(Photo by Ted Eytan, used through a Creative Commons license by the Daily Montanan).
When the wheels touched down in Missoula on Nov. 8, Zooey Zephyr was the last to deplane. It was election night, and Zephyr learned she had won her race in House District 100.
People sitting next to her told her they were supporters and soon-to-be constituents. On her way off of the plane, Zephyr turned back after a stewardess congratulated her.
“I’m going to be the first trans woman to hold office in Montana,” she told her.
The flight attendant, a mother to a trans son, said Zephyr gave her hope. She told Zephyr how hard she’s fought for her son and how scary the world had been at times.
“We hugged, we cried,” Zephyr said.
In a viral tweet thread, Representative-elect Zephyr, a Democrat, said the exchange was exemplary of “why we’ll win the fight for trans rights.”
“Because we’re not a concept to be debated,” Zephyr tweeted. “We’re your family, your neighbors, your colleagues, & more. & if you don’t think you know us, rest assured—even 30,000′ in the sky—you’re never far from someone who cares about us.”
As I was getting off the plane last night, a stewardess asked what I was so excited about. I told her I'd won my election & was the first trans woman elected in Montana.
She immediately teared up. "My son is trans," she said, & began to tell me about all the joys/fears… [1/3] pic.twitter.com/viHfMdWD3A
— Representative-elect Zooey Zephyr (@ZoAndBehold) November 9, 2022
Zephyr’s not alone. Missoula is sending two trans representatives to the legislature in January, with trans-nonbinary Representative-elect SJ Howell winning as a Democrat in House District 95.
Trans issues have been hot topics in Helena, but Zephyr will be looking at legislature through other lenses too. She’s a granddaughter to farmers, she grew up in Billings, and she’s a renter in Missoula who has seen housing challenges up close.
“Having 30 days notice to relocate, when we’re in a housing crisis? It puts people on the streets,” she said, adding that there needs to be fixes in both the short and long term.
“My desire to get into the legislature was to be in a place where my voice could do good,” she said. “Once I’m in the legislature, it is trying to find where you fit in the conversation with everyone else who — in theory — is trying to do the same.”
Zephyr said since announcing her win and posting about the exchange with the flight attendant, she’s received hundreds of messages, from other parents of trans children to LGBTQ+ people in other states looking for advice to run themselves.
After testifying against legislation that affected trans people during the 2021 session, like the restrictions to trans women in sports that was signed into law and later found unconstitutional, Zephyr said she believed she could be the difference.
She said she consulted with another Missoula Democrat, Sen. Bryce Bennett, before making the decision to run.
“The fight seems like it’s happening at the state legislature, is that a room I can do good in?” she remembered asking. “He said they will talk about you, but the moment you get in the room, they have to talk with you.”
After she won her primary in June, Bennett tweeted out his pride in her campaign.
“For the first time in 133 years of statehood, young people coming to terms with their gender identity will look to their legislature and see someone who knows their story, their struggles, and the bright possibilities ahead,” Bennett said in a tweet thread. “There is no way to describe how powerful that is.”
Zephyr will join a minority and will work upstream from a conservative supermajority.
A bill to prohibit gender affirming surgery for minors, which had first been proposed in the 2021 legislature but died in process, is already back on the docket for the 2023 session, with a draft request submitted by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell. Regier is the father of House Speaker-elect Matt Regier, R-Kalispell.
During a conversation around medical privacy at a recent post-election forum at Montana State University, Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said medical privacy for families of trans kids will likely continue to be an issue in the legislature.
“For families dealing with trans kids, who’s supposed to be making that decision? Is it the families and their medical providers? Or is the legislature going to decide what medical procedures are recognized, etc.?” Sands said. “I think the parties will come down on the different sides of those issues, because they are still in dispute in the culture.”
Sands was the first openly gay legislator in Montana.
Zephyr said in conversations around health care, the considerations of leading health agencies are heavily weighted.
“So to step in, in this one instance, and push back against the leading standard medical knowledge is not healthy or safe or wise,” Zephyr said.
In local and statewide races across the country, Zephyr said anti-LGBTQ rhetoric backfired, and she hopes that sends a message to Republican leadership in the state and beyond.
“I believe, with all my heart, that there will be trepidation in the legislature on the right from folks who don’t know me and have maybe haven’t met a trans person before or certainly spent extended time like we will at the legislature together,” she said. “They will find I’m part of the community just like them.”
I believe I can be successful there and part of that is sharing humanity and nuance with people who may not have met a trans person before, or may not have been aware.”
Trans people have participated in the legislative process in the past, but there haven’t been out trans people serving as elected representatives in the legislature.
“Now there will be,” she said. “And I’m humbled it gets to be me.”
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