A large group gathers at the Montana Capitol on March 15, 2021 during a LGBTQ rally (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).
Senate lawmakers voted Tuesday to indefinitely postpone legislation that would prohibit transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming surgical care, a victory for LGBTQ+ advocates who have regularly come to the Capitol to lobby against bills they say restrict their access to healthcare and infringe on their rights.
Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, who has been an outspoken opponent of the bill and others like it moving through the Legislature on the backs of Republicans, made the surprise motion at the tail end of Tuesday’s Senate floor session. Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, called Bennett’s motion “the smoothest parliamentary move I’ve seen all day.”
House Bill 427 was initially supposed to have a second reading on the floor Tuesday but was removed from the agenda. However, because the bill was still in possession of the committee of the whole, Bennett was able to introduce the motion to postpone indefinitely, which passed 27-22 with eight Republicans in support.
Sen. Dan Salomon of Ronan was one of the Republicans who voted for the motion to postpone the bill. He said that after discussions with multiple doctors in the state, he determined the bill was “a solution in search of a problem.”
“According to every urologist in the state, no doctor in Montana has done those surgeries on a patient under the age of 18,” he said.
Other bills critics say harm the transgender community, House Bill 112 and Senate Bill 280, which would ban transgender women from participating on K-16 women’s sports teams and put in place more hoops for transgender people to jump through to change their sex on their birth certificate, respectively, have been more successful than HB427.
After the floor session, Bennett said he had been working with Republicans before making the motion to postpone the bill: “I didn’t want to make a motion like this without having a sense that the votes were there too. It was certainly a bipartisan effort to make sure that Montana’s not a state that discriminates against trans people.”
The bill’s sponsor, Whitefish Republican Rep. John Fuller, criticized Republicans that voted against the bill. “In this process, there are those that are willing to stand by their values and those who are not, and obviously certain Republicans were not willing to stand by defending the children of Montana,” he said.
The bill is the second version of Fuller’s this session to regulate transgender youth healthcare that has failed. HB427 would have banned surgeries for treating minors experiencing gender dysphoria. But unlike the earlier, nearly identical bill introduced that failed earlier this session, it would not prohibit hormonal treatments such as puberty blockers.
Before Tuesday’s floor session, Bennett said he was hopeful that the bill would not pass its scheduled second reading.
“We are having good conversations, and I am optimistic that there are people out there that will vote against mandating what health care parents can provide for their kids,” he said.
Despite the outright success of many other bills Bennett and other LGBTQ+ advocates consider discriminatory, Bennett said he has no choice but to be hopeful.
“You have to remain hopeful despite all the awful bills that want to make it harder for LGBTQ+ people to live in this state, and I have to hope that the live and let live that I always thought defined Montana is what prevails ultimately,” he said.
An hour before the Senate floor session where Fuller’s HB427 was postponed, another one of his bills, House Bill 112, which would ban transgender female athletes from participating on womens’ sports teams, was the subject of a special legislative committee hearing.
Members from both chambers debated an amendment that would have voided the bill if it resulted in the federal government threatening to withhold education funding.
The concern that spurred the amendment stems from an Executive Order issued by President Joe Biden in the early days of his presidency instructing federal agencies to interpret and enforce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year expanding the definition of sex discrimination to apply to Title IX.
Ultimately, on party lines with Republican support, the committee voted to approve a modified version of the amendment that says the bill can not be considered void until 21 days after the U.S. Department of Education “files a written report with the proper committees of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate…”
The House and Senate will now have the chance to vote on the bill and its updated amendment. If both chambers approve the changes to the amendment, it will be sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte.
While Fuller said women’s sports are thriving in the state, he said the bill, dubbed the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” is necessary to protect them from transgender female athletes — an assertion that hundreds of Montana female athletes have rejected.
“If transgender females are allowed to participate [on women’s sports teams], then women’s sports will be destroyed,” Fuller said.
Bennett said no matter what happened with the disputed amendment, nothing could have been done to save the bill. “It’s a deeply discriminatory bill. It’s going to harm people and cost the state exorbitant amounts of money just to keep kids from playing sports. It is a massive waste of time for Montanans.”
While the Legislature postponed and amended bills, Gianforte held a closed-door meeting at 1 p.m. with medical professionals, transgender people, and transgender activists to allow them to voice their concerns with HB112, HB427, and SB280, which would make transgender people jump through more hoops to change their sex on their birth certificate.
Dr. Heather Zaluski, medical director of pyschiatry at Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena, was in the meeting and said Gianforte was attentive and respectful throughout the conference.
“He seemed to take the topic of suicide and stories told by transgender youth seriously,” she said. “He talked about the money that was committed to mental health, but he basically said he has to represent all Montanans, and that is why he agreed to speak with us.”
Zaluski said she is relieved that HB427 got postponed. “As the medical director, a lot of my job is to recruit physicians to join us in Montana, and [HB427] would have been devastating. No doctor wants to move to a state where the government is interfering with their practice.”
But she said she has life or death concerns about HB112.
“Sports are key for healthy development, and House Bill 112 would be detrimental to the healthy development of transgender youth,” she said. “If bills like this get passed in Montana, children are going to die. Literally, children’s lives are at stake.”
Editor’s note: Information about Dr. Zaluski, including a name spelling, has been updated in this story on April 21, 2021.
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