Trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr defiant after Montana state censure: ‘Democracy will not die that easily’
In April this year, Montana became the focus of widespread scrutiny over what many believed was an assault on democracy in the form of the censure of the state’s first trans representative, Zooey Zephyr.
Following weeks of frustrating legislative back-and-forth between members of the state’s House of Representatives over a speech condemning supporters of an anti-trans bill, Missoula state lawmaker Zooey Zephyr was publicly and unjustly banned from the House floor.
Her speech against Senate Bill 99, a Republican-backed law banning gender-affirming care for trans youth, wasn’t her first, nor were her views, (that supporters of a ban on trans health care would have “blood” on their hands), ones that had not been expressed by other lawmakers across the US.
Zooey tells PinkNews that it was the “third time” she had spoken out against the bill, first condemning it during a judiciary committee, then raising concerns after it had passed the House, and speaking out for a third time during an amendments hearing in April.
“The governor’s amendments clarified a handful of things, but also redefined sex to match Senate Bill 458,” Zooey Zephyr says, referencing a bill attempting to define sex to exclude transgender people in state legislation.
“I had said you cannot legislate that sex is binary any more than you could legislate that the Earth is flat.
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“It’s also important to note that Senate Bill 99 was a bill coming after a session full of attacks on the LGBTQ+ community,” she continues. “We had seen bills banning our books, books that tell our stories, bills banning our art forms like drag. We had seen bills allowing kids to intentionally misgender any trans students in schools, too.
“And now, Senate Bill 99 was taking health care away, explicitly banning a type of care.”
Zooey’s speech was as celebrated by progressive, pro-trans activists as it was condemned by state Republicans looking to use the bill as a means to restrict transgender rights in Montana.
One of those Republicans, House speaker Matt Regier, took matters into his own hands after deciding not to acknowledge Zooey until she apologised for her speech – a decision that would later be backed by Republicans in a vote.
The backlash after the decision culminated in a protest by Montana residents across the state capitol’s viewing gallery above the House floor, in which hundreds of activists chanted “let her speak”, while Zooey stood there, her microphone held in the air as a symbol of her desire to represent her constituents.
“They were rising in defence of democracy,” Zooey explains. “Saying, ‘We have sent a person here to speak on her behalf, let her speak, she is our voice in this room, let her speak.’
“The speaker gaveled them down, ordered them to be removed from the gallery and had riot police ready, and [the police] arrested seven people.“
The following day, members made an unprecedented decision to ban Zephyr from the House floor for the remainder of the 2023 legislative period – which ended in early May – in a move which caused a public outcry across Montana, across the US, and around the world.
“I said that the speaker, when he gaveled down the protestors chanting ‘let her speak’, he was driving a nail into the coffin of democracy. I said democracy will not die that easily. And when I was censured, I went out with my head held high.
“I made a plan, and the plan was how do I stay as close to the people’s House as I can? How do I, recognising that we are in an unprecedented, undemocratic moment, how do I try my best to get my constituents, my community, the representation that they elected me for.”
And try she did. Sitting on a bench just outside of the Montana House floor, Zooey Zephyr continued her work representing her Missoula constituents on the array of problems facing them, while asking her Democrat co-workers to help represent her on the House floor.
Even as Republican lawmakers’ associates attempted to disrupt her even further by sitting on the bench that became her temporary desk, she managed to represent Missoula on the hundreds of bills she was barred from discussing.
“There were over 100 bills that my constituents did not have representation on for debate about those bills,” she says. “I was feeling bad that my constituents had a piece of their rights removed.”
After she returned to the House floor on 2 May, greeted with welcoming hugs from her colleagues, Zooey’s mind was dead-set on one thing – “What’s next?”
“I thanked my colleagues that I’d been working with that I’d caught in the hallways and had said, ‘Hey, I’m hearing this from my constituents, can we make sure we talked about this point on this bill?’
“It was good to talk about that work that we had done in the last two weeks and throughout the session, and then, what comes next?”
Zooey Zephyr: Republican actions ‘incredibly undemocratic’
As for Republicans, Zooey Zephyr told PinkNews that she believes the efforts to suppress her right to speak were a sign of the cracks in their strategy not just in stopping LGBTQ+ rights, but in other economic and societal issues.
“There is a recognition in this state that we saw incredibly undemocratic actions taken by the Republican supermajority,” Zooey continues. “I think they’re attempting to drum up a boogeyman, and that boogeyman is to drive voters or to distract from what were, quite frankly, inadequate solutions to major crises in our state.
“There is such a deep, deep housing crisis in our state that needs serious solutions across the gamut. And what we saw throughout the session is that Republicans were not interested in the breadth of legislation necessary to address the crisis.
“You saw deregulation, you saw development encouragement for market rate and higher developments. Not a lot done for renters, and not a lot done for homebuyers.
“I think when [they] bring those anti-LGBTQ+ bills, [they’re] doing it because when you turn to the issues impacting Montanans in their day-to-day life, you don’t have answers.”
Despite all of this, Zooey is certain that the wave of “extremism” that she believes is gripping the Republican party is “deeply out of step” with what US voters actually believe.
A survey of US voters conducted by Fox News corroborated that at least 83 per cent think that political attacks against trans children are a problem.
“There’s a growing acceptance of trans people,” Zooey Zephyr says.
“There’s a growing frustration with the bills targeting our existence, and that is because more and more people are coming to realise that trans people are in your communities, we’re part of your communities, we’re your friends, you’re neighbours, your colleagues.
“You’re never far from a trans person, or someone who cares about us deeply.”
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