were arrested in the House chamber, while dozens more demonstrated outside on the Capitol steps. Republicans described the scene as a “riot” and likened it to an “insurrection.”

On Wednesday, GOP lawmakers voted to bar Zephyr from the chamber floor for the remainder of the legislative session after she failed to apologize for breaking decorum two days prior.

“I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body,” she said during a five-minute speech, speaking on the House floor for the first time in more than a week. “And when the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr stands in front of the outstretched microphones of reporters in a colonnaded hall with an arched gallery stretching behind.
Rep. Zooey Zephyr talks with the media after a House of Representatives session at the Montana state Capitol on Wednesday. (AP/Tommy Martino)

“When my community is facing bills that get us killed, he's asking me to be complicit in this Legislature's eradication of our community,” she added, in a calm yet pointed tone. “And I refuse to do so and I will always refuse to do so.”

Montana's Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he would sign the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors and suggested amendments to make it stricter. The state GOP has also pushed a bill that would codify biological sex as either a man or a woman into a state law that would eliminate legal recognition of intersex, transgender and nonbinary residents.

The ACLU of Montana has already promised to take legal action, alongside Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization that focuses on the LGBTQ community, by challenging any state ban on gender-affirming care in court.

“Montana House Republican Leadership is acting with petulance and cowardice towards Rep. Zephyr,” Keegan Medrano, policy director of the ACLU of Montana, told Yahoo News, adding that the organization has been in contact with Zephyr and is willing to support her on “any future steps.”

“Throughout the session, Montana Republicans have mobilized their supermajority to cruelly punish, immiserate and ultimately extinguish LGBTQ Montanans for their own political gain, but they could not contain their anger, disdain and disgust towards their fellow Montanans and are punishing a trans legislator because they can,” Medrano continued. “The cruelty is the point and lays bare the lie that they want us to be saved. They want us gone. Any individuals who have the temerity to speak passionately about their existence and rights have been targeted and punished in that building.”

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Sara Rushing, a professor of political science at Montana State University, told Yahoo News that any attempt to further silence Zephyr will only make it harder on medical practitioners and caregivers seeking to advocate for trans youth.

“Many of Montana’s communities are severely underserved when it comes to health care, and making it harder to treat and support vulnerable youth is paradoxically being pitched as a ‘youth protection’ effort,” Rushing said, noting that Montana has a suicide rate for those between 11 and 17 that is twice the national average, a problem that she says anti-trans legislation “will potentially exacerbate.”

A Washington Post analysis published last week found that more than 400 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country since January, more than the number introduced in the previous four years. The legislation is the culmination of a years-long project to push anti-trans laws that was spearheaded by a network of anti-trans activists, according to reporting by Mother Jones last month.

Rep. Casey Knudsen speaks on the House floor, surrounded by a full complement of Montana lawmakers.
Rep. Casey Knudsen, a Republican, speaks on the Montana House floor during a motion to discipline Zephyr on Wednesday. (AP/Tommy Martino)

Montana would follow more than a dozen other states that have passed bans on gender-affirming care for minors, as the push against treating gender dysphoria (a condition in which a person’s gender identity conflicts with the biological sex they were assigned at birth) and banning trans youths from playing sports on teams that match their gender identity spreads across the nation. Missouri’s Republican attorney general took further steps this month, placing restrictions on care for trans adults.

Supporters of the bills banning gender-affirming care for minors say they’re doing so in an effort to protect children, often focusing on the surgical aspect of care, which is rare for those under 18. The treatments they are barring are evidence-based and supported by a wide range of medical professionals, including the American Medical Association, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“We believe it is inappropriate and harmful for any state to legislatively dictate that certain transition-related services are never appropriate and limit the range of options physicians and families may consider when making decisions for pediatric patients,” the AMA wrote in a 2021 letter to the National Governors Association.

In an ironic twist, Gianforte’s own son, David, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns “he” and “they,” lobbied his father earlier this year, according to the Montana Free Press, to stand against anti-trans bills that he says would harm the community he’s a part of.

Reading from a printed statement, David stood in his father’s office in late March and made his most heartfelt pitch: “I would like to make the argument that these bills are immoral, unjust, and frankly a violation of human rights.”

Thumbnail credit: Rep. Zooey Zephyr via Twitter