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‘Let her speak!’: Protesters arrested after demanding end to gag order against transgender Montana lawmaker


Montana Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr hoists a microphone into the air on Monday, April 24, 2023, as her supporters interrupt proceedings in the state House by chanting “Let Her Speak!” in Helena, Mont. Republican leaders in the Legislature didn’t let Zephyr, who is transgender, speak on the floor for the third consecutive day because she refuses to apologize for calling GOP lawmakers out for supporting a ban on gender-affirming care. (AP Photo/Amy Beth Hanson)

Three days into a fierce standoff between Montana’s Republican state lawmakers and the state’s first openly transgender woman in the legislature, protesters supporting Rep. Zooey Zephyr interrupted proceedings Monday with a chant: “Let her speak!”

GOP lawmakers voted Thursday to silence Zephyr by issuing a gag order over the Democrat’s statements relating to S.B. 99, officially titled the “Youth Health Protection Act.” According to the bill’s text, its purpose is to “enhance the protection of minors and their families … from any form of pressure to receive harmful, experimental puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones and to undergo irreversible, life-altering surgical procedures prior to attaining the age of majority.”

At least nine states have enacted bans similar to the Montana bill, although some have already been blocked by courts. The state Senate voted 32-17 in March along party lines to approve the bill, which bans the use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery to treat minors diagnosed with gender dysphoria. It also prohibits Montana’s Medicaid program from funding medication or surgical procedures for transgender minors.

Zephyr, who took office as the first openly transgender woman to serve in the Montana legislature in January, was forbidden from speaking on the statehouse floor Thursday after she said Republican legislators would have “blood on their hands” if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

“If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture,” Zephyr said during a debate on the legislative floor Thursday. “And this body should be ashamed.”

The legislator briefly paused as other lawmakers began to stand.

“I love this,” she commented before yielding to the House Majority Leader.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican, stood up and responded to Zephyr’s comments.

“I speak on behalf of our caucus,” Vinton said. “We will not be shamed by anyone in this chamber. We are better than that.”

“Then the only thing I’ll say is that if you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” Zephyr responded.

Vinton immediately denounced Zephyr’s comments as disrespectful, and Zephyr has not been permitted to speak on the legislative floor since making them. Thursday evening, the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded that Zephyr be formally censured. In its tweet, the group referred to Zephyr with male pronouns — a choice that Zephyr and others later called out as offensive misgendering.

Zephyr was muted again Friday as Republican lawmakers refused to allow her to comment on a bill to prevent minors from seeing pornography online.

A group of Zephyr’s supporters gathered at the statehouse Monday and after House Speaker Matt Regier (R) again refused to acknowledge Zephyr, some protesters chanted “Let her speak!” from the gallery.

Police arrested half a dozen protesters. Zephyr then posted an update to Twitter.

“I have stepped off the house floor to show support for those who were arrested defending democracy,” she wrote. “I will be back as soon as I can.”

The measure has passed and is in the hands of Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has indicated he will sign it.

In a statement, Zephyr denounced the refusal to allow her to speak as “fundamentally undemocratic” and “a direct assault on the principles of our democracy.”

As of Tuesday, Montana legislature has not formally censured Zephyr.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos