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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

House Speaker blocks transgender lawmaker from speaking, calls for apology

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Missoula Democrat and one of Montana’s first transgender lawmakers, was barred from speaking on a bill to define sex in law during a House floor debate on April 20, 2023.
Shaylee Ragar
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Missoula Democrat and one of Montana’s first transgender lawmakers, was barred from speaking on a bill to define sex in law during a House floor debate on April 20, 2023.

Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, one of Montana’s first transgender lawmakers, is blocked from speaking on the House floor after she condemned Republicans for advancing anti LGBTQ legislation.

Tense debate over Republican bills targeting the state’s LGBTQ community came to a head this week when Zephyr spoke in opposition to a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors on the House floor.

“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,” Zephyr said.

Immediately after her comments, House Majority Leader Sue Vinton and the Republican caucus stood in protest.

“I will note that it is entirely inappropriate, disrespectful and uncalled for,” Vinton said. “We can debate matters civilly and with respect for each other.

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers from either party to object to language used during debate.

Democrats have protested when Republicans described gender-affirming health care as mutilation, or when abortion was equated to satanism.

After Zephyr’s comment, 21 hardline conservative members of the Montana GOP known as the Freedom Caucus called for Zephyr to be censured. In their press release, they misgendered Zephyr.

Republican leaders didn’t call for a vote to censure Zephyr. Instead, Speaker of the House Matt Regier of Kalispell declined to recognize Zephyr during floor debate, meaning she wasn’t allowed to argue for or against bills. That decision came two days after Zephyr’s initial comments.

“There have been problems in the past, I don’t feel like in the future, until that trust is restored – it’ll be tough to recognize,” Regier said.

Regier said Zephyr crossed the line when she shamed lawmakers. He said she’s been asked to apologize, and that she likely won't be recognized unless she does.

“The shame on you. The turning around and saying shame on you for somebody’s vote, degrading someone for how they’re going to vote – that’s way off the issue. That’s making it personal,” Regier said.

It’s unclear if Zephyr will be allowed to speak on the House floor again for the remainder of the session.

The move to silence Zephyr resulted in a rules debate as Democrats fought against the Speakers’ decision and his interpretation of the House’s rules. Most of the Republican supermajority voted to uphold the block on her testimony, both in the Rules Committee and on the House floor.

The Montana American Indian Caucus, including one Republican, released a statement saying they stand in solidarity with Zephyr as people who have long experienced discrimination.

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democrat from Crow Agency and enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, said she believes the debate goes beyond rules of decorum and is on a “slippery slope to fascism.”

“It’s not something that – my way or the highway. It’s about everybody having equal access to this floor to be able to discuss and to be able to represent their community,” Stewart-Peregoy said. “And I believe that where we’re at is being discriminatory.”

Missoula County Democrats also released a statement condemning the Speakers’ decision, saying “they are silencing not only the voice of Representative Zephyr, but also the voices of roughly 11,000 Montanans in House District 100.

Zephyr stands by her comments and said she was describing accurately the harm the policy will bring to her community.

“I have lost friends to suicide this year. I field calls from multiple families who have dealt with suicide attempts, with trans youth who have fled the state, with people who have been attacked on the side of the road because of legislation like this,” Zephyr said.

When Zephyr was blocked from speaking, she was attempting to oppose a bill that would define sex as binary in law, eliminating the legal recognition of trans, nonbinary and intersex people in Montana.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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