Photo from Montana.gov
Instead of shutting down harmful anti-trans bills, the Montana House of Representatives chose to shut down the voice of trans representative Zooey Zephyr.
Zephyr is a member of the Montana House of Representatives and is in the 100th district representing Missoula, one of the bluest areas of Montana. After beginning her activism in 2020, having testified before the Montana legislature to defend LGBTQ+ rights, Zephyr felt the need to be directly involved in lawmaking. In March 2021, she decided to run for the position of state representative in the 2022 midterm elections. After winning her campaign, Zephyr became the first transgender person to be elected into Montana’s state legislature and was sworn in on Jan. 2, 2023.
Zephyr has recently become the center of focus amidst a controversy: she was barred from speaking on the House floor.
On April 8, 2023, the Montana House of Representatives was having a floor debate about Bill 99, referred to as the “Youth Health Protection Act.” The act would prohibit gender-affirming care for transgender minors. If passed, this bill would force transgender youth to endure puberty as their sex assigned at birth, which may be different from what they identify as. In many aspects, the effects of puberty are irreversible and transitioning after puberty can make the transition harder.
Zephyr openly opposed Bill 99 and stated, “The only thing I will say is if you vote ‘yes’ on this bill and ‘yes’ on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.” Montana lawmakers found this statement to be unacceptable and asked Zephyr to apologize. When Zephyr refused, Speaker Matt Regier refused to let Zephyr speak, even though no formal censure was put in place to allow him to do so.
Then, on April 24, a crowd of around 100 people gathered in the House Gallery to rally support for Zephyr. She stood by her supporters while holding a microphone as they chanted, “Let her speak.” Members of the Montana Freedom Caucus, who had earlier called for Zephyr’s censure in a statement where they misgendered her, now said that Zephyr was “encouraging an insurrection.”
On April 26, there was a hearing to vote on the proposal to sanction Zephyr for her behavior during the protest and a supermajority voted her off the House Floor. This decision means that Zephyr can no longer speak and voice her opinions on any bills on the House floor.
On May 1, Zephyr filed a lawsuit against Montana on the terms that her rights had been violated. On Tuesday, Judge Mike Menahan decided he did not have the authority to overturn the decision of the legislators, meaning Zephyr will not be allowed to speak on the House floor unless she is reelected next year.
As if being a transgender woman in a conservative state did not make it hard enough to make positive change, now Zephyr has no voice in the matters of passing anti-LGBTQ+ laws. This creates an extremely harmful precedent — if LGBTQ+ lawmakers are excluded, especially in conservative places, who will be there to voice the concerns of the community? Who will be the ones to protect queer youth?
Zephyr’s case is a perfect example of how your freedom of speech is not guaranteed if you have opposing views or are a minority. To those who believe she said something completely out of line, it is important to note that the phrase “having blood on your hands” is something that has been said countless times without consequence in legislature.
Furthermore, some may note that it was her behavior at the protest that prompted her expulsion. However, it is important context that Zephyr was being informally censored immediately after her comment — before the protest even occurred — and continued to be after her refusal to apologize, which is not something the House is allowed to do. Nevertheless, her actions at the protest themselves do not seem reasonable cause for suspension.
Many point out the recent similar case of two Black Tennessee representatives, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, which occurred just about a month before Zephyr was barred, in which the two representatives were expelled from the House but were soon reinstated. During a protest advocating for gun rights, Jones and Pearson had used a megaphone on the House floor, prompting the expulsion.
With this in mind, several wonder that if the marginalization against these two representatives was addressed and fixed, why couldn’t Montana representatives do the same? Why did Montana treat Zephyr’s case as unique and severely offensive when similar acts were done?
In the end, one cannot deny that Zephyr was treated unjustly. Though some can claim her words may have been “rude” or “out of line,” her actions were not deserving of her being prevented from advocating for change. As a representative of Montana’s House, it is Zephyr’s job to speak her opinions on issues concerning bills. She should not be punished for doing her duty.
Author: Maya Parra (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Gwendolyn Hill (She/Her), Bella (She/They)