Seven people were arrested at the Montana capitol on Monday after protesting in support of the state’s first openly transgender legislator, Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D), who has been silenced by her Republican colleagues for speaking out against a bill targeting trans youth in the state.
The Montana Freedom Caucus, which is comprised of several Republicans in the state legislature, called for Zephyr’s censure on April 18 in response to comments she made about Republican attempts to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth.
“If you vote yes on this bill, I hope the next time you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” Zephyr said.
Speaker of the House Matt Regier (R) has refused to call on Zephyr since, effectively disenfranchising the constituents she represents. While Zephyr has not yet been formally censured by the House, she has not been permitted to speak on the House floor for three days, and was told that she will not be allowed to do so for the rest of the legislative session unless she apologizes. On April 26, the House will be introducing a motion to censure or expel her.
“I was elected to represent my 11,000 constituents. No silencing tactics will deter me from advocating for my community, my district, and all Montanans,” Zephyr said in a statement on Twitter on April 21. “My light is on and I am ready to speak.”
The Montana American Indian Caucus and Missoula County Democrats have issued statements condemning Zephyr’s unofficial censure, and she has received massive support from her constituents and community.
On Monday, Zephyr’s supporters delivered a petition to Regier, signed by 3, 200 Montanans, urging him to recognize the lawmaker on the state House floor. That same day, over a hundred demonstrators rallied outside of the Montana capitol and packed the gallery in protest.
“She’s been silenced because she spoke the truth about what these anti-trans bills are doing in Montana, to trans youth especially,” said Katy Spence, one of Zephyr’s constituents who was present at the capitol.
“They can censure us, arrest us, legislate us out of existence, but they can never stop us from fighting for the Montana we believe in,” said one protester who was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.
The Montana Freedom Caucus has responded to the protest by Zephyr’s supporters by calling for immediate disciplinary action against her, claiming in a statement that the demonstration was “violent” and describing it as “an insurrection” — a buzzword that conservatives have recently adopted to misrepresent peaceful protest by their political opponents.
Former state representative Tom Winter (D) denounced the Montana Freedom Caucus on Monday.
“These delusional fascists think that peaceful protesters using free speech to demand their representative be heard in the chamber she was duly elected to is a ‘violent riot,’” he said. “Democracy is dead in Montana as long as these GOP fascists are in charge.”
Zephyr’s silencing is the most recent attack on the democratic process by GOP legislators, who have also targeted Democratic state legislators in Oklahoma and Tennessee. In March, the Oklahoma legislature censured nonbinary Rep. Mauree Turner (D) after the representative allowed a demonstrator protesting a gender-affirming health care ban in the state to use their office in the aftermath of an arrest. In early April, the Tennessee GOP expelled two Black lawmakers for participating in a protest for gun reform on the House floor after a mass shooting in the state. The lawmakers have since been reinstated.
“Looks like the Montana Freedom Caucus wants to give Zooey the Tennessee Three treatment,” said Zephyr’s partner, transgender journalist Erin Reed.
While the future remains uncertain for Zephyr, the lawmaker has refused to back down.
“It’s not enough for them to get the harmful bills through,” Zephyr said. “When someone stands up and calls out their bills for the harm they cause, for the deaths they cause, they want silence. And we will not be complicit in our eradication.”
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