Helena, Mont.—When Representative Zooey Zephyr, the first trans woman elected to the Montana legislature, picked up her microphone last Wednesday, she knew it could be her last chance to speak on the House floor. House Speaker Matt Regier had refused to call on her after her criticism of an anti-trans bill offended members of his caucus. Then, some Republicans accused her of inciting protesters who filled the House Gallery on April 24. Now, she faced expulsion from the chamber. She had to make her five minutes count.
As expected, she defended the rights of trans people. Then, she transferred the attention from herself to the people who elected her to serve, accusing the Republican majority of denying her 11,000 constituents access to the House.
“When the speaker gaveled down the people demanding that democracy be heard, demanding that their representative be heard,” she argued. “When he gaveled [them] down, what he was doing was driving a nail in the coffin of democracy.”
Minutes later, GOP legislators in a state once known for its libertarian streak barred her from stepping inside the House chamber and ordered her to participate in the final week of floor sessions via Zoom, where she could vote but would be permanently muted.
On Saturday, when I asked Zooey about events of the past two weeks, she connected legislative attacks on trans people to the erosion of democratic institutions. “What we’re seeing is a growing extremism taking root in the Republican Party, a party that is willing to use the tools of democratic institutions to cause harm however they can, whether it’s advancing life-threatening legislation or using the speaker’s power to undercut processes that those institutions depend upon.”
Zephyr’s activist instincts have helped her transform a national conversation over trans rights that directly affects roughly 5 percent of young Americans into a conversation about democracy that affects all Americans. Zephyr is shifting the battleground from a culture war over gender identity that the GOP wants to fight toward a policy war over democratic processes that Republicans want to avoid.
“We’ve seen the Republican Party move farther and farther not only into ideological extremism but also antidemocratic extremism,” Zephyr told me, “and they are willing to forego the first principles of our country to achieve extreme ideological goals.”
Montana Republicans occupy the governor’s office and enjoy supermajorities in the state House and Senate. When the state’s 68th legislative session convened in January, they could pursue any policy goal they wished. And over these last four months, party leaders have chosen to obsess over gender, fret about drag shows, and fuss over kids’ ditching their birth names. In this way, legislative activity in Montana has resembled some 20 other red states where more than 400 anti-trans bills have been introduced and at least 40 have passed.
On April 18, Zephyr, one of two trans legislators serving in the current session, entered floor debate on SB 99, a bill that denies gender-affirming care to minors. She spoke about the elevated suicide risk for trans youth who are not allowed to transition. Then, she challenged legislators to accept responsibility for people the bill might harm.
“The only thing I will say is, if you vote ‘yes’ on this bill and ‘yes’ on these amendments,” she said from the House floor, “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
These words—strong but not unusual coming from a politician—echoed policy statements at the American Academy of Pediatrics that trans children “who are supported by their parents and family are more likely to experience better physical and mental health.” In one study cited by the AAP, 56 percent of trans youth reported suicidal ideation and 31 percent reported a previous suicide attempt. In contrast, 20 percent and 11 percent of youth who identify with the sex assigned at birth reported suicidal ideation or a previous suicide attempt.
Her reproach, however, was too much for Regier. The following day he refused to acknowledge her or activate her microphone on the House Floor unless she apologized. A week later, supporters of Zephyr, including many of her constituents from Missoula, filled the House gallery to protest Regier’s actions. As they chanted, “Let her speak,” Zephyr raised her muted microphone in an ironic gesture to “amplify” their voices. Ultimately, law enforcement officers in riot gear cleared the gallery and arrested seven people.
“Obviously, Zooey was silenced because she’s trans and because she made a forceful moral statement on the floor,” said Paul Kim, one of Zephyr’s constituents and a policy associate for the Montana ACLU who was one of those arrested. “But there’s a larger question of what does it mean to live in a democracy, and it’s become painfully obvious the ways that the Montana legislature has fallen short of reflecting the will of the people.”
