Montana House to consider disciplinary action against transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr

Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

Republican lawmakers in Montana are expected to consider disciplinary action against Rep. Zooey Zephyr Wednesday afternoon after the state’s only transgender lawmaker spoke out against a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“I have been informed that during tomorrow’s floor session there will be a motion to either censure or expel me,” Zephyr tweeted Tuesday evening. “I’ve also been told I’ll get a chance to speak. I will do as I have always done — rise on behalf of my constituents, in defense of my community, & for democracy itself.”

Zephyr, a freshman Democratic lawmaker who represents Missoula, also shared a letter she received from GOP House leadership notifying her that a motion would be made to determine whether she violated House rules or its decorum and “whether to impose disciplinary consequences.” On Monday, Zephyr raised her microphone toward supporters in the Statehouse gallery above as they chanted, “Let her speak!”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr

Zephyr stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the House gallery on Monday. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

News of the motion is just the latest development in what critics say are attempts to silence the legislator, who hasn’t been able to speak on the House floor in nearly a week. Last Tuesday, in an impassioned speech 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, the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded disciplinary action against Zephyr, deliberately misgendering her in a letter and tweet. Zephyr has been barred from speaking on the House floor by Republican state House Speaker Matt Regier until she apologizes for her remarks.

On Monday, seven people were arrested by police for protesting in support of Zephyr 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.”

In a brief statement to reporters on Tuesday, Regier called the arrests “a dark day for Montana,” blaming Zephyr and journalists for not telling “the entire story.” He then canceled Tuesday’s afternoon House session without an explanation.

Law enforcement forcibly clear the Montana House of Representatives gallery during a protest

Law enforcement forcibly clear the Montana House gallery during a protest after the Speaker of the House refused again to acknowledge Rep. Zooey Zephyr on Monday. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

“Headlines that have happened over the last week, stating that Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false,” Regier said. “Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied. All 100 representatives will continue to be treated the same.”

Regier did not take any questions and did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Anti-trans efforts build across the country

An anti-LGBT protester

Anti-LGBT protesters with signs along a parade route in Queens, N.Y. (Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The actions by the Montana Legislature demonstrate two apparent trends among Republican state legislators: Disciplining — and subsequently elevating — Democratic representatives as well as pushing anti-trans legislation at a breakneck pace nationwide. Many, including Zephyr, have drawn parallels to what’s unfolding in Montana to what took place earlier this month in Tennessee, where two Black Democratic lawmakers were expelled over gun control protests on the state’s House floor in the wake of the deadly Nashville school massacre. The two have since been reappointed.

The language used to describe protests in Helena, the state’s capital, by Republicans echoed that of Tennessee GOP legislators, who described constituents raising their voice in the gallery in support of more gun restrictions as a scene equal to or worse than the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., that left multiple people dead and resulted in hundreds of arrests.

“There are no doubt there are connections,” Zephyr told CBS News Tuesday evening. “I think what we’re seeing is that when marginalized communities, communities who are impacted the most by legislation, rise up and speak to the harm, whether it’s me speaking on trans issues, whether it’s young Black men speaking on gun violence. Those folks in power, particularly on the far right, do not want to be held accountable for the real harm that these bills bring.”

The anti-trans effort by conservatives across the nation has taken both legislative and cultural forms. Montana would follow more than a dozen other states who 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. LGBTQ advocates in the state are hoping to carve out Kansas City as a safe haven for those seeking trans care.

Supporters of the bills banning gender-affirming care for minors say that they’re doing so in an effort to protect children, often focusing on the surgical aspect of care that is rare among those under 18. The treatments they’re 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.

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 laws targeting transgender Americans that was spearheaded by a network of anti-trans activists, according to reporting by Mother Jones last month.

Anti-trans efforts in Montana

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte at a Republican Governors Association conference last year. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

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 Montana GOP has also pushed a bill that would codify biological sex as either man or woman into a state law that would eliminate legal recognition of intersex, transgender and nonbinary residents.

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

“The ban is destined to be struck down because it is rooted in stigma and discrimination,” Sasha Buchert, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, told Yahoo News. “The legislation rains down harsh prohibitions on certain treatments for transgender youth but goes out of its way to explain that the same exact care will continue to be available for non-transgender youth. That is, by definition, impermissible discrimination that is prohibited by law.”

Buchert called the attempts to silence Zephyr “disgraceful” and dispelled misconceptions about what gender-affirming care is.

“It is important to clarify that no one is ‘pushing’ for young people to obtain care,” Buchert said. “The reality is that the treatments that are banned by this kind of legislation have proven clinically effective for treating gender dysphoria, based on decades of peer-reviewed science.”

Could Republican efforts backfire?

Matt Rosendale, right

Rep. Matt Rosendale, right, at the Capitol in January. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Matt Rosendale,R-Mont., tweeted Tuesday that there is “no room in the public square for political violence” in response to Zephyr’s comments.

And his Republican colleague, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines — who recently endorsed Donald Trump for president — said that there is a responsibility to “avoid extreme rhetoric and violence.”

“Spirited debate is encouraged in our democracy — it’s part of what makes our country great but with that comes a responsibility to be civil and to avoid extreme rhetoric and violence,” Daines tweeted Tuesday. “Endangering lawmakers and their staff is unacceptable.”

But Sara Rushing, a professor of political science at Montana State University, believes Republicans’ attempts to silence Zephyr could do the complete opposite of what they intend, instead amplifying her position and the reasons behind them. The “Tennessee Three,” for instance, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising efforts as they faced expulsion earlier this month.

“There is a long and dark history of mobilizing civility discourse to silence the voices of marginalized people, when they speak plainly about the human costs of their oppression,” Rushing told Yahoo News. “In this sense, what is happening in Montana is following a predictable script. But as we saw in Tennessee a few weeks back, those who deploy this tactic can’t always control the outcome. In fact, silencing such voices can function to amplify them, creating national awareness of their cause and a robust fundraising platform.”

Though Rushing said that any bill signed into law by Gianforte will immediately see challenges, she also admits any kind of legislation like this will have a “clear chilling effect” on medical practitioners and on caregivers seeking to advocate for trans youth.

Passing such legislation, she said, will tell “certain young people that their lives are not worthy of respect and autonomy, and by telling their parents that the medical privacy and parental rights that the Freedom Caucus has spent the last years championing, in the wake of COVID-19, do not apply to them.”

Jeremy Johnson, a professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena, says that what’s happening to Zephyr sets a dangerous precedent in the Statehouse.

“What is peculiar in this situation is that the speaker is refusing to allow Representative Zephyr to speak for reasons that appear to be extraneous to the rules,” Johnson told Yahoo News. “In other words, as far as I can tell, Representative Zephyr offended the Republican majority but did not break any rules doing so. Therefore, this is a situation without any precedent that I can remember.”

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