Credit: Screenshot of livestream courtesy of Montana Public Affairs Network

HELENA — One day after House Bill 113 survived intense debate and a major vote on the House floor, the proposal failed to clear a procedural vote Tuesday after five Republicans reversed their stances, making the final vote count 49 in favor, 51 opposed. Advocates for transgender rights hailed the change as a significant win.

“The trans and nonbinary commuity is strong and so are our families, friends and supporters,” said SK Rossi, one of the lead lobbyists opposing the bill on behalf of the cities of Missoula and Bozeman. 

HB 113, which would have barred medical providers from prescribing puberty blockers, hormone treatments and a range of other gender-affirming care to minors experiencing gender dysphoria, has been the topic of substantial deliberations among lawmakers over the past week. It passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday with one Republican lawmaker joining Democratic opposition, and narrowly cleared its second reading on the House floor Monday by a vote of 53-47.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, gained support from many in the Republican caucus who said they disagreed with minors receiving life-altering medical treatment at a young age. Some proponents said Monday they were also concerned that young people who pursue a medical transition to live in alignment with their gender identity may come to regret the decision. 

Opponents, both in committee and on the House floor, reiterated that a growing body of evidence shows that treating gender dysphoria with a spectrum of care for minors can dramatically reduce rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality.

Some Republicans who decided to change their votes said they did not make the decision lightly.

“I’ve been watching this bill and studying this bill for a few weeks now, trying to carefully consider all sides,” said Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, who had voted in favor of the bill on Monday. “Everyone who voted, whether it was a yes or a no, was doing so out of care and consideration for children.”

Part of her shift, Vinton said, was based on hearing the perspectives of transgender people, as well as medical providers and family members concerned about the proposal.

“[They] were quite passionate, as you can imagine, about the need to allow parents to make these personal decisions for their families,” she said. “And I learned, also, that it’s a continuum of care. The younger child doesn’t go into an immediate course [to transition]. It’s much more gradual and it’s a much more involved decision-making process.”

“Obviously there’s been a lot of information and a lot of folks weighing in on this one. There were a lot of responsible people who might not have seen policies on this topic before and who heard from trusted sources on it. I think there was an arc of learning from members of the body.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, also changed his mind on the bill over the last 24 hours, saying he came to see it as an overreach by the Legislature into the purview of medical professionals. The bill would also prohibit providers from referring patients to receive gender-affirming care elsewhere and enact strict punishments against physicians who violate the measure. 

“There was just too much stepping in,” Loge said, adding that he has family members who work in the medical field. “Plus, there are some family values that need to be considered on the parents’ side.”

Loge and Vinton both acknowledged that their most recent votes may be controversial. 

“It was a struggle and you can’t win,” Loge said. “It’s bad to some and good to some, but that’s what we’re here for. Not necessarily here for the popularity contest.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she’s watched many of her colleagues weigh the competing narratives about the bill. 

“Obviously there’s been a lot of information and a lot of folks weighing in on this one,” she said. “There were a lot of responsible people who might not have seen policies on this topic before and who heard from trusted sources on it. I think there was an arc of learning from members of the body.”

Members of the House who still support HB 113 have the option to file a motion to reconsider within 24 hours of Tuesday’s vote. If such a motion were passed, the bill would go before the full House for yet another vote. Abbott did not directly respond when asked if she thought that was likely.

“I hope we can move on,” she said.

A second bill that would affect transgender athletes in K-12 schools and at the college level was also debated by lawmakers on Monday. HB 112, sponsored by Fuller, would prohibit transgender women and girls from participating on women’s sports teams based on concerns that they would benefit from physical advantages in competition against cisgender women. Those who spoke against the measure said that, if passed, it could expose schools to lawsuits and loss of federal funding for discriminating on the basis of gender identity. 

HB 112 passed its second reading Monday by a broader margin, 62-38, and is now scheduled for a third reading in the House on Wednesday.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.