Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Two controversial bills that galvanized opposition at a couple of lengthy hearings, one prohibiting gender affirming care for minors and the other changing the obscenity law for materials in schools, passed their respective committees Tuesday.

Opponents of both bills said there would be an outsized impact to the LGBTQ community in the state if they are signed into law.

Before the committee passed House Bill 234, to regulate obscene materials, members amended it so it excluded libraries and museums and only applies to schools.

Senate Bill 99 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines with one amendment from bill sponsor Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, who introduced similar legislation during the 2021 session that died in process.

SB 99 would prohibit minors from surgically or socially transitioning their gender.

Committee Chairman Sen. Keith Regier- R-Kalispell, explained the amendment provided better definitions, with changes including the definition of “sex” to mean there are “exactly two sexes, male and female…”

The amendment didn’t satisfy Democrats on the committee.

Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, said during executive action that the bill “gets between a person, their parents and their doctors.”

“I believe this amendment doesn’t fix, or make better, this unconstitutional bill,” Olsen said.

But Fuller said in an interview the amendment was akin to a final rewrite of the bill, and he anticipates there will be a lawsuit, “of course.”

“I’m making it unassailable to be litigated,” he said.

He also said the bill makes it “very clear” children cannot give informed consent.

“And if they want to claim that informed consent to these kinds of things is possible with children, then we need to overturn all the other child protective laws,” he said.

Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, said he believes the bill is constitutional as it falls under “compelling governmental interest” outlined in the Montana Code Annotated.

During discussion on the full bill, Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said she applauded the opponents who gave hours of testimony on Friday. Opponents included medical associations in the state, medical doctors, trans adults, parents and their trans children.

Opponents far outnumbered proponents, the latter of which included several people from out-of-state and those representing religious-linked think tanks.

Speaking in support, Regier said the bill was simply asking minors to wait until they are 18 to transition.

“We have several prohibitions for minors on various things, from alcohol to tobacco, and this is just adding to it,” he said.

But Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, the first transgender woman elected to Montana’s state house, said there’s a 73% reduction in suicide behavior and action for trans youth who received gender affirming care.

“It’s easy for someone in Senator Regier’s position to say, ‘Wait till you’re 18,’” she said. “Trans youth don’t always have that luxury. If trans youth do not receive the life-saving care that they need, not all of them will make it to 18.”

ACLU Policy Director Keegan Medrano, who is two-spirit, said that because the bill also includes social transitioning, it’s especially harmful for young transgender Montanans.

“We can’t even recognize when people want to have a different name, or to express a different gender,” they said. “That feels so misaligned with how we want to live as people where we get to be our authentic selves, free of the government.”

In support of the bill, though, Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, said the medical associations in the state were “the ones that said if you don’t get vaccinated, you’ll probably die.”

“I haven’t died yet,” he said.

Bill on obscenity advances

On HB234, Zephyr said that if she had books that spoke to the transgender experience, her transition would have started sooner.

HB 234 would amend Montana’s obscenity law to include potential fines up to $500 and six months of jail time if school employees are found to be displaying obscene materials to minors.

“I transitioned at 30, so much of the struggle prior to my transition in my teens was not having the words for the things that I was feeling,” she said in an interview with the Daily Montanan. “I didn’t have the word ‘trans.’ If I’d have had the word ‘trans,’ I’d be 20 years into my transition.”

Zephyr said proponents of this legislation like Moms for Liberty are pushing similar legislation across the country. But she said it’s important for children to see trans adults like herself thriving and for them to have “coming of age” stories as a resource.

“Kids these days have that word. People, teenagers who are trans now have the ability to look and say … that’s what I’m feeling, that’s what I’m going through. And it’s OK,” she said.

Zephyr is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which took Executive Action on House Bill 234 on Tuesday. Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, was the sole Republican to vote against the bill.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said the bill would essentially criminalize teachers — but Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, said it would protect her children.

“When I send my kids to school, I want them to be safe from things such as obscenity and pornography,” Carlson said. “And if I had my way, I would remove the entire exception section. Because no adult has a right to show my kids obscene material, period.”

Opponents of the bill said people who don’t like material they see in their school library can go to their local school board and complain about literature in the school, but Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said he didn’t buy the argument for local control.

“Enough schools have been found with obscene material, that it’s unfortunate that they’re ruining it for the rest of education,” he said.

Hinkle didn’t offer any specifics. However, some conservative parents have objected to books that address LGBTQ subjects, such as “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, the first non-binary member of the legislature, questioned how 19 committee members who couldn’t decide what is obscene would be able to make a decision for every other child, family and school in Montana.

“And then we’re gonna put criminal penalties to it so that public servants who are doing their job to allow folks access to knowledge will suddenly face criminal penalties for doing that,” Howell said “I think that’s wrong.”

Both bills will head to the House and Senate floors, respectively.