By AMY BETH HANSON, SAM METZ and MATTHEW BROWN (Associated Press)
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Republicans banned transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from the House floor for the rest of the 2023 session on Wednesday in retaliation for berating her colleagues — and then participating in protests — after voting to ban the care to gender-affirming children.
The sentence marks the first time in nearly half a century that Montana lawmakers have tried to convict one of their own. It ends a weeklong standoff between her and House Republican leaders and formalizes their decision not to let Zephyr speak because she said those who support such a ban would have blood on their hands.
Zephyr will be able to vote and participate in committees, but will not discuss proposals and amendments that are considered with the full House. The legislative session is scheduled to end in early May.
The fight over Zephyr’s remarks has brought the national debate over the role of protest in democracy to Montana, where lawmakers have chastised her for speaking out, a movement that has become increasingly widespread in the state. In support of Zephyr’s attempts to regain her voice, protesters disrupted proceedings earlier this week, chanting “Let her speak” in a rowdy rally that came after protesting outside the Capitol and unfurling a banner on which read “Democracy dies here”.
After days of rejecting Zephyr’s request to speak, Republican leaders finally gave her the floor to make a statement before ultimately voting to censure her on Wednesday. She said her initial “blood on your hands” remark and subsequent decision to raise a microphone in the air to protesters in the House gallery were an effort to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community and her 11,000 constituents in Missoula.
House Speaker Matt Regier’s decision to turn off his microphone, she said, was an attempt to put “a nail in the coffin of democracy.”
“If you use the setting to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you’re doing is using the setting as a tool of oppression,” Zephyr told his colleagues.
House Republicans who supported Zephyr’s ban on the floor accused her of putting lawmakers and staffers at risk for disrupting House proceedings and inciting protests in the chamber on Monday.
But lawmakers were on the floor Monday when protesters were in the gallery, and there were no reports of damage to the building.
“Freedom in this body involves obeying all the rules of this body, including the rules of decorum,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton.
Authorities arrested seven people in the standoff, who Zephyr said were defending democracy. Her opponents said ensuring the government could conduct business on behalf of the people without interruption was a critical precedent to set.
“This is an attack on our representative democracy, on spirited debate, and the free expression of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of turmoil and incivility,” Republican David Bedey said on the House floor.
The episode comes weeks after two black lawmakers, Tennessee state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled for participating in a gun control protest after another school shooting. Similarly, Zephyr’s punishment has sparked a firestorm of debate about governance and who has a voice in an elected body in this time of political polarization.
After the expulsion, the fate of the two Tennessee lawmakers was referred to their county caucuses, which quickly voted to reinstate them. Zephyr told The Associated Press after the vote that Republican leaders were likely aware that a similar sequence of events could be set in motion if they expelled her.
“My community and the Missoula Democratic Party would send me back here in a heartbeat for representing them and representing their values by standing up for democracy,” she said.
The censure comes two days after protesters later packed the Statehouse gallery and shut down House proceedings, chanting “Let her speak” as Zephyr raised his microphone toward them. Seven subsequent arrests have galvanized both her supporters and those who say Zephyr’s actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.
The far-right Montana Freedom Caucus, which pushed for Zephyr to be censored, said in a statement that her actions in support of the protesters were “nothing more than an ego trip.” On Wednesday, the meeting deliberately mischaracterized Zephyr by using incorrect pronouns when referring to her.
“There needs to be some consequences for what he did,” said Rep. Joe Read, a member of the group who has frequently and inconsistently used incorrect pronouns for Zephyr.
He claimed that Zephyr gave a signal to her supporters just before Monday’s session was adjourned. He declined to say anything other than a “strange move.”
“When he signaled the protesters to go into action, I would say that’s when the decorum was incredibly broken,” added Read.
Zephyr told the AP that she felt the moment was calling her to stand up for democracy.
“Every time one of these votes came; every time the speaker refused to allow me to speak; when the protesters came and demanded, my thought was twofold,” she said. “Pride in those who stood up to defend democracy and hope that somehow I can rise up in that individual moment and do the job they sent me to do.”
Metz reported from Salt Lake and Brown reported from Billings, Montana.