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Montana House votes to formally punish transgender lawmaker, Rep. Zooey Zephyr

Rep. Zooey Zephyr speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Zephyr by barring her from attending or speaking during House session.
Shaylee Ragar
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Montana Public Radio
Rep. Zooey Zephyr speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Zephyr by barring her from attending or speaking during House session.

Updated April 26, 2023 at 5:00 PM ET

HELENA, Mont. – Republicans, who dominate the Montana House of Representatives, have voted Wednesday to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr.

Zephyr, who is transgender, has been blocked from speaking since last week. That's when she told supporters of a bill to ban gender-affirming care that when they bowed their heads in prayer, she hoped they would see "blood on [their] hands." She says she was alluding to studies that show that transgender health care can reduce suicidality in youth.

The formal punishment decided Wednesday bans Zephyr from attending or speaking during floor sessions. She will only be allowed to vote remotely in the remaining days of the legislative session. It's a lesser punishment than expulsion, which was also on the table, according to House leadership.

"I have fielded calls from families in Montana, including one family whose trans teenager attempted to take her life while watching a hearing on one of the anti-trans bills," Zephyr said during the debate Wednesday. "So, when I rose up and said 'there is blood on your hands,' I was not being hyperbolic," she said.

"If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, all you are doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression," Zephyr added.

Monday, seven people were arrested during a demonstration in the House gallery in protest of Zephyr being blocked from speaking for three consecutive days.

Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr.
Shaylee Ragar / Montana Public Radio
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Montana Public Radio
Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr.

"Monday, this body witnessed one of its members participating in conduct that disrupted and disturbed the orderly proceedings of this body ... placing legislators, staff and even our pages at risk of harm," said Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vintin before the vote to punish Zephyr. Democrats have taken issue with the characterization that anything about the protesters' behavior Monday was unsafe.

The Montana controversy comes about three weeks after the Tennessee House voted to expel state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson for using a megaphone on the floor during a gun reform protest. Both Jones and Pearson were reinstated shortly after.

The background

The tension in the Montana House has been building for a while. Zephyr said she ran for office after Republican lawmakers passed legislation restricting the rights of transgender Montanans in 2021.

Now in office, she's taken a very strong stance against bills to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors, to ban minors from attending drag shows and to define sex as binary in state code.

Monday, seven people were arrested during a demonstration in the House gallery in protest of Zephyr being blocked from speaking for three consecutive days.

Speaker of the House Matt Regier says Zephyr violated the rules of the chamber during the debate over a bill to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors. He said she would be blocked from speaking on the floor unless she apologized.

Zephyr says she stands by her comments. In a notice, Republican leaders cited the section of the Montana Constitution that gives authority to the legislature to "expel or punish a member for good cause" with a two-thirds majority vote.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott says her caucus will hold Republicans accountable for their "anti-democratic agenda." The public gallery was closed for Wednesday's proceedings.

Members are under a tight deadline in the coming days. Montana's Constitution says it must adjourn in a matter of days, and they've yet to finish piecing together a budget.

Shaylee Ragar is Montana Public Radio's capitol bureau chief and Acacia Squires is NPR's States Team editor.

Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

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Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.
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