Montana Republicans are punishing a trans lawmaker for criticizing their anti-trans bill

Montana House Republicans have silenced Rep. Zooey Zephyr following her critiques of an anti-trans bill. | Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP

The state GOP formally silenced Rep. Zooey Zephyr on Wednesday, banning her from the House floor.

The Montana House voted 68-32 to silence Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr on Wednesday, after she criticized a Republican bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors in the state. As a result of the vote, Zephyr will not be allowed on the House floor or the gallery, and will have to participate in votes remotely.

Zephyr is the first trans woman elected to the Montana legislature, and the GOP attacks on her come as Republicans across the country have pushed a swath of anti-trans bills. By limiting her participation in House bills to a remote vote, Republicans are effectively taking away her ability to engage in debates on legislation or speak out against proposals she disagrees with.

House Republicans have pushed for Zephyr’s censure by arguing that she used “hateful rhetoric” when she said last week she hoped lawmakers saw the “blood on [their] hands” as they considered legislation to curb gender-affirming care for minors. Additionally, Republicans argued that she breached decorum by signaling support for protesters who came to the House on Monday and chanted “let her speak” when GOP leaders refused to recognize her.

The effort to discipline Zephyr, who represents Montana’s 100th House district, has been criticized as undemocratic and an echo of what Tennessee Republicans recently did to Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson after they participated in a protest for gun control. Last month, Republicans expelled both lawmakers — who were later reinstated to their roles — from the Tennessee House. Montana Republicans’ maneuvers are ultimately a continuation of the GOP’s anti-trans positions as well as anti-democratic actions they’ve taken to quell opposition.

Montana’s anti-trans policy push also mirrors that of several other Republican-led states. Thus far, at least 11 states have approved bans that are comparable to Montana’s bill. The legislation would bar the use of hormones, surgery, and puberty blockers for youth who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Additionally, it prevents state Medicaid funds from being used for gender-affirming care and includes penalties for physicians who provide it to minors.

Republicans have denounced gender-affirming care as harmful even as major health care organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Association of Pediatrics have said it’s “medically necessary.” The GOP has also ramped up its anti-trans rhetoric, a message that’s particularly resonant with white Evangelical voters, over the last year. Montana, which recently saw Republicans take a supermajority in the legislature, is among the places where lawmakers have leaned into this strategy.

“I rose up in defense of my community that day speaking to harms that these bills bring and that I have firsthand experience knowing about,” Zephyr said in a floor speech ahead of the Wednesday vote. “I have friends who have taken their lives because of these bills, I have fielded calls from families in Montana.”

Why Republicans are disciplining Zephyr

Republicans’ attempt to discipline Zephyr follows the statements she made last week regarding legislation that would prevent minors from accessing gender-affirming care. That legislation, known as Senate Bill 99, was the subject of amendments during Zephyr’s remarks last week.

“If you disallow the youths of the medical care that is accepted by every major medical association … the only therapy left is either a) meaningless or b) conversion therapy, which is torture,” she said at the time. “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”

In the days since, a conservative group of lawmakers in the Montana Freedom Caucus released a letter lambasting Zephyr’s comments and misgendering her. They argued that she should be censured for “attempting to shame the Montana legislative body and by using inappropriate and uncalled-for language.” Specifically, they called out the comment she made about lawmakers seeing “blood on your hands.”

House Speaker Matt Regier had also said the disciplinary vote would address whether Zephyr violated the “rules” and “decorum” of the legislative body. Beyond her original comments, Republicans argued that Zephyr didn’t do enough to stop protesters who came to support her in the House gallery on Monday.

Zephyr has said she spoke out to highlight the impact these bills could have. “When I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic,” Zephyr said Wednesday. “I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body.” There are serious concerns that limiting access to gender-affirming care will negatively affect the mental health of more trans youth. A 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ rights, found that more than 50 percent of trans and nonbinary youth in the US had considered suicide, as discrimination against members of this community has increased.

After Zephyr’s speech, she was silenced on the House floor for more than three days. During this time, House Leadership did not let her speak in debate about other legislation and declined to recognize her on the floor, claiming that she breached decorum. This Monday, seven protesters were arrested as people chanted “Let her speak!” from the House gallery.

This move adds to Republicans’ anti-trans bills and anti-democratic moves

Republican attacks on Zephyr are a continuation of the onslaught of anti-trans rhetoric and policies the GOP has increasingly embraced. Beyond the bill restricting gender-affirming care, Montana is also weighing legislation that would narrowly define the terms “man” and “woman” in a way that excludes trans people from important legal protections, and a bill that shields students who misgender their classmates. As Vox’s Nicole Narea and Fabiola Cineas have explained, Montana is far from the only Republican-led state mounting this push, with several others proposing bills that require trans people to use bathrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth and legislation that limits trans athletes’ ability to compete in sports.

Such policies and rhetoric have been aimed at ginning up support from white Evangelicals, whose worldview relies on a narrow “gender binary,” says Sophie Bjork-James, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who studies the religious right. Many of these bills have also aimed to dehumanize trans people and frame them as predatory. “​​Being able to treat a trans person as someone who doesn’t belong in the legislature furthers this dehumanization,” she told Vox.

The punishment of Zephyr, who represents a district of roughly 11,000 people in western Montana, is also the latest in a string of undemocratic maneuvers Republicans have employed across the country in order to suppress viewpoints they disagree with. Such actions highlight a willingness by the GOP, in states where they have comfortable supermajorities, to undermine any opposition they face.

“Rep. Zephyr’s silencing and the expulsion of the ‘Tennessee 3’ make it clear that some state legislatures have grown increasingly authoritarian and will brook no opposition in their march to impose a legislative agenda that would trample over and silence the voices of the minority and vulnerable communities,” says Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for LGBTQ rights.

Update, April 26, 5 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 26 and has been updated to include a disciplinary vote in the Montana legislature.

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