Montana senators look on as votes are tallied on the second reading of Senate Bill 99 on Feb. 7, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
Montana’s Democratic legislative leaders said Tuesday morning they would fight a bill that seeks to deny gender-affirming care to transgender children and punish medical professionals who perform it – and while the measure did pass a key hurdle in the Senate, the fight occurred, too.
Following an hour of discussion, multiple calls from Democrats for Republicans to tone down their rhetoric, and a heated rules debate between party leaders, Senate Republicans passed Senate Bill 99 on second reading in a 28-21 vote, with five Republicans voting against it along with all Democrats.
Just after the sponsor, Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, closed on his bill before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, moved to indefinitely postpone the bill. Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, ruled the motion out of order, saying it violated the Senate rules.
Leaders from both parties gathered in the middle of the floor to hash out the rules, as an animated Fitzpatrick pointed his finger at Flowers while addressing him. Following the exchange, Flowers said the two parties “clearly” had a disagreement on the interpretation of the rules, but he was withdrawing his motion.
Five Republicans voted against the bill on second reading: Sens. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls; Walt Sales, R-Manhattan; Dan Salomon, R-Ronan; Terry Vermeire, R-Anaconda; and Jeffrey Welborn, R-Dillon.
Fuller kicked off the hour-plus long hearing in grandiose fashion, saying he came to the floor not as a partisan but rather “a Montana man, a family man, a husband, a father, a grandfather.”
“Hear me for my cause,” he said.
Fuller immediately used a metaphor to compare a person who seeks to transition their gender to a theoretical veteran who “decided” they identified as a legless amputee and wanted their legs cut off. It was the first reference to amputation of the hearing and turned up the gas under what would become a boiling pot on the other side of the aisle.
“There is nothing natural or healthy about pumping children full of puberty blockers, or cross-sex hormones, or steroids, or performing sterilizing surgeries on them,” Fuller added, again telling senators, as he did in committee, that his bill was about protecting children.
Flowers immediately rose to ask the Senate to stop referencing amputation, saying there was nothing in the bill that referred to it, nor was it how the medical community referred to gender transition surgery.
Throughout the hearing, Democrats implored their majority counterparts to kill the bill, saying it violated Montanans’ individual freedoms as well as the Montana and U.S. Constitutions. They said it would put federal Medicare and Medicaid funding at risk because a person’s gender identity is a federally protected class.
“This isn’t just about health care and counseling for transgender youth, as critical as that is,” said Sen. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman. “It’s about health care for 300,000 Montana citizens paid in large part by the federal government in multi-billions of dollars … which is being put at risk by this unconstitutional, and in my opinion, misguided law.”
Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, told the Senate transgender children and care was the “No. 1 issue” in his election last year. He said he believed “amputee” was the correct word to use because some people transitioning have double mastectomies to remove their breasts.
Flowers rose again to ask the word be left out of the discussion.
McKamey, who would be one of the Republican votes against the bill, told the Senate that as a mother and grandmother, she did not want children to suffer or hurt.
“I do believe that parenting is a fundamental right,” she said. “And to take that fundamental right away from the parent as the government or any other entity is absolutely inappropriate.”
Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, an attorney who heard the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the chamber how many of the proponents of the bill who testified at the committee hearing were from out of state, and how medical experts and parents who testified against the bill shared several studies and stories about how gender-affirming care had improved – and sometimes saved – their children’s lives.
“Who are we to deprive our constituents of their self-determination, strip them of their access to live their lives fully in the pursuit of happiness?” she asked.
The American Medical Association and other medical organizations have deemed gender-affirming care, hormone therapy and surgery medically necessary in some cases.
Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who also heard the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, rehashed testimony from proponents of the bill about children “growing out of” gender dysphoria and the story of a woman from out of state who had detransitioned who testified she had received no mental health care during the process.
“Through the wonders of medicine, you can cut body parts off, and you can sew body parts on. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t,” she said. “But you are engaging in a lifetime of drugs and therapies, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
She said people needed to be an adult to make that decision. Then, she said she wanted to add two definitions into the record – “amputation” and “mastectomy.”
Flowers rose again for a point of order and called on the chair for decorum.
“My wife had a mastectomy. My wife, who passed away from breast cancer. There was no doctor that she saw that ever called that an amputation,” he said. “I’m going to ask one more time – let’s leave that language out of this discussion. There’s no place for it here.”
Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, talked about how the bill, if passed, could force children needing medical care for other procedures out of state because they couldn’t use Medicaid funds, and how it could potentially keep counselors from referring kids to specialty care if they are experiencing gender dysphoria.
Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Fuller again – as she did in committee – to explain intersex people, to which he again told her she would know if she’d read the bill. She tried to ask another question, but he would not yield the floor to her, saying her question was “irrelevant.”
Gross told him the question was absolutely relevant and rhetorically questioned why the bill did not prohibit treatments for cisgender teenagers as well.
“Why is it OK for one group of young people and not another?” she said.
Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, raised points about how in the 1950s, medical professionals performed lobotomies as a response to mental health concerns but then stopped doing so as medicine advanced.
“That’s where I’m afraid of where we’re going here,” Hertz said. “Because we’re going to have a procedure here, in a couple of decades, that basically, we’ll wonder – why did we do this? Why did we put these children into such harm?”
Flowers again objected.
“There’s nothing in gender-affirming care that relates to lobotomy, and I think even raising that, in this context, is offensive,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said the Senate needed to have the ability to discuss a bill freely and that he didn’t think what was being said was a breach of decorum.
“Let’s finish the debate. I think we all know how we’re going to vote, so let’s get to it,” he said.
Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, called on the Senate to protect children from what she called “political cruelty.” She then falsely accused Fuller of voting against a resolution seeking to create a day of remembrance for child victims of Indian boarding schools.
Delivering closing remarks, Flowers said the bill cuts straight to the heart of Montanans’ freedoms.
“If you are truly committed to the freedoms that we enjoy under our Constitution, and the freedoms for our families to make their own decisions about their children – if you’re really committed to that, then you’ll vote against this bill,” he said.
Fuller spoke last – ahead of Flowers’ motion to indefinitely postpone the bill, the rules discussion, and vote.
He apologized for his outburst but said he has always resisted people who lie about him. He then finished his presentation, arguing that allowing children to make decisions before they were adults “makes a mockery of informed consent.”
“Prohibiting irreversible procedures on children prior to adulthood is not discriminatory, it is not invasive, it is not unconstitutional,” he said. “It is the right thing to do. No serious state would promote the destruction of its own children. We must protect Montana’s.”
The bill will face a vote on final Senate approval on Wednesday. It would then head to the House if it passes.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said earlier Tuesday that House Democrats were prepared to oppose the bill and had already been talking with Republicans.
“It’s a really mean, harmful piece of legislation. But the LGBT community in Montana is a thriving community that stands up for themselves and each other,” she said. “And so, should that come across, we’ll deal with it over here. And I’m hopeful that we’ll figure out a way to prevent it from getting to the governor’s desk.”
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