Montana House Reaches Stalemate as Sanction of Transgender Representative Continues

Seven protesters have been charged with criminal trespassing after a Monday afternoon demonstration in support of Missoula Rep. Zooey Zephyr

By Denali Sagner
The Legislature convenes in Helena. Beacon file photo

Republican leadership in the Montana Legislature is doubling down on disciplinary actions against Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, after supporters of the transgender lawmaker staged a protest in the Montana House of Representatives on Monday afternoon, disrupting the House floor session.

Seven protesters have been charged with criminal trespassing and were released Monday evening after being held for several hours in the Lewis and Clark County jail. Legislative proceedings were interrupted again on Tuesday, as House leadership elected to cancel a House floor session, postponing hearings on dozens of bills with less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session. Republican leadership remains steadfast in its resolve not to recognize Zephyr until she apologizes, a position Democrats have resisted, framing it as an unjust infringement on the rights of Zephyr and her constituents.

Protests erupted in the gallery of the Montana House of Representatives on Monday afternoon after Speaker of the House Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, refused to recognize Zephyr for the third time due to what he and other Republicans have described as a breach of decorum by the representative last week.

During an April 18 House floor session in which lawmakers considered Senate Bill 99, a bill brought by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, that would prohibit transgender minors in Montana from accessing gender-affirming medical care, Zephyr spoke ardently against the bill, saying that legislators “should be ashamed” for voting for the measure.

“If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” Zephyr said on the House floor.

Republicans have since charged Zephyr with using violent and unwarranted language and breaching decorum for implying that Republican lawmakers would “see the blood” on their hands.

The Montana Freedom Caucus, a conservative faction within the state GOP, published a letter on April 18 calling for an official censure of Zephyr and misgendering her. While the Speaker of the House has not pursued an official censure of Zephyr, he has refused to recognize the representative since April 20, pointing to legislative rules that permit him to allow and disallow certain legislators from speaking on the House floor.

During a Monday afternoon reading of Senate Bill 518 — a bill introduced by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, that would restrict the ability of children to change their preferred name and pronouns in school — Regier refused to recognize Zephyr again, a ruling that was upheld by members of the House on a near party-line vote.

Regier’s refusal to allow Zephyr to speak prompted shouts from dozens of protesters, who began to disrupt the House floor session. The Speaker ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to clear the gallery, at which point police officers began forcibly removing protesters from the room, according to video and witness accounts.

Keegan Medrano, director of policy and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana, who was in the Capitol as the protest unfolded, said the event “took a turn” when law enforcement officers began using batons to control protesters, pinning them down and arresting them.

Matt Regier, right, at the 65th Legislature in Helena on April 25, 2017. Beacon file photo

Seven protesters were arrested and taken to the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, where they were held for approximately five hours on criminal trespassing charges before being released, according to witnesses.

A GoFundMe page created to support the detained protesters had raised nearly $30,000 by Tuesday afternoon, exceeding its initial goal of $15,000. The page organizers wrote that all seven protesters had been safely released, and that the page will continue to collect funds to cover legal defense costs, and to establish a bail fund for future Montana protesters. 

Paul Kim, an activist and one of the seven arrested protesters, said the charges brought against the protesters were unclear for a number of hours and that law enforcement gave “a moving answer” while transporting detainees from the Capitol to the county jail.

“At first it was disorderly conduct, and then civil disobedience, and then, after an hour in the jail, the captain came in and said that it was going to be a criminal trespassing charge,” Kim said.

In public statements, Montana Republicans characterized the protest as a violent insurrection and reaffirmed the censure of Zephyr until the representative apologizes for her words on the House floor.

A statement released by Republican House leadership on Monday evening read, “House Republicans condemn violence and will always stand for civil debate and respect for our processes of government. Today’s riot by far-left agitators damages our discourse and endangered legislators and staff. Their actions did not represent Montana values.”

The Montana Freedom Caucus in a Monday press release called for immediate disciplinary action against Zephyr for “the encouragement of Capitol violence.”

“The actions of a small minority of people disrupted the business of all Montanans and continues to show why we must enforce the rules of decorum when engaged in public debate,” the statement read. The Freedom Caucus letter also charged Zephyr with “encouraging an insurrection” by standing in the middle of the House floor and holding up her microphone as protesters chanted in the House gallery.

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, a member of the Freedom Caucus, told the Beacon on Tuesday that Zephyr’s actions were “completely inappropriate” and “conduct unbecoming a representative of the people.”

“We’re supposed to be above that sort of action. But then again, I realized that in politics, sometimes 50% of what we do is theater,” Fuller said.

Zephyr in a statement on Monday evening wrote, “For the third consecutive day, I have been denied the opportunity to represent my constituents in the Montana legislature and to speak on their behalf. When my constituents and community members witnessed my microphone being disabled, they courageously came forward to defend their democratic right to be heard — and some were arrested in the process. As an elected representative, I am devoted to supporting those who speak in defense of democracy, as it is my duty to ensure their voices are heard and respected.”

Medrano said the characterization of the protest as a violent insurrection is “a farcical presentation of what happened.”

“There was nothing violent. The only violence that occurred was the use of batons and physical force from police officers in the gallery,” Medrano said. “Individuals were voicing their free speech rights, their concerns, their issues with the Speaker’s approach to managing the situation.”

“Folks want to characterize trans advocates as being motivated by some violent desire to overthrow the United States government. I think that’s their prerogative to do so. It’s a free country. But the facts don’t exactly line up like that,” Kim said.

While Regier and House Republicans garnered support from party leaders — including Montana’s U.S. Senator Steve Daines and Representative Matt Rosendale — Gov. Greg Gianforte, also a Republican, called on the Legislature to resolve the matter as the end of the session nears.

“Every minute the legislature spends on this is a minute they aren’t working on legislators’ important bills or Montanans’ priorities,” a statement from the governor read. 

With less than two weeks left in the session, the Legislature has yet to pass House Bill 2, the state’s primary budget, as well as a long list of other bills. The House did not hold its floor session on Tuesday, where the body was set to consider 50 bills on second and third reading.

Calls to discipline Zephyr come on the heels of the expulsion of two young Democratic members of the Tennessee House of Representatives for their participation in a gun violence protest at the state capitol, an event that Montana activists alluded to in discussing further disciplinary actions that could be taken against Zephyr.

“We’ve had a lot of watershed political moments over the last few years, but nothing like this has ever happened in Montana before,” Kim said, adding that “if there were a formal censorship or an expulsion from the House, I can assure you that people of Montana and Zooey Zephyr’s constituents would feel extremely strongly about that.”

“They’ve taken away her mic, but they’ve given her a megaphone,” Medrano said, speaking about Zephyr and the national media coverage of recent events. “They’ve turned her from a sort of community leader into a national and international figure, and they’re going to continue to as long as they de facto censure her, which is what they’re doing.”