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Montana transgender lawmaker silenced: What to know


HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The latest high-profile example of state legislative leadership deciding who can be heard during statehouse debates is playing out in Montana where a transgender lawmaker has been silenced by Republican leaders.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who was deliberately referred to using male pronouns by some conservative lawmakers demanding her censure, has said she will not apologize for saying lawmakers would have “blood on their hands” if they passed a ban on gender-affirming health care. Montana is among a wave of states passing legislation that opponents say could put transgender teens in jeopardy.

Montana’s House speaker said he won't let Zephyr speak on the chamber floor until she apologizes.

Here's what you need to know about the situation:


Last year, Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature — putting her among a record number of transgender lawmakers who began serving across the U.S.

The 34-year-old is from the left-leaning college town Missoula, where she's been a staffer at the University of Montana. She has spent much of her life advocating for LGBTQ+ rights and worked behind the scenes during the 2021 legislative session to help block efforts to ban gender-affirming health care.

Following her November election, she expressed hope that her presence in the Legislature would help people understand what it means to be a trans adult. Zephyr also wanted to enlist moderate Republicans to push back on what she called “extreme and dangerous attacks."

Instead, she and fellow members of the Democratic minority have been powerless to stop Republicans from passing bills to ban gender-affirming care for transgender children and another that says misgendering or deadnaming students is not illegal discrimination unless it rises to the level of bullying. Deadnaming refers to using the name a transgender person used prior to transitioning.


On Tuesday as the House was debating Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care, Zephyr spoke up after 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 her censure and deliberately referred to Zephyr 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 had upset legislative leaders with emotional testimony previously this session.

She made a similar “blood on your hands” comment the first time the House heard the bill and has also given emotional testimony indicating bills that attack LGBTQ+ rights will lead to suicide. In talking about a bill to ban drag queen story hours in February, Zephyr spoke directly to transgender Montanans, saying: “I have one request for you: Please stay alive.”

Zephyr said in a Thursday night statement that she would not apologize for her comments, and she described the harsh effects she’s seeing in the trans community from the Legislature’s actions.

“This year I have lost friends to suicide, and I have listened to the heart-wrenching stories of families dealing with suicide attempts, trans youth fleeing the state, and people being attacked on the side of the road,” she wrote. “Montana Republicans say they want an apology, but what they really want is silence as they take away the rights of trans people."


Conservatives formed the Montana Freedom Caucus in January, and it includes at least 21 of the Legislature's 102 GOP lawmakers.

Its ideological leader is U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale, a hardline conservative who backed former President Donald Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election and was among a core group of Republicans who opposed electing U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.

The caucus members said Zephyr's comments displayed a “hateful rhetoric” and called for a “commitment to civil discourse.”

Two days after the caucus' letter, Speaker Matt Reiger refused to allow Zephyr to speak against a bill that would put a binary definition of male and female into state code.

Reiger said he silenced Zephyr after discussions with other lawmakers. Democrats objected, but the decision was upheld in a committee and by the full House on party-line votes.


Formally, no, but practically, yes.

A censure in the Montana Legislature is a public reprimand. The House did not go through that process. However, Regier used his authority under House rules to decide questions of order, privilege and recognition.


Not directly, but the dispute is emblematic of tensions and harsh rhetoric around culturally divisive issues — including firearms, racial justice and rights for the LGBTQ+ community — that are dominating much of America's political discourse.

The Tennessee expulsions stemmed from a dispute over gun control. It drew accusations of racism after Republicans removed two Black lawmakers following their participation in a protest but retained a third lawmaker involved who was white.

This week alone, state legislatures advanced numerous measures aimed at the trans community.

Florida's House passed bills on gender-transition treatments, bathroom use and keeping children out of drag shows. North Carolina lawmakers approved a ban on transgender athletes. And North Dakota's governor signed a bill limiting trans health care.

Other measures have been stalled or blocked.

Kansas's Democratic governor vetoed on Thursday bills restricting bathrooms for transgender people and gender-affirming care for minors, but GOP lawmakers appeared to have the votes to override her. Earlier this month in North Dakota, lawmakers failed to override the Republican governor’s veto of a bill that would have prohibited public school teachers and employees from acknowledging the pronouns a transgender student uses, unless they received permission from the student’s parents and an administrator.


Nobody knows for sure. The next House session is Friday afternoon, and Zephyr is expected to keep trying to speak. Regier is expected to stick to his stance that Zephyr can’t speak on the floor until she apologizes. It remains unknown if the conservative group will keep pushing for formal censure. The Montana Legislature is scheduled to end in early May.


Brown reported from Billings.