‘Let her speak’: Protesters scream, arrests follow after speaker doesn’t recognize Zephyr
Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, has requested to speak multiple times and not been recognized on the House floor
People protesting the House speaker’s silencing of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, hung a banner on the Capitol steps in Helena saying “Democracy dies here” on Monday, April 24, 2023. (Blair Miller/Daily Montanan)
Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, stood at her seat in the Montana House Chamber with her microphone in the air, while the other representatives evacuated the floor as shouts of “Let her speak!” echoed from protesters in the House gallery above.
Protesters threw gloves covered in fake blood on the House floor Monday as police with batons and helmets made arrests and cleared the House Gallery and dissenters continued to shout.
Zephyr, the first transgender woman elected to the Montana Statehouse, had punched in to speak, and Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, stood up, along with fellow Democrats, to say Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, had not recognized Zephyr.
Emotion was high on the sidelines as Democrats held back tears in solidarity with Zephyr. Law enforcement arrested at least seven protestors in all, including some who were detained in the gallery during the demonstration.
Monday was the third time Zephyr had requested to speak and not been recognized on the House floor — after not being recognized last week in an event that drew national news.
Montana state representative speaks out on bill banning transgender health care
During the debate last week on Senate Bill 99, a bill to ban gender affirming care for minors, Zephyr said Republicans would have “blood on their hands” if they voted for it, in reference to the high youth suicide rate associated with cutting off access to gender affirming care.
The gloves hitting the House floor on Monday were meant to be symbolic of Zephyr’s comments.
In defending his decision to not call on her, Regier argued that her statement last week about those who supported the bill should be “ashamed” of themselves was out of line. He has refused to recognize her on the floor since.
In response, her constituents and other supporters mounted their own calls for Regier to remove the muzzle from Zephyr.
Before the floor session, Shawn Reagor of the Montana Human Rights Network estimated more than 400 people rallied in front of the capitol building calling for Zephyr to be recognized on the floor Montana Highway Patrol officers estimated anywhere from 200 to 300.
Two banners that spanned the width of the Capitol steps said “Democracy Dies Here” in red letters. Signs in the crowd read “Trans Lives matter more than Republican feelings” and “Equal Rights for All Montanans.”
“They picked me in this moment because I said a thing that got through their shield for a second,” Zephyr said before the crowd. “Those in power aren’t content with just passing those hateful, harmful bills. What they’re demanding is silence, and we will not be complicit in our eradication.”
Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, said they would not be the “barometer of the trans community” with people comparing them and Zephyr.
“Thank God Zooey and I aren’t exactly the same,” Howell said. “I will not be the ‘good’ trans person.”
Speakers also included Izzy Milch with Forward Montana and Gwen Nicholson, who announced their campaign for Missoula City Council at the rally.
After the rally, many people who attended the demonstration sat in the House gallery, which seats 189 and was mostly full.
Montana Legislature considers public drag show, parental rights bills
Before legislators started hearing bills, Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, called for consideration of amendments to a bill to ban drag in public venues in Montana to be moved to the end of a long session, and a majority of the legislators voted yes.
That move nor the Speaker asking participants in the gallery to refrain from cheering and booing didn’t stop the uproar that ensued when Zephyr was again not recognized.
During debate, Zephyr requested to speak on Senate Bill 518, a bill sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, that mainly concerns parental rights.
The bill includes language that requires parent permission for a student to be called by pronouns that don’t align with their sex and also says someone would be able to disregard pronouns that don’t align with the child’s sex.
Howell said during debate that “this issue of pronouns has a lot of different people feeling a lot of different ways.”
“I understand pronouns are not for the faint of heart,” Howell said. “I also think this is something for families to deal with.”
The speaker would not recognize Zephyr, however. The House took a vote to back his decision, and Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton; Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta; and Rep. Gregory Frazer, R-Deer Lodge, joined Democrats in voting against the ruling of the chair.
One person in the gallery yelled “bulls–t,” and others started chanting.
Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, said she felt a lot of empathy for her seatmate, Zephyr, as she stood resolute.
Montana House Sergeant of Arms Bradley Murfitt at one point approached Zephyr. He later said he was asking her to calm her people down.
Protestors arrested at Montana Statehouse
After police forced protesters out of the gallery, Zephyr left the House chamber and followed them into the halls of the Capitol.
“I love you!” shouted activist Paul Kim to Zephyr as he was being arrested. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to this state!”
Kim explained the reason Zephyr’s voice is important while he was waiting to be taken to jail.
“In this country you don’t get many rights but one of the things you do get is an elected representative, and 11,000 Montanans are waiting for Zooey Zephyr to speak for them, to represent the interest of trans people in the state who belong in the state as well,” Kim said. “It’s not just … the old white men who run the show over here. It’s every single person. Montana is big enough for all of us, and I think it has space for all of us.”
Zephyr, who had gone voluntarily to the county jail where her supporters had been taken, thanked her community in a statement Monday.
“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,” Zephyr said. “I stood by them in solidarity and will continue to do so.”
Abbott similarly said the House saw Montanans show up and engage in the democratic process, with some getting arrested.
“To me, it’s an incredible statement in support of the trans, nonbinary, and two-spirit community — and against the Republican agenda that would strip our neighbors of their basic rights, dignity and humanity,” Abbott said in a statement.
But Republican House leadership characterized the protest as a “riot by far-left agitators” in a statement, saying dissenters “endangered legislators and staff.”
“Their actions did not represent Montana values. We want to thank our law enforcement for maintaining order and protecting the safety of everyone at the Capitol,” a joint statement from Regier and Majority Leader Vinton.. “House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena.”
Petition in support of Rep. Zephyr delivered to House speaker
Earlier in the day, Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis delivered a petition asking House Speaker Regier to allow Zephyr to speak.
Montana Federation of Public Employees counted more than 3,200 signers, and supporters walked to unroll the paper with signatures down the hall and around the corner until it unfurled all the way.
“We, the undersigned citizens of Montana, request that you allow all democratically elected representatives to speak on the House floor,” said the petition, which Curtis read. “By refusing to recognize Rep. Zooey Zephyr, you are silencing the voices of over 10,000 Montanans.
“In our democracy, elected leaders must be able to represent their constituents.”
The petition was titled “Speaker Regier: Don’t Silence 10,000 Montanans.” Curtis handed the document to the House sergeant of arms after the reading and unfurling.
“Montanans expect, and respect, dissent and debate from our elected leaders,” the Montana Federation of Public Employees petition said. “We ask that you honor Montana’s democracy and let Rep. Zephyr do her job for her constituents.”
Manzella said following the floor session she had not yet seen the debate on her bill in the House but had heard protesters. After legislators returned to the floor, they voted 60-39 to pass her bill on second reading, an outcome Manzella said she was pleased with.
The gallery had cleared at that point.
The Senate Amendments to House Bill 359 from Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, that “gut” the original bill that banned drag performances on public property was discussed with little fanfare after protesters had left. Vinton had moved discussion of the bill to the end of the agenda at the top of the floor session.
Following the floor session, the Montana Freedom Caucus put out a statement saying it condemned the actions of “the violent protestors in the capitol building today” and called for “immediate disciplinary action” against Zephyr.
“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. “Representative Zephyr encouraged these actions by standing in the middle of the floor encouraging an insurrection after all members were told to move to the sides and clear the House gallery to remain in a safe location.”
House Leadership has not said if they intend to discipline Zephyr.
Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said following the floor that he didn’t expect for them to do more than deny recognition.
“I can’t really think of what the extra consequence would be if there was one,” Hopkins said.
Keila Szpaller of the Daily Montanan contributed to this report.
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