HELENA, Mont. – The latest high-profile instance of one party in a statehouse deciding who can be heard during legislative debate has ended for now after a judge denied a transgender lawmaker's bid to get back onto the Montana House floor and the Legislature adjourned.
First-term Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr had been prevented from speaking on the chamber floor by the House speaker since April 20, when she refused to apologize for telling colleagues who supported a ban on gender-affirming care for youths that they would have “blood” on their hands.
Her silencing drew hundreds of protesters last week to the Montana Capitol. From the House gallery, Zephyr's supporters chanted, “Let her speak!” as Zephyr raised a microphone in defiance. Police in riot gear cleared the gallery and arrested seven people for trespassing. Zephyr was voted off the House floor for violating its rules of decorum.
She challenged the move in court, but hours before lawmakers adjourned late Tuesday, state District Judge Mike Menahan said he wasn't going to interfere in the Legislature's punishment of one of its own.
The ruling means that barring an unforeseen special legislative session prior to 2025, Zephyr wouldn't get a chance to speak on the House floor unless she's reelected next year.
Republicans have a two-thirds majority in the Montana Legislature and control the governor's office, attorney general's office and almost every other statewide elected office.
“Your rights stop at a legislative supermajority,” Zephyr said in an interview after Tuesday's ruling. “If two-thirds of a body decide that you and your constituents don't deserve representation, you don't get it. ... That should be a huge worry for people who want to stand up for democracy."
The standoff between Zephyr and House Republicans originated in a dispute over gender-affirming care for minors, a bill Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed into law. It has evolved to dovetail with a nationwide debate over the robustness of democracy in politically polarizing times.
Here's what you need to know:
WHO IS ZEPHYR?
Last year, Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, placing her among a record number of transgender lawmakers who began serving across the U.S.
The 34-year-old Democrat, a former University of Montana administrator from left-leaning Missoula, worked behind the scenes during the 2021 legislative session to help block efforts to restrict gender-affirming health care.
Following her November election, she said she wanted to enlist moderate Republicans to push back on what she called “extreme and dangerous attacks” on transgender people.
Instead, she and the Democratic minority were powerless to stop Republicans from passing proposals focused on transgender kids. Zephyr has likened gender-affirming care bans to “eradication."
WHAT STARTED THIS DISPUTE?
As the House debated a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors, Zephyr spoke against it and referenced 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.
The words have been used numerous times by others in American politics without consequence, including in recent years by the Republican governor of Texas, a Republican congressman in Florida and a city council member in Denver.
The House speaker’s move to silence Zephyr came after members of the newly influential Montana Freedom Caucus said her comments displayed a “hateful rhetoric” and called for a “commitment to civil discourse” — similar to criticisms leveled against Democrats in the Tennessee statehouse who joined gun control demonstrations.
The group's members have deliberately referred to Zephyr with masculine pronouns in an example of misgendering, or using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender identity. The chair of the caucus has indicated it will continue.
Caucus members later called the statehouse protest and arrests an “insurrection." No property damage or threats to lawmakers were reported, and the GOP rhetoric mirrored other cases in which Republicans have tried to equate nonviolent protests with insurrection.
The polarization on display echoes events elsewhere in the U.S. as tensions around culturally divisive issues — including firearms, racial justice and rights for LGBTQ+ people — dominate much of America’s political discourse.
The two Tennessee Democrats were expelled from office by Republicans after chanting along with gun control supporters who packed the state's House gallery in response to a Nashville school shooting that killed six people, including three children.
In Oklahoma, Republicans censured a nonbinary Democratic colleague after state troopers said the lawmaker blocked them from questioning a transgender rights activist accused of assaulting a police officer during a protest.
The party-line vote removed Rep. Mauree Turner, the first openly nonbinary and first Muslim person elected to the Oklahoma Legislature, from all committee assignments. Turner could have kept the positions by issuing a formal apology but, like Zephyr, refused.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR ZEPHYR
Zephyr was not barred from committee proceedings and could be appointed to an interim committee, which meets between legislative sessions. She would have to be reelected to get back onto the chamber floor.
While her silencing by GOP colleagues made her a national figure in LGBTQ+ rights, in Montana, Republicans hope to capitalize on the dispute by painting Democrats as a party of extremists heading into the next election. The 2024 ballot will also feature a pivotal U.S. Senate race as Montana Democrat Jon Tester seeks a fourth term.
A day after she was ousted, Zephyr posted a solicitation on social media seeking donations for her reelection to the House. She said after lawmakers wrapped up their work Tuesday that she will continue to "do everything in my power to make sure my constituents are heard.”
Metz reported from Salt Lake City and Brown reported from Billings.