Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Rep. Zooey Zephyr, Montana’s first openly transgender state lawmaker, will not be able to speak on the House floor until she apologizes publicly for telling Republicans earlier this week they should be ashamed of their votes in favor of a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for children in Montana, the Republican House speaker said Thursday.

Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, declined to recognize Zephyr on Thursday when she punched the button at her desk that indicates to the floor chairperson a lawmaker would like to speak on a bill or to the chamber.

Zephyr had hoped to speak against Senate Bill 458 on its second reading in the chamber – a bill that aims to define “male” and “female” in state statute. It was newly amended this week in committee to include exact definitions that were contained in amendments to Senate Bill 99 requested by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte that Zephyr spoke against earlier this week.

Regier’s declining to recognize the Missoula Democrat kicked off objections from the minority leader, a House Rules Committee hearing about whether they should adhere to Regier’s ruling that Zephyr should not be recognized, and another challenge to undo his ruling on the floor that was unsuccessful.

“It’s up to the speaker on who gets recognized and who doesn’t,” Regier told reporters after the floor session. “So, until that trust is restored, and I can assure the integrity of the House is a priority, then I think it’s going to be a pause.”

When asked specifically what Zephyr had done on Tuesday during the discussion on SB99 that he found to be out of line with House decorum rules, Regier said it was “personal” comments directed toward Republicans who would vote in favor of Gianforte’s proposed amendments.

“The ‘shame on you’ – turning around and saying, ‘Shame on you,’ for somebody’s vote, degrading somebody for how they’re going to vote, that’s way off the issue,” he said.

On Tuesday, Zephyr, who testified in committee in opposition to SB99 and sat through committee hearings on both SB99 and SB458 in the House Judiciary Committee, told Republicans they should be ashamed of themselves and that if they voted in favor of the amendments, she hoped they would “see the blood on your hands” next time they bow their heads for the invocation that kicks off each floor session.

Her comments drew objections from Senate Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and several other Republicans on the House floor. Later Tuesday afternoon, the right-wing Montana Freedom Caucus issued a news release misgendering her and calling for her to be censured.

Zephyr on Wednesday released a statement saying she was “unconcerned” with the calls for censure and that she was speaking on behalf of the trans community. She stood by those comments Thursday when she discussed with reporters being silenced on the floor.

“It’s clear they’re doing something undemocratic. They’re wielding power to silence a minority from speaking on bills that not only impact that minority group, but also all of the bills I was sent here to speak on,” Zephyr said. “When you stand to defend your community, you have to get the words right. And I felt like I got the words right in the moment to describe the real harm that bill does.”

SB458, from Kila Republican Sen. Carl Glimm, defines sex in Montana statute, which supporters say is necessary because of discussions around gender and gender identity becoming such a pertinent issue in society.

A Legislative Fiscal Division analysis requested by Democrats said the bill, if passed, could potentially risk up to $7.5 billion because of conflicts with federal law.

Zephyr had tried to talk about SB458 on the floor on Thursday, which she said, like SB99, also deeply affects the trans community she says she represents as a trans lawmaker.

“I think for the Speaker and the majority party to silence a trans representative moments after they just voted through a bill that erases trans, nonbinary, and intersex people from Montana code shows that they do not want to be made accountable for the cruelty of their actions,” Zephyr said.

House rules signed off on by lawmakers at the start of the session say the speaker “shall decide all questions of order and privilege and decisions of recognition” in section 20-20, which Republicans on the House Rules Committee, which met shortly after Zephyr was not recognized, said was correctly enforced by the speaker.

Democrats had said the rule that actually should have been used was rule 20-80, which says essentially if a member violates the rules, they should be called to order and seated, with a right to appeal. That rule also contains the process for censuring lawmaker. Republicans in the Rules Committee voted against that interpretation.

“There’s been Republicans and Democrats that I’ve talked to about violations of the House rules, and everybody has remedied that except for Rep. Zephyr,” Regier said, adding that Zephyr had committed “multiple” violations this session. “I’m the Speaker of the House and what happens on the floor is my concern. We’ve got the House rules to address that, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

After the Rules Committee met, Zephyr again punched in on the floor on another bill – Senate Bill 522, which aims to provide hotel rooms for victims of violence and human trafficking – and was again not recognized. The minority followed rule 20-20 to vote whether to allow Regier to continue not recognizing her, which passed in a 62-33 vote, with Republican Reps. David Bedey of Hamilton and Greg Frazer of Deer Lodge voting with Democrats.

Zephyr said that bill too was one she wanted to speak on as a representative of Missoula, which has used hotels during the pandemic. She said she wanted to discuss “the benefit that has for very difficult moments for people in our community and why this bill is a great bill.”

Regier said a “great first step” from Zephyr would be “a sincere public apology to the House” should she want to speak again. Regier also said he had told committee leaders that whether to recognize her in their hearings was subject to their discretion.

Zephyr said she would have an answer as to whether she will be allowed to speak in committees when House Judiciary meets next Monday morning. But she believes that Republicans are using decorum “as both a shield and a cudgel” – citing several instances of Republicans referring to abortion as “child sacrifice,” calling people “morons” and insulting low-income people and those with substance abuse disorders.

“They will use decorum to block themselves from repercussions and they will use the rules to inflict harm and erasure on members of the minority,” she said. “And particularly, they’re choosing this moment to erase me.”

Missoula County Democrats said the speaker’s actions “are silencing” the voices of both Zephyr and her 11,000 constituents in House District 100 and called for her to be allowed to speak and for the Freedom Caucus to apologize.

“Government is here to represent our interests, not to silence our voices. And Montana is a place that is big enough for us all,” said Chairman Andy Nelson.

During the Rules Committee debate, Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said she believed the majority was discriminating against Zephyr and said the tactics to not recognize her involved a “slippery slope” toward fascism. She and the rest of the Montana American Indian Caucus issued a statement denouncing the majority’s actions and condemning the Freedom Caucus.

“We further believe the effort to silence Rep. Zephyr is consistent with an emerging pattern,” the caucus wrote. “This session, members of the Montana Freedom Caucus have aimed to create an environment that is hostile to all opposing views, using inflammatory rhetoric while weaponizing religion and law to create a Montana aligned with their ideology.”

The Freedom Caucus issued a release with statements from four members who said they applauded the Speaker’s decision.

“As usual the Democrats tried to make the Speaker’s ruling about discrimination and race. To inappropriately label and impugn the motive of the Speaker is also a lack of decorum,” said Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade.

Zephyr said the repeated attacks on the LBGTQ+ community by some legislative Republicans, and some of the comments made through the session about the community on the House floor, led to her comments on Tuesday, saying they “describe accurately the harm that these bills bring to my community.”

“I have lost friends to suicide this year. I field calls from multiple families who have dealt with suicide attempts, with trans youth who have fled the state. People who have been attacked on the side of the road because of legislation like this,” Zephyr said. “I spoke with clarity and precision about the harm these bills do. And they say they want an apology, but what they really want is silence as they take away the rights of trans and queer Montanans.”