Montana House Cancels Session Amid Standoff With Transgender Lawmaker
HELENA, Mont. — Disputing criticism that they had silenced Montana’s only transgender lawmaker, Republican leaders abruptly canceled a session of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, a day after heated protests led to arrests in the House chamber.
In a brief news conference, Speaker Matt Regier blamed the lawmaker, Representative Zooey Zephyr, for the standoff, saying that she was not following House rules. “The only person who is silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr,” he said.
On Tuesday night, Ms. Zephyr shared what appeared to be a letter from the House speaker announcing a motion for Wednesday afternoon to decide “whether to impose disciplinary consequences” for her actions, according to the letter.
“I have been informed that during tomorrow’s floor session there will be a motion to either censure or expel me. I’ve also been told I’ll get a chance to speak,” said Ms. Zephyr, who has not been allowed to do so in recent days.
The increasingly tense confrontation started last Tuesday, when Ms. Zephyr, a first-term Democrat representing Missoula, made an impassioned speech on the House floor, telling colleagues that voting to ban transition care for minors would leave “blood on your hands.”
Conservative lawmakers condemned her for “hateful rhetoric,” and Mr. Regier said he would not allow her to speak on the House floor until she had apologized.
Ms. Zephyr has called the Republicans’ actions anti-democratic, and remained defiant in an interview on Tuesday. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure the Montanans who elected me have their voices heard,” she said. “It’s up to the speaker if he wants to recognize me as a duly-elected representative.”
The clash led to protests on the Capitol steps on Monday, and Ms. Zephyr’s supporters crowded the House gallery, shouting, “Let her speak!” As Ms. Zephyr stood and held her microphone in the air, Mr. Regier ordered the gallery cleared, and police officers moved in with batons and face shields. Seven people were arrested.
“I am devoted to those who rise in defense of democracy,” Ms. Zephyr said in a tweet after the arrests on Monday, while Republican leaders released a statement calling the action in the House chamber a “riot by far-left agitators.”
Montana is one of several states where Republican lawmakers have sought this year to prohibit hormone treatments and surgical care for transgender minors. About 1.3 million U.S. adults and 300,000 children identify as transgender, and efforts to restrict what is known as gender-affirming care have thrust them into one of the nation’s most pitched political battles.
Republican legislators have characterized transition care as harmful and experimental, saying that children and teenagers are not mature enough to make permanent decisions. But major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support this care, and say that bans pose serious mental health risks to young people, infringing not only on their rights but also on the rights of doctors and parents.
This year, 11 states have passed laws prohibiting such care for young people. Previously, just three state legislatures had enacted full or partial bans. The barrage of state legislation is part of a long-term campaign by national conservative organizations that see transgender rights as an issue around which they can harness some voters’ anger, and raise money.
Few of those legislatures have had to debate those laws with a transgender lawmaker as a member. That may change, if slowly: Over the last few years, a growing number of L.G.B.T.Q. people have been running for office and winning elections. The number of openly transgender and nonbinary people elected to public office increased to at least 70 this year, from 25 in 2019, according to the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which supports those candidates.
Danica Roem, a Virginia lawmaker who in 2018 became the first openly transgender state legislator in the country, said that the number of bills on transgender issues introduced in her state this year was unmatched by anything she had seen during her time in office. But she added that she is now serving her third term — and watching transgender candidates in other states win elections, too.
Ms. Zephyr, 34, said she ran for office on a campaign platform of affordable housing, health care, human rights and climate justice. But it is her clash with Republican lawmakers over transgender issues that has rapidly raised her profile.
“When you intentionally silence a representative of any party,” said Ms. Roem, the Virginia lawmaker, “but especially someone who is speaking passionately on an issue that directly affects them, and the community that they come from — what you inevitably end up doing is, you elevate their profile.”
She pointed to the two Democrats who were expelled by their Republican colleagues in Tennessee for leading a gun control protest on the House floor. The lawmakers, Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, who are both Black, have since been reinstated — but their expulsions jolted state politics and intensified debates over race and representation.
Republicans in Montana have denied that they are attempting to silence Ms. Zephyr, characterizing her criticism of their support for a ban on transition care for minors as “hateful rhetoric” that could leave to violence. In a letter last week that misgendered Ms. Zephyr by using male pronouns, the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers, called for her to be censured.
The Montana legislation that Ms. Zephyr objected to has majority support in both the House and Senate. It is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, who has called gender-affirming care a misleading term and compared it to “Orwellian newspeak.”
Lawmakers in Montana are also considering other legislation related to transgender issues, including a bill that would define sex as binary in state code depending on whether a person produces eggs or sperm, and another that would restrict when students can change the names and pronouns they use in school.
Ms. Zephyr was not recognized during debate on either bill.
Francesca Paris, Ernesto Londoño and Remy Tumin contributed reporting.