Trans Montana lawmaker fights first day in exile


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Transgender Montana lawmaker Zooey Zephyr spent her first day in legislative exile Thursday, relegated to a bench in a noisy hallway across from a snack bar outside the state House chambers, where she is no longer allowed to .

Zephyr defiantly stayed put even after the Republican House speaker said she couldn’t be there and a House security officer threatened to move the bench where she had set up her laptop. She listened to the debates and voted remotely from there, with a gold slip on the wall above her head that read “Seat 31,” her seat allocation in the house. The note was placed there by transgender and nonbinary representative SJ Howell.

Republicans wanted Zephyr to participate from the doors of the House Minority’s offices, a day after they voted to ban her from the House floor for the rest of the session, which ends early next week.

Her refusal to do so came as Democrats sought to keep Zephyr’s ouster out of sight after a week of nationwide public scrutiny over Republicans’ unprecedented efforts to silence her continued Thursday.

Republicans moved to stop Zephyr further by shutting down the two committees he sits on and moving the bills he was going to hear to other committees, Democratic Rep. Donavon Hawk said in a statement.

“I went out yesterday with my head held high and came in today with my head held high, ready to do my job,” Zephyr told The Associated Press.

As cameras rolled and espresso beans churned in a nearby machine, Zephyr and Democratic leaders vowed he would remain in the public eye unless Republicans chose to further limit where he can go in Capitol.

“There are a lot more eyes on Montana now,” Zephyr said. “But you’re doing the same thing you’ve always done. You stand up for your community and … stand up for the principles they elected you to stand for.”

The motion Republicans passed the Zephyr bars in the House of Marble Pillars, the gallery above it and a waiting room, but not the public space in the lobby where she installed herself. Minority Leader Kim Abbott said the MP would vote there in public view.

The standoff began last week when Zephyr told lawmakers supporting a bill to ban sex-affirming medical care for minors that they would have blood on their hands. The phrase has been used repeatedly by both Republicans and Democrats when discussing the nation’s most polarizing issues, but Montana House leaders said they would bar Zephyr from further debate until she has her apologized for saying it.

Zephyr didn’t back down, instead participating in a protest that disrupted Monday’s House session as onlookers in the gallery chanted, “Let her speak!” — an action that led to Wednesday’s vote to oust her from the floor.

The Republican response to her comments, and her refusal to apologize for them as requested, have made Zephyr a prominent figure in the national fight for transgender rights and placed her at the center of the ongoing debate over the crackdown dissent in the state.

“To silence an elected official, in an attempt to suppress his messages, is a denial of democratic values. It’s undemocratic,” White House Press Secretary Kaine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.

The attention is a new phenomenon for Zephyr, a 34-year-old serving her first term representing a western Montana college town after being elected in November.

In his AP interview, Zephyr compared efforts to silence her to Tennessee lawmakers’ decision to expel two black lawmakers for disrupting proceedings when they participated in a gun control protest after a school shooting in Nashville. The two were quickly reinstated.

Not only did Tennessee lawmakers reject gun control laws, but by expelling the lawmakers, they sent a message that said, “’Your voices shouldn’t be here. We’ll send you away,’” Zephyr said.

As in Montana, Tennessee GOP leaders said their actions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers disrupting House proceedings through protests would be tolerated.

Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, one of the lawmakers who was expelled earlier this month, called the Montana standoff undemocratic and Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt likened her fight to Zephyr’s after being notified on Wednesday about a complaint filed against her that she said was an effort to silence her voice about a gender-affirming care ban being considered.

“It’s so important that we don’t stay silent on this from state to state to state. And it’s so important that people stand up against this rising movement, this radical movement, and say it’s not welcome,” she said.

Zephyr is undeterred. She said through the events of the past week, she made it a point to rise up and face the moment and continue to do the job she was elected to do: represent her community and her constituents.

“There are queer people all over the world, and also the constituents of other representatives are saying, ‘They’re not going to listen’ when it comes to these issues. It’s the staff in this building who, when no one is looking, come up and say, ‘Thank you,’” she said.


The story has been edited to correct that the color of the sticky note is gold, not pink.


Metz reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press reporter Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.

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