Montana State Capitol Building in Helena. Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Supporters of trans Montana lawmaker demand that the state legislature lets her speak

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr hoisted a non-functioning microphone into the air on Monday as her supporters interrupted proceedings in the state House by chanting “Let Her Speak!” while Republican leaders in the legislature doubled down on their decision to continue to forbid her from participating in debate for a second week.

Zephyr, a first-term Democrat from Missoula, had aimed to speak on a proposal that would have restricted when children could change the names and pronouns they go by in schools and required their parents’ consent.

When lawmakers voted to continue subjecting Zephyr to a gag order, denying her the chance to speak, the gallery made up of her supporters erupted, forcing legislative leaders to pause proceedings and clear the room.

The ordeal is the latest development in a three-day fight over Zephyr’s remarks equating support for a ban on gender-affirming care for minors to violence. Zephyr, who is transgender, hasn’t been allowed to speak on the statehouse floor since Thursday because she told her Republican colleagues last week they would have “blood on their hands” if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

Supporters were escorted from the gallery above the state House floor.

Earlier on Monday, a defiant Zephyr told supporters on the statehouse steps that she planned to continue to speak forcefully against legislation that members of the transgender community, including herself, consider matters of life and death.

“I was sent here to speak on behalf of my constituents and to speak on behalf of my community. It’s the promise I made when I got elected and it’s a promise that I will continue to keep every single day,” Zephyr said before walking into the House chamber.

As a standoff over Zephyr’s fiery remarks moved into its second week, supporters waved pride flags and chanted “Let her Speak!” while she connected the transgender community’s plight against gender-affirming care bans to the political fights animating other marginalized groups throughout the United States.

READ MORE: Trans lawmaker silenced by Montana House speaker as Legislature debates gender-affirming care ban

“When those communities who see the repercussions of those bills have the audacity to stand up and say, ‘This legislation gets us killed,’ those in power aren’t content with just passing those hateful harmful bills,” she said. “What they are demanding is silence. We will not be complicit in our eradication.”

Zephyr, a first-term Democrat from Missoula, hasn’t been allowed to speak on the statehouse floor since Thursday because she told her Republican colleagues last week they would have “blood on their hands” if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

Ban proponents see Zephyr’s remarks as unprecedented and personal in nature. She and her supporters say they accurately illustrate the stakes of the legislation under discussion, arguing that restricting gender-affirming care endangers transgender youth, who many studies suggest suffer disproportionately from depression and suicidality.

The standoff is the latest example of emergent discussions around civility, decorum and how to discuss political issues many perceive as life and death.

Zephyr was silenced and deliberately misgendered by some Republican lawmakers in response to her charge last week. She plans to keep trying to speak on the House floor Monday despite Republican leaders insisting that won’t happen until she apologizes. House Speaker Matt Regier and his Republican colleagues have indicated they have no plans to back down. Near the start of the proceedings Monday, they pushed an item Zephyr requested to speak on to the end of the agenda.

After speaking and before the House convened, Zephyr entered the crowd gathered at the statehouse to support her stand. A 21-year-old from a small southwest Montana town teared up as he told her about his fears of coming out as trans in his community. Others hugged her, thanked her for fighting and apologized that she had to do so.

Katy Spence, a constituent of Zephyr’s who drove to the Capitol from Missoula on Monday, said the standoff was about censoring ideas, not decorum.

“She’s been silenced because she spoke the truth about what these anti-trans bills are doing in Montana — to trans youth especially,” she said of Zephyr.

Months after Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, the state joined a longer list of legislatures in passing new restrictions on transgender kids. Legislation this year has addressed issues ranging from the health care they can access to the sports teams they can play on, to the names they can go by. Though proceedings have been subjected to heated debate in more than a dozen statehouses, Zephyr’s standoff with Republican leaders has given the legislative battles over transgender kids newfound attention.

As proceedings began, her supporters filled the statehouse gallery and supplemental Montana Highway Patrol stood by to monitor developments.

The dispute started last Tuesday when the House was debating Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors. Zephyr spoke up in reference to 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.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican, immediately called Zephyr’s comments inappropriate and disrespectful. That evening, a group of conservative lawmakers known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded Zephyr’s censure and deliberately referred to her using male pronouns in their letter and a Tweet. That’s known as misgendering — using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender identity.

Zephyr previously upset legislative leaders with emotional testimony earlier this session.

The bill banning gender-affirming care for minors is awaiting Gianforte’s signature. He has indicated he will sign it. The bill calls for it to take effect on Oct. 1, but the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have said they will challenge it in court.

Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to finish for the year sometime next week.

Metz reported from Salt Lake City.