Just over a week ago, Montana’s Republican-majority House banned Rep. Zooey Zephyr from in-person debates and voting for the remainder of the 2023 session.
On Monday, Zephyr—the first openly transgender woman elected to Montana’s legislature—sued Republican leadership, alleging that her censure was a violation of her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit, which was also filed on behalf of a few of Zephyr’s constituents, characterized the lawmakers’ treatment as a “retaliatory” and “unconstitutional” silencing.
Zephyr was censured after criticizing a bill that would restrict gender-affirming health care. (That legislation has since been signed into law but not yet gone into effect. It will likely face legal challenges.) She had said that her colleagues who supported the measure “would have blood on their hands.” Republicans then banned her from participating in floor debates on April 18; days later, she raised her microphone on the house floor in protest. Her supporters pushed for her to be able to speak in the chamber’s gallery; seven were arrested. Zephyr’s access to capitol entrances, bathrooms, and workspaces were subsequently deactivated as she was banished from the house floor, per the lawsuit.
Zephyr isn’t the only Democratic state lawmaker to face discipline in recent months. In March, Oklahoma Republicans formally censured Rep. Mauree Turner, the first openly nonbinary state legislator in U.S. history and first Muslim lawmaker in Oklahoma. In April, Tennessee Republicans expelled two Black House Democrats—Justin Jones and Justin Pearson—for taking part in a gun violence protest.
Zephyr spoke with TIME over Zoom on Tuesday morning from Helena, Montana. With her two cats pawing underneath her door and a trans pride flag on the shelf behind her, Zephyr talked about being banned from the capitol, the decision to sue, and her conversations with Jones and Pearson about their “threaded” experiences.
The following conversation has been lightly edited.
It’s been more than a week since Montana’s House voted to ban you from in-person debates and voting for the remainder of the 2023 session. How have you been spending your time?
I’ve been doing the work, making sure I know the bills just as well as I would if I were in that room. I’m trying to sit right outside the chamber, so I can talk to legislators as they come by and make sure I get my community’s points across about bills that are being voted on. I spoke with Rep. Marilyn Marler about bills related to Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Rep. SJ Howell about a proposed ban on drag performances in public places. I tell my Democratic colleagues: obviously I can’t speak on it because they’re not allowing me in the room but is there anything you need from me? Is there anything I can help with?
On Monday, you decided to sue, saying the censure was a retaliatory and unconstitutional silencing. Why take this battle to court?
I took this battle to court because my constituents deserve representation. When the speaker refused to recognize me, he took away not only my right as a legislator to partake in speech and debate on the floor, but also the voice of the people who elected me. And that is an attack on the very first principles of our country. That is an attack on democracy.
You were penalized for speaking out against a bill that would restrict gender-affirming health care. That bill has now been signed into law. What does that mean for your constituents??
That law does not go into effect until Oct. 1 of this year. I anticipate that there will be lawsuits before then. My expectation is that this law, which we know is cruel and gets trans kids killed, is unconstitutional.
What is your main concern about this legislation?
My primary concern is that it takes away health care that trans youth need to live full and joyous lives, as proved by every major medical association in our country. I know the joy that comes when a trans person is allowed to transition. I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do, to be in community in the way I am, had I not transitioned.
In your lawsuit, you say the censure is not just a result of what you said but who you are: specifically, the first openly transgender women elected to the Montana legislature. What are the challenges associated with navigating a legislative body that is predominantly made up of white, cis men and one that has politicized your identity?
The pressures are twofold. First: a lack of understanding from a legislature that has not had a trans woman in those halls before. The second challenge is the political force that the far-right is exerting over the members of this state and country. You have people who don’t understand what it means to be trans, who don’t understand the need for this health care or the joy that comes when trans people get to live our lives. Those who may be open to it, there is a sense that they are afraid of being exiled from their party, afraid of being primaried, afraid that their legislation will go nowhere if they stand up in defense of someone like me. What we see right now, and What I hope they see, and what I hope everyone in our country sees, is that’s not true. If you stand up for what is morally right, everything will be okay in the end.
What’s highest on your legislative agenda as the session wraps up, and how will you advocate for those priorities remotely?
The two biggest priorities in my mind are housing and health care. We have been working all session on Medicaid provider rates in the state of Montana. On housing, there’s a bill to help trailer park renters.
Do you see any parallels between what happened to you and what happened to Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones in Tennessee?
Yes, and I would add in Rep. Mauree Turner in Oklahoma. When marginalized communities are standing up and saying these bills, these policies get us killed—get people in my community killed—the far-right is saying: yeah, we have a supermajority, we could pass this legislation. But that’s not enough. What we’re seeing is that in order to reach their ideological goals, they will throw away the very first principles of our country, they will throw away democracy.
Have you spoken to any of these lawmakers? What’s the most important thing you took from those conversations?
Rep. Turner was someone I called during my campaign. I asked them: as a non-binary person who will be in a red state, what was your experience?
Tennessee Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson connected with me over the last week to speak about our experience of standing up in defense of our communities and how to prepare for the next moment.
The main thing I took away is something Rep. Jones has said many times: ‘When they come for one of us, they come for all of us.’ The attacks on my community are the attacks on his community. These are threaded together. The second thing is that courage is contagious. When people see the leaders they elected into office standing up in the face of authoritarianism and abject cruelty, they feel more comfortable to stand up in their own communities and say, hey, the status quo we’ve had here is not helping. It’s hurting.
The State Freedom Caucus Network has been influential in about a dozen statehouses—not only leading the charge in Montana to enshrine a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, but also focusing on book bans in Wyoming and diverse universities in South Carolina. How do you evaluate the power of the far-right in the current political landscape?
We are seeing that there is a growing extremism in the far-right and it will toss democratic principles to the side to accomplish ideological goals. There’s a fear within the Republican Party that the far-right is taking hold of their leadership. More moderate Republicans fear how to act and can get pushed out of the party.
Has this dust-up affected your own future ambitions in politics? What’s the end goal for you?
I always ask myself: what room can your voice do the most good in? When I was deciding to run for the legislature, I met with Sen. Bryce Bennett, the first openly gay man elected to the Montana legislature. I said, ‘Is this the room where my voice is needed, or is it city council or a nonprofit?’ To me, it feels like this room—the state legislature is the frontline of our democracy and it’s where I want to be. If I ever feel like that room is a different one, I will leave to go where I feel I can do the most good.
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