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Montana transgender lawmaker faces censure or expulsion

Law enforcement forcibly clear the Montana House of Representatives gallery during a protest after the Speaker of the House refused again to acknowledge Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on Monday, April 24, 2023, in the State Capitol in Helena, Mont. Republican legislative leaders in Montana persisted in forbidding the Democratic transgender lawmaker from participating in debate for a second week as her supporters brought the House session to a halt Monday, chanting "Let her speak!" from the gallery before they were escorted out. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Republican leaders will vote Wednesday on censuring or expelling lawmaker Zooey Zephyr, a transgender state representative who has been silenced in the House since last week after telling colleagues that if they voted for a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender children they would “have blood on their hands.”

On Tuesday night, Zephyr tweeted a letter she received from House leaders informing her of the plan to consider disciplinary action against her during Wednesday's session.

“I’ve also been told I’ll get a chance to speak," Zephyr tweeted. "I will do as I have always done — rise on behalf of my constituents, in defense of my community and for democracy itself.”

Montana’s House speaker canceled Tuesday's floor session without explanation, the latest development in a standoff over whether Montana Republicans will let the lawmaker from Missoula speak unless she apologizes for her remarks last week on a gender-affirming care ban proposal.

Much like events in the Tennessee Statehouse weeks ago — where two lawmakers were expelled after participating in a post-school shooting gun control protest that interrupted proceedings — Zephyr’s punishment has ignited a firestorm of debate about governance and democracy in politically polarizing times.

“Republicans are doubling down on their agenda of running roughshod over Montanans’ rights — to free expression, to peaceful protest, to equal justice under the law," House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said of the plan to discipline Zephyr.

Zephyr’s remarks, and the Republican response, set off a chain of events that culminated in a rally outside the Capitol at noon Monday and seven arrests later that afternoon when protesters packed into the gallery at the Statehouse brought House proceedings to a halt while chanting “Let her speak.” The scene galvanized both those demanding she be allowed to speak and those saying her actions constitute an unacceptable attack on civil discourse.

Such a protest won't be allowed to happen on Wednesday. Republican leaders said in the letter sent to Zephyr that the gallery will be closed “to maintain decorum and ensure safety.”

Speaker Matt Regier did not take questions on Tuesday or explain why lawmakers were not returning to the floor, but in a brief statement called the disruptions a “dark day for Montana.”

“Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debates while following the House rules,” Regier told reporters. “The choice to not follow the House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied.”

Republican Rep. Casey Knudsen, the chair of the House Rules committee, said Tuesday's cancellation gave leadership time to respond to Monday’s events. Abbott said she saw leadership’s decision to cancel as giving lawmakers “some time to regroup.”

Under Regier's leadership, the House has not allowed Zephyr to speak since last week when she said that those who voted to ban gender-affirming care for young people would have “blood on their hands.” He and other Republicans said the remark was far outside the boundaries of appropriate civil discourse and demanded she apologize before being allowed to participate in legislative discussions.

The events have showcased the growing power of the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing lawmakers that has spearheaded the charge to discipline Zephyr. The caucus re-upped its demands and rhetoric Monday. In a statement they said that Zephyr's decision to hoist a microphone toward the gallery's protesters amounted to “encouraging an insurrection."

Although several protesters resisted law enforcement officers trying to arrest them on Monday, Abbott pushed back at characterizing the activity as violent. She acknowledged it was disruptive, but called the demonstration peaceful. She said public protests were a predictable response to a lawmaker representing more than 10,000 constituents not being allowed to speak and questioned bringing in officers in riot gear to handle the chanting protesters.

“It was chanting, but it absolutely was not violent," she said. “Sometimes extreme measures have a response like this."

There were no reports of damage to the building and lawmakers were not threatened.

On Monday, Zephyr said the seven arrested were “defending democracy” and in an earlier speech said that the sequence of events that followed her remarks illustrated how they had struck a chord with those in power.

"They picked me in this moment because I said a thing that got through their shield for a second," she told a crowd of supporters gathered on the Capitol steps near a banner that read “Democracy dies here.”

She said she does not intend to apologize and argued that her “blood on your hands” remark accurately reflected the stakes of such bans for transgender kids.


This story has been corrected to show that Rep. Casey Knudsen is not a member of the Montana Freedom Caucus.

Amy Beth Hanson And Sam Metz, The Associated Press