Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – The Montana Senate spent almost an hour Wednesday debating a bill that would define what the terms “male” and “female” mean in state law before eventually advancing it on a 28-22 vote.

Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 458 and said the bill is just a simple clarification in Montana’s law.

“Gender obviously means something different than biological sex. Biological sex is immutable. You can't change it. There are only two biological sexes. It's our job to define terms. It is not the court's job to define these terms, and so we need to do that,” Glimm said. 

The bill’s many opponents say it could not only discriminate against Montanans who don’t define themselves the way the bill defines sex but could also cost the state an unquantifiably large amount in legal fees because of that discrimination. Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, spoke against the bill during Wednesday’s debate.

“You cannot erase them from being, from their existence. From their viability. Passing this bill puts tens of thousands of Montanas into legal limbo. How would you feel? It guts anti-discrimination protections that are in our constitution,” Dunwell said. 

The bill would define male as “a member of the human species that, under normal development, produces a mobile gamete or sperm.” Females are described similarly, however the gamete they produce would be the immobile egg. 

Opponents say the bill’s definition of sex is antiquated and not in line with modern scientific or cultural understanding and the bill could affect everything from basketball teams to DMV appointments to routine traffic stops. The bill was amended to make an exception for people whose biology doesn’t align with either sex at birth, but opponents still worry about its impacts. 

SK Rossi represented the Human Rights Campaign at the bill’s initial hearing this February in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee.  

“In terms of the basic legality, the law violates a myriad of rights under the Montana and U.S. Constitutions, including the rights to dignity, privacy, and equal protection by discriminating against intersex, trans and non-binary people on the basis of sex,” Rossi said. “And I know that there's all this conversation about conflating sex and gender, but I'm telling you from a legal perspective, from a court perspective, both in state here in Montana and the U.S. Supreme Court, that has a conservative majority, discrimination based on transgender status or gender counts as sex discrimination under the Constitution, both here in Montana and at the federal level.”

Proponents of the bill argued that it uses the same definitions of sex that society has used for centuries and it helps differentiate between sex and gender. They say it is about clarifying laws in the state not discriminating against anyone. Senator Greg Hertz spoke in favor of the bill during Wednesday’s debate. 

“I just wanna make it perfectly clear on this floor. I'm voting for this bill, but it's not because I hate somebody. It's not because I want to discriminate against somebody,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. “And it's not because I don't approve of your gender or what -- how you want to live your lifestyle. That's not what it's about. This bill is about a definition, and we all know how important definitions are in our legal system.”

The Legislature is considering or has considered at least six bills that deal with the rights of LGBTQ people this session. Montana is not alone in this either, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is tracking 416 bills in state legislatures across the country that limit LGBTQ rights, especially those of transgender children.

The bill now faces one more vote in the Senate before it can move to the House.