After floor ban, Rep. Zephyr says she feels ‘joy and pride’ standing up for constituents
Blair Miller and Nicole Girten
(Daily Montanan) After being banned from the Montana House floor for the last eight days of the 2023 legislative session, Rep. Zooey Zephyr feels like she did the right thing.
“I stood up in defense of my community, and I stood up on behalf of my constituents and on behalf of democracy,” she told the Daily Montanan Wednesday shortly after the House voted 68-32 on party lines to discipline the Missoula Democrat for what Republicans said was egging on protesters during the floor session on Monday and putting staff and lawmakers at the Capitol in danger.
“And regardless of what the outcome was, when you stand up for the first principles of our country, it is hard to feel anything other than joy and pride for taking the moral stance.”
For the rest of the session, Montana’s first openly transgender woman elected to office will not be allowed on the House floor, its gallery or the anteroom just outside the floor chambers. Whether she will be able to participate in her committees will be up to the committee chairs.
Zephyr will have to participate remotely but will only be allowed to vote and will not be able to speak – a move she said was “shutting out 11,000 Montanans from participating in debate.”
The first-term lawmaker made waves after her election last year to House District 100, a blue district in Missoula, but also one of just 32 represented by House Democrats in a state that elected more Republicans to the House and Senate last November than in any year since 1929.
The former University of Montana program coordinator has been outspoken about bills targeting the LBGTQ+ community all session both in her pointed questions in committees and on the floor, and during times she has testified in opposition to bills like the one that aims to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
But she has also been an advocate of affordable housing as a representative of Missoula, which has seen rents and home prices skyrocket over the past several years, and as a member of the House Judiciary Committee has criticized bills targeting the university, the board of regents, and those adding more or stricter criminal penalties for various offenses this session.
Zephyr has not wavered over the past four months in her criticisms of bills targeting trans Montanans, drag shows, same-sex couples and reproductive rights.
On Jan. 27, during the first hearing for Senate Bill 99, which bans gender-affirming care, Zephyr testified in opposition and spoke to the more than 90 people who came to the Senate Judiciary Committee to do the same.
“If the Senate does not table this, we will fight like hell for you in the House,” she said.
It was that same bill that nearly three months later led to her being banned from the House.
During debate last week on SB99, Zephyr told Republicans who would vote for the amendments requested by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte they should be ashamed of themselves and that next time they bowed their heads to pray, they would “see the blood on (their) hands” — a reference to suicide rates among transgender youth and personal stories shared with her by parents of trans children who have attempted suicide in response to the legislature’s efforts, she has said.
Those comments drew condemnation from Republican leadership, a censure call from the right-wing Freedom Caucus, and Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to stop recognizing her on the floor – which is what led hundreds of people, including many from her district in Missoula, to come to the Capitol in Helena on Monday to protest.
As her supporters shouted from the House gallery to “Let her speak,” she stood at her desk with a microphone raised, amplifying the voices of the protesters and yelling out her thanks to them. Doing so is what led Republicans to punish her on Wednesday.
“I stood up in solidarity with them and I would do it every day. Because when I do so, I stand up for democracy,” she said following Wednesday’s floor session. “And if there’s comments about civil disobedience, the protesters on Monday join a long line of people who have stood up for democracy, and those in charge have taken offense to that. I’m proud of standing up for my community.”
Zephyr echoed comments made on the floor by House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, that she questioned lawmakers who would not stand up for her constituents and their voices — what she called the “first principles of democracy.”
She said her party stood by her Wednesday following a week of nonrecognition from Republicans, most of whom have voted to continue to allow Regier not to recognize her multiple times since last Thursday. Several Democratic lawmakers came up to hug her after the floor session, and many were seen in tears.
“There are 32 different voices in the caucus, just like there are 100 different voices in the chamber,” she said. “But what you saw today was Democrats stood up for democracy today. They stood up for the first principles that we are sent here to defend.”
Zephyr told the Daily Montanan that in private conversations throughout the session, some Republicans have told her they don’t support the anti-trans policies and they care for her.
“But then they would give an excuse. ‘I’m afraid of being primaried. I’m afraid that my party will hurt my bills if I do this,’” she said. “And when the question came of what side of history are you going to follow, and when all of these anti-LGBTQ attacks are coming again and again, you saw them pick the hateful and harmful side.”
“When you live that for an entire session, it is unsurprising that when someone is getting silenced, and their constituents are getting silenced for standing up in defense of that community and in defense of democracy, that they would do the same thing,” she added.
She placed the blame for the protests at Regier’s feet, saying on the floor that when he gaveled down the protesters and her on Monday, “what he was doing was driving a nail in the coffin of democracy.”
For the rest of the session, Zephyr says she will continue to represent her 11,000 Missoula constituents as best she can under the circumstances. And she made clear when asked about her political future she is not intimidated by her censure.
“I will be here as long as the constituents of my House district deem me to be the person they want to represent them in the people’s House of Montana,” she said.