Shawn Reagor, the director of Equality and Economic Justice at the Montana Human Rights Network, shares Kim’s concern. “One of the values we hold dear as a state is this value of live and let live, but not only are Republicans restricting people’s freedoms,” he said, “they are taking it so far that having a supermajority isn’t enough. They do not want any dissent. They won’t tolerate any accountability on these bills.”
Some anti-trans bills have yet to pass in Montana, including legislation to ban drag shows on public property, prevent educators from being disciplined for deadnaming students, and ensure that schools aren’t obligated to use a student’s preferred pronouns. But the most controversial bills have already been sent to Governor Greg Gianforte.
On Friday, he signed SB 99, even though his son, David, who identifies as nonbinary, lobbied him to veto the bill, telling their father it was “immoral, unjust, and frankly a violation of human rights.” This week, Gianforte is expected to sign HB 303, which allows medical workers to deny care to trans people based on ethical, moral, or religious beliefs, and SB 458, which Reagor calls the “mis-defining sex bill” and considers the most dangerous.
If SB 458 becomes law, Montana would become the first state to redefine sex according to reproductive capacity, altering the definitions for male and female in more than 40 separate sections of Montana code. As written, the bill contradicts the US Civil Rights Act, which protects people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. If Montana falls out of compliance with the law, then the federal government could withhold funds, and Montana is the state seventh-most-reliant on federal aid. An analysis from the state’s Legislative Fiscal Division suggested that the bill could cost the state as much as $7.5 billion, depending on how state agencies implement the legislation.
“That bill targets the trans community, but it affects all of us,” explained Reagor. “Yet the Republican Party has coalesced around it. They’ve decided they want to be the party of invading people’s privacy and preventing people from determining how they want to live.”
Most Montana Republican leaders dispute this claim, but some Republicans, especially those from an earlier era of Montana politics, are concerned that efforts to isolate Zooey feed into a harmful narrative for the party nationally and strain democratic institutions locally.
Former Republican representative Rick Hill, who served two terms in the US House from 1997 to 2000, shared his misgivings with me. “It seems to me that Zooey’s comments and conduct exposed a lack of respect for the institution of the House of Representatives,” he said, but “the risk is that the House’s response to that could further reinforce people’s loss of respect for the institution.”
Bob Brown, a former Republican secretary of state who served for a quarter-century in the Montana legislature, including a final term as president of the Senate from 1995 to 1996, was even more concerned. “I think it will be damaging nationwide to Republicans,” he said. “In the near term, it will be good politics in Montana, but in the long term, it won’t be [good politics] in Montana or Tennessee or anywhere.”
“I think people will increasingly see Republicans as religious zealots,” he explained, “as people who think they know what’s right and wrong and are determined to impose their will on everyone else.”
National polls mostly affirm these concerns, particularly in swing states. While a majority of Americans support some anti-trans bills—such as banning trans female athletes from playing on women’s teams at public schools or requiring schools to inform parents if students change their birth pronouns—most anti-trans policies remain unpopular. Voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin currently oppose restrictions on the rights of trans people, a concerning trend for Republicans in 2024.
The national headwinds that Republicans might face next year don’t seem to bother Regier any more than the local outcry. For now, he asserts that “the only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr,” and his efforts to keep her quiet continue to escalate.
On Thursday, he transferred all bills out of her two committees, House Judiciary and Human Services, which effectively eliminates those committees for the final week of the session. Then, on Friday, he asked Zephyr to vacate a bench she was using in a public hallway outside the House chamber. Zephyr had been working quietly there beneath a sticky note on the wall that read “Seat 31,” a reference to the seat she was not allowed to occupy on the House floor. Zephyr refused to move.
“My hope was to sit here and work in the common space,” Zephyr explained when Regier asked her to leave.
“This is a public space,” he responded.
“Can I not work in a public space?” she asked. “I would just like some clarity.”
Regier provided none and walked away, leaving her to represent her constituents from just outside the House floor.
When I asked her about this exchange, she seemed proud of standing up to Regier and for finding a way to keep working for her constituents. “It’s easy to hold your head high when you know you’re on the right side of history,” she replied. “It’s easy not to be shamed.”