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 freshman lawmaker’s punishment marks the first time that a Montana lawmaker has been censured in nearly half a century. It caps a weeklong standoff between her and House Republican leaders and formalizes Republican leaders’ 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, yet she is unable though to discuss proposals and amendments under consideration with the 99 other members of the Montana House on the floor for the remainder of the 90-day legislative session, set to end in early May.
The fight over Zephyr’s remarks has brought the nationwide debate over democracy and increasingly common efforts to punish lawmakers for how they voice dissent to Montana, where protesters have interrupted proceedings with chants and unfurled banners that read “Democracy Dies Here” in response to efforts to keep Zephyr from speaking.
After days of rebuffing her request to speak, Republican leaders granted Zephyr the opportunity to give a statement before they voted to censure her Wednesday. She said her initial “blood on your hands” remarks and subsequent decision to hoist a microphone into the air toward protesters in the House gallery on Monday 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, accused her of placing lawmakers and staff at risk of harm for disrupting House proceedings by inciting protests in the chamber on Monday. Authorities arrested seven people in a confrontation that they claim she encouraged.
“Freedom in this body involves obedience to all the rules of this body, including the rules of decorum,” House Majority Leader Sue Vinton said.
Much like Zephyr called her remarks and the protesters’ actions a defense of democarcy, 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.
“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 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.”
There were no reports of damage to the building Monday and lawmakers have not said they felt physically under threat, since they were on the floor while protesters marched through the gallery.