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Montana GOP doubles down after blocking trans lawmaker from speaking, citing decorum

Rep. Zooey Zephyr on the Montana House floor as protesters chant "let her speak," on April 24, 2023. 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.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Rep. Zooey Zephyr on the Montana House floor as protesters chant "let her speak," on April 24, 2023. 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.

HELENA, Mont. – Since last week, Montana's Republican House Speaker Matt Regier has refused to acknowledge or let Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat, speak.

Zephyr, who represents parts of Missoula, is the first transgender woman elected to the legislature. She's been blocked from speaking since last Tuesday when she told supporters of a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors that she hoped they would see "blood on [their] hands," alluding to studies that show that transgender health care can reduce suicidality.

Leading U.S. medical groups, including the American Medical Association, say gender-affirming care is "medically-necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people."

Tuesday night, Zephyr tweeted out a letter she said received informing her "that during tomorrow's floor session there will be a motion to either censure or expel me."

Tuesday, the Speaker canceled the House's floor session. Speaking to the media, Regier did not say why, or take questions, but he did dispute the characterization of Zephyr being silenced, saying she has the option to apologize and again be recognized on the floor.

"The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr," he said, adding that House members are free to participate in debate while following House rules.

Democratic leaders disagree Zephyr broke the rules against using accusatory language on the floor, saying the Speaker doesn't have the right to block her speech indefinitely.

While the House has yet to take formal steps to expel Zephyr, the debate around decorum comes just about three weeks after House Republicans in Tennessee voted to expel two young Black Democrats, Rep. Justin J. Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, from that chamber.

The Tennessee House speaker said the lawmakers violated rules of decorum after Pearson, Jones and another Democrat used a megaphone on the House floor during a gun-reform protest. In just a few days' time, both lawmakers were voted back into their seats by local councils.

Republican leaders in Montana could call for a vote to formally censure Zephyr, but have not done so.

Law enforcement shut down protests to support Zephyr

Monday, when Zephyr was ignored after indicating she wanted to speak during a debate, protesters shouted "Let her speak." The bill at hand was one that would say transgender and nonbinary students' preferred pronouns should not have to be recognized by others in school.

More than 150 demonstrators had gathered in the House gallery to show their support for Zephyr, and when Speaker Regier banged his gavel and called for order, the chanting continued and grew louder. That's when he called for the sergeant-at-arms to clear the gallery.

Law enforcement in riot gear with batons began by asking protestors to leave, before physically pushing them toward the door.

Many Republican lawmakers left the chambers, while many in the Democratic caucus stayed behind and watched. Zephyr stayed at her desk throughout the uproar, holding her microphone above her head aiming to amplify the protestors.

Fifteen minutes later, the last of the protestors were arrested and the doors to the chamber were locked. Seven people were charged with criminal trespassing and transported to Lewis and Clark County jail, according to Sheriff Leo Dutton. All were released within a few hours.

Zephyr's response

"My constituents and community came up and shouted 'let her speak' – I felt pride in them," Zephyr said outside the Capitol while waiting with the arrested. "Because when they stood up, they are standing on behalf of democracy. They are standing to make sure that their electeds get heard. That the causes they care about don't get silenced."

Republican leaders released a statement calling Monday's events a "riot by far-left agitators" and said they "condemn violence and will always stand for civil debate."

"Protests like that are part of this process," said Democrat Kim Abbott, the House Minority Leader. She disputed Republicans' characterization of the events, saying protestors were non-violent. "Absolutely people have the right to come in a peaceful protest, and that's what they did."

Earlier in the day, before the protest in the House, hundreds of people rallied outside of the Capitol demanding that Zephyr be allowed to speak.

"Leadership has chosen to abandon any notion of integrity," Gwen Nicholson, a Missoula resident, told the crowd, "instead opting for underhanded, anti-democratic cheap tricks to silence speech they don't like in order to pass shameful laws meant to limit freedom, oppress minorities and consolidate power among a select few."

Late last year in an interview, Zephyr told NPR one reason why she decided to run for office in Montana: "Watching bills pass through the legislature by one vote, I cried and I thought to myself, 'I bet I could change one heart, I bet I could change one mind. We need representation in that room. I'm going to try to get in there.' "

Even though work in the House is paused for one day, members are still under a tight deadline. Montana's Constitution says it must adjourn in eight days, and they've yet to finish piecing together a budget, typically their most important task.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.