Republicans say Montana ‘deserves better,’ but Zephyr said ‘decorum’ used as ‘tool of oppression’

By: - April 26, 2023 9:46 pm

Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr stands with her fellow legislators as the Pledge of Allegiance is recited at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Rep. Zooey Zephyr said she fielded a call from the family of a transgender teenager in Montana who attempted death by suicide while watching a hearing on a bill against trans people — and many calls from worried families.

“So when I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic,” said Zephyr, the Missoula Democrat. “I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes we as legislators take in this body.”

Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr speaks as the legislature discusses a motion to bar her from the house chamber at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Zephyr made the remarks Wednesday before the House floor voted 68-32 on party lines to ban her from participating in the session in person for the remainder of the legislative session.

The first openly transgender representative in Montana may vote remotely, but she may not be on the floor, in the gallery, or in the anteroom adjacent to the floor in person the next eight work days.

Tuesday, House Republicans posted a notice they would take up disciplinary measures against Zephry and close off the public gallery during debate to maintain decorum.

The notice followed Zephyr’s statements last week that legislators who voted for a bill that bans gender-affirming care would have blood on their hands — in reference to high suicide rates among trans youth — and a gallery protest that erupted Monday after demonstrators rallied outside to support Zephyr’s attempts to speak on the floor.

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, had not recognized Zephyr on the floor after her comments last week, which led to chants from demonstrators to “let her speak” and Regier’s call for an apology from Zephyr and for preservation of decorum.

Rep. David Bedey, a Hamilton Republican who previously voted in support of recognizing Zephyr on the floor, said Wednesday the motion was not about passing judgment on events prior to Monday.

Montana State Representative David Bedey speaks as the legislature discusses a motion to bar Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr from the house chamber in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Rather, he said the motion to discipline Zephyr was based on her reaction during the protests when members of the public in the gallery chanted and law enforcement, some in riot gear, pushed people out.

“It is an irrefutable fact that the representative in question did indeed actively support and arguably incite the disruptive antics of demonstrators who had gathered in the House gallery,” Bedey said.

And Zephyr had other options, he said — to join other legislators in leaving the House floor or even trying to calm the crowd. But she chose neither.

The vote Wednesday, he said, was to preserve order in the chamber.

“At stake is the expectation that any member of the body, whoever that might be, has a duty to strive to maintain decorum so the people’s work, the work of all Montanans, can be accomplished,” Bedey said.

But Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott said Republican leaders also had other options and were aware of them but chose an extreme measure. Three people on both sides of the debate spoke on the motion, in addition to Zephyr and Majority Leader Sue Vinton, who presented the motion.

Abbott, a Helena Democrat, also said she wished the body was debating many other topics instead, such as housing, and that the gallery was full of Montanans.

“It should not go without saying, and I think it’s obvious to all of us, there is an opportunity lost in choosing this path,” Abbott said.

Zephyr, too, discussed her actions Monday and the reason she didn’t walk off the floor and abandon people in the gallery.

“When you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, all you are doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” she said.

When the speaker didn’t allow her to speak, he took away the voices of 11,000 Montanans, so they showed up to demand she speak as well, she said. She said gaveling them down was driving a nail in the coffin of democracy.

Montana State Representative Jonathan Windy Boy speaks in support of Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr as the legislature discusses a motion to bar Zephyr from the house chamber at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

“But you cannot kill democracy that easily,” Zephyr said. “… and that is why they kept chanting, ‘let her speak,’ and why I raised my microphone to amplify their voices, to make sure that the people who elected me here are heard.”

Also in support of Zephyr, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said over the years, he’d seen much worse, “talking about fisticuffs on the floor” and banging on desks that might have damaged state property, but no punishment.

“Why weren’t we disciplined at that time? We should have (been),” Windy Boy said.

Windy Boy said his community has transgender members, called two-spirit people by some tribes, and he learned how to treat people from his late uncle.

“He … has always told me one thing to keep in mind is no matter who you are, that we are all equal under the eyes of almighty,” Windy Boy said.

But Rep. Casey Knudsen, a Malta Republican, said the body possesses rights, including that of self-protection, and it’s one legislators hold dear.

Monday, law enforcement officers forcibly removed people from the gallery, pushing some close to a rail, and Wednesday, Knudsen said Zephyr had crossed the line and put people at risk.

Knudsen also earlier voted with Democrats to support the recognition of Zephyr on the floor, but he urged fellow legislators to support the motion to penalize her with a two-thirds vote. Knudsen had been involved in helping leadership understand the rules and options going into the motion to censure.

“This behavior violated the collective rights and safety of 99 other members of this body, our staff, our pages and the public,” Knudsen said.

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, offered a different take on the rule and the demonstration, and reminded people the right to protest is clearly held in both the state and federal constitution.

Howell, who is nonbinary, talked about experiencing “deeply offensive” behaviors directly and said the problem wasn’t just silencing one member.

Rather, it was doing so after a session of debating bills “that only impact some of us,” the LGBTQ+ community, and after “struggling to fight for people’s equal treatment under the law.”

The legislator said rules should be held not to protect individuals, but to protect the work legislators are doing every day that touch the lives of every person in the state.

“We are considering these rules not to protect the rights of all of us to engage in our democratic process, something I hold sacred, but instead to protect us as people, as individuals,” Howell said. “It is time for us to put the work first. That’s our job. We are not elected to come up here and put ourselves first. None of us were.”

“We have one shot to right this ship, and that’s this vote.”

During a press conference following the floor session, Regier pointed to Howell as an example of someone who can present a point of view and maintain decorum. But during the rally on Monday, Howell said they refuse to be known as “the good trans person.”

Majority Leader Sue Vinton introduces a motion to bar Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr from the house chamber at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Majority Leader Vinton, R-Billings, who presented the motion, said everyone had witnessed Zephyr’s actions, and she said the conduct must not stand. The Billings Republican called on the body to regain decorum and set a precedent for the future.

“Our constituents and our state deserve better,” Vinton said. “They deserve our full attention, and this institution and body deserve the respect of all of its members.”

Wednesday was the 82nd day of a 90-day session, and Rep. Terry Moore, also a Billings Republican, said he hoped legislators could finish their work.

“I am hopeful that we will be able to complete our current session in the coming days with honor, finishing well,” Moore said. “I am also hopeful that the representative being disciplined will understand the significance of the actions taken on April 24th and that future engagement with this body will resume.”

As part of her own testimony, Zephyr said she has no intention of anything other than fully representing her constituents and raising her voice when the body takes up measures that harm her community.

She said she isn’t sure what comes next, but she’s grateful for those who stood up for her, and she will always defend democracy.

“I will always, no matter what happens today, stand up for democracy and the state of Montana,” Zephyr said.

Daily Montanan reporters Nicole Girten and Blair Miller contributed to this story.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.