By Amy Beth Hanson, Sam Metz, and Matthew Brown
Transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr was barred from participating on the House floor as Republican leaders voted Wednesday to silence her for the rest of 2023 session after she protested GOP leaders’ decision earlier in the week to silence her.
The punishment of the freshman lawmaker caps a weeklong standoff between House Democrats and Republicans after Zephyr told colleagues last week, you will “see the blood on your hands” over votes to ban gender-affirming medical care for children.
Zephyr will still be able to vote remotely under terms of the punishment.
In a defiant speech Wednesday she gave before her colleagues voted, Zephyr addressed House Speaker Matt Regier directly and said she was taking a stand for the LGBTQ+ community, her constituents in Missoula and “democracy itself.”
She accused him of taking away the voices of her 11,000 constituents and attempting to drive “a nail in the coffin of democracy” by silencing her.
“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 said.
The House Speaker had previously said he would not allow her to speak until she apologized, which Zephyr refused to do.
For the past week, Zephyr has been forbidden from speaking on the House floor.
A protest against lawmakers silencing Zephyr disrupted Monday's House session. Authorities arrested seven people in a confrontation that Republicans claim Zephyr had encouraged. The first-term Democrat received notice from House leaders Tuesday night informing her of the plan to consider disciplinary action against her, according to a letter she posted on social media.
“I’ve also been told I’ll get a chance to speak," Zephyr tweeted. "I will do as I have always done — rise on behalf of my constituents, in defense of my community and for democracy itself.”
The move to discipline Zephyr is the latest development in a standoff over whether Montana Republicans will let the lawmaker from Missoula speak unless she apologizes for her remarks last week on the proposed ban. Conservative Republicans have repeatedly misgendered Zephyr since the remarks by using incorrect pronouns to describe her.
Much like events in the Tennessee Statehouse weeks ago — where state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black lawmakers, were expelled after participating in a post-school shooting gun control protest that interrupted proceedings — Zephyr’s punishment has ignited a firestorm of debate about governance and who has a voice in democracy in politically polarizing times.
If lawmakers vote to censure Zephyr, she would stay in the House but could still be blocked from future attempts to speak on the chamber floor over her earlier comments.
Montana’s House speaker canceled Tuesday’s floor session without explanation.
“Republicans are doubling down on their agenda of running roughshod over Montanans’ rights — to free expression, to peaceful protest, to equal justice under the law," House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said of the plan to discipline Zephyr.
Zephyr’s remarks, and the Republican response, set off a chain of events that culminated in a rally outside the Capitol at noon Monday. Protesters later packed into the gallery at the Statehouse and brought House proceedings to a halt while chanting “Let her speak.” The scene galvanized both her supporters and and those saying her actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.
Such a protest won't be allowed to happen on Wednesday. Republican leaders said in the letter to Zephyr that the gallery will be closed “to maintain decorum and ensure safety.”
Speaker Matt Regier called the disruptions a “dark day for Montana.”
“Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules,” Regier told reporters Tuesday. “The choice to not follow the House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied.”
It's under Regier's leadership that the House has persisted in preventing Zephyr from speaking. He and other Republicans said her remark was far outside the boundaries of appropriate civil discourse and demanded she apologize before being allowed to participate in legislative discussions.
“There needs to be some consequences for what he has been doing,” said Rep. Joe Read, who frequently but not always used incorrect pronouns when referring to the Democrat.
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 protestors to go into action, I would say that’s when decorum was incredibly broken,” Read added.
The events have showcased the growing power of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of at least 21 right-wing lawmakers including Read that has spearheaded the charge to discipline Zephyr. The caucus re-upped its demands and rhetoric Monday, saying in a statement that Zephyr's decision to hoist a microphone toward the gallery's protesters amounted to “encouraging an insurrection."
Although several protesters resisted law enforcement officers trying to arrest them on Monday, Abbott pushed back at characterizing the activity as violent. She acknowledged it was disruptive, but called the demonstration peaceful. She said public protests were a predictable response to a lawmaker representing more than 10,000 constituents not being allowed to speak and questioned bringing in officers in riot gear to handle the chanting protesters.
“It was chanting, but it absolutely was not violent," she said. “Sometimes extreme measures have a response like this."
There were no reports of damage to the building and lawmakers were not threatened.
Zephyr said the seven arrested were “defending democracy. In an earlier speech, she said the sequence of events that followed her remarks illustrated how they had struck a chord with those in power.
"They picked me in this moment because I said a thing that got through their shield for a second," she told a crowd of supporters gathered on the Capitol steps near a banner that read “Democracy dies here.”
She has said she does not intend to apologize and argued that her “blood on your hands” remark accurately reflected the stakes of such bans for transgender kids.
Metz reported from Salt Lake and Brown reported from Billings, Montana.