HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Republicans barred transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from the House floor for the rest of the 2023 session on Wednesday in retaliation for her rebuking colleagues – and then participating in protests – after they voted to ban gender-affirming care for children.
The punishment marks the first time in nearly half a century that Montana lawmakers have sought to censure one of their own. It caps a weeklong standoff between her and House Republican leaders and formalizes their decision to not let Zephyr speak since she said those supportive of such a ban would have blood on their hands.
Zephyr will be able to vote and participate in committees, but not discuss proposals and amendments that are under consideration with the full House. The legislative session is set to end in early May.
The fight over Zephyr’s remarks has brought the nationwide debate over protest’s role in democracy to Montana, where lawmakers punished her for voicing dissent, an increasingly prevalent move in statehouses. In supporting Zephyr’s attempts to regain her voice, protesters interrupted proceedings earlier this week by chanting “Let her Speak” in a boisterous rally that came after they protested outside the Capitol and unfurled a banner that read “Democracy Dies Here.”
After days of rebuffing Zephyr’s request to speak, Republican leaders finally granted her the floor to give a statement before they ultimately voted to censure her Wednesday. She said her initial “blood on your hands” remark and subsequent decision to hoist a microphone into the air toward 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 her microphone, she said, was an attempt to drive “a nail in the coffin of democracy.”
“If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you’re doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” Zephyr told her colleagues.
House Republicans who supported barring Zephyr from the floor have accused her of placing lawmakers and staff at risk of harm 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 have been no reports of damage to the building.
“Freedom in this body involves obedience to all the rules of this body, including the rules of decorum,” House Majority Leader Sue Vinton said.
Authorities arrested seven people in the confrontation, who Zephyr said were defending democracy. Her opponents said ensuring government can conduct business on behalf of the people without interruption was a critical precedent to set.
“This is an assault on our representative democracy, 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 Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled for participating in a protest in favor of gun control after another school shooting. Similarly, Zephyr’s punishment has ignited a firestorm of debate about governance and who has a voice in an elected body during this politically polarizing time.
Post-expulsion, the fate of the two Tennessee lawmakers were sent to their county commissions, which swiftly 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 triggered, had they expelled her.
“My community and the Democratic Party in Missoula would send me back here in a heartbeat because I represent them and I represent their values by standing up for democracy,” she said.
The censure comes two days after protesters later packed into the gallery at the Statehouse and brought House proceedings to a halt chanting “Let her speak” as Zephyr lifted her microphone toward them. Seven subsequent arrests galvanized both her supporters and those saying Zephyr’s actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.
The far-right Montana Freedom Caucus, which had pushed for Zephyr to be censured, said in a statement that her actions in support of the protesters were “nothing more than an ego trip.” The caucus again on Wednesday deliberately misgendered Zephyr by using incorrect pronouns when referring to her.
“There needs to be some consequences for what he has been doing,” said Rep. Joe Read, a member of the caucus who frequently and inconsistently used incorrect pronouns for Zephyr.
He claimed Zephyr gave a signal to her supporters just before Monday’s session was disrupted. He declined to say what that was other than a “strange movement.”
“When she gave the signal for protesters to go into action, I would say that’s when decorum was incredibly broken,” Read added.
Zephyr told the AP that she felt the moment was calling on her to stand up for democracy.
“Every time that 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 a hope that in some small way, I could rise to that moment individually and do the work they sent me to do.”