Zooey Zephyr, center, at Missoula Pride in June, 2022. Credit: Rachel Pauli, courtesy of Zephyr campaign.

Hours after polls closed in Montana’s June 7 primary elections, two Missoula Democrats sitting upstairs at a local taproom realized they were well-positioned to make history.

Since winning their primary races for two legislative seats, SJ Howell, 41, and Zooey Zephyr, 33, are heavily favored to be elected to the state House of Representatives in November — the districts they’re running to represent, House Districts 95 and 100, have elected Democrats by wide margins since the boundaries were drawn in 2014. This year, Howell will compete against Republican Lauren Subith and Liberatarian J.C. Windmueller. Zephyr is running against Republican Sean Patrick McCoy and Libertarian Michael Vanecek. If they’re victorious on Election Day, Howell and Zephyr will become Montana’s first openly transgender state lawmakers.

SJ Howell in October, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Howell campaign.

“It’s exciting and humbling to be a ‘first,’” Howell said in a Wednesday interview. But their greater hope, they said, “is not just to be the first trans non-binary elected legislator, but to be one of many. To be one of many queer and trans voices in the Capitol, to be one of many queer and trans folks involved in lawmaking … That’s my vision. And this is a pretty good first step.”

Howell, the executive director of progressive advocacy group Montana Women Vote, decided to run for office after five sessions of lobbying lawmakers on everything from LGBTQ policy to Medicaid. Zephyr, a program manager for curriculum review at the University of Montana, embarked on her legislative bid after her own experience testifying at the Legislature last year.

Until now, Zephyr said, she has thought “very little” about being the first out trans woman lawmaker. Rather, she said, her candidacy is a response to realizing “there were voices and people who were not in that room. There were communities who were not represented in that room … And luckily for Howell and I, we will get to be the first folks stepping across that line and getting into that room.”

The results of Tuesday’s primary are an encouraging sign to Howell, Zephyr and other LGBTQ Montanans who spent the last year fighting against anti-trans policies from lawmakers, elected officials and state agencies. Bills affecting transgender people that were introduced and passed in 2021 echoed those in other states: a proposed restriction on gender-affirming care for minors, a ban on trans kids and college students joining sports teams that align with their gender, and a law that makes it harder for trans people to update the gender on their birth certificate. The first failed to pass through both chambers. The latter two were signed into law, sparking still-unfolding court challenges

At the time, advocates for transgender people described the raft of proposed bills as “a punch in the gut,” in no small part because each bill generated committee hearings, floor debates and public comment periods where trans peoples’ lives, medical decisions and personal details were dissected and argued over. With the memory of the 2021 session still fresh, Zephyr and Howell said the upcoming legislative term will likely be both a challenge and an opportunity. 

 “To be one of many queer and trans voices in the Capitol, to be one of many queer and trans folks involved in lawmaking … That’s my vision. And this is a pretty good first step.”

SJ Howell

“If you’ve got a heart, it can be a tough place to be,” Zephyr said. “But you need a fire that’ll keep you lit. And that fire for me is being trans and wanting to help my communities.”

Howell acknowledged the sessions can be emotionally draining but said it’s also “a real honor to be up there. And I think that most legislators that I know take that very seriously and that is part of what keeps them going. And I suspect that that’ll be the same for me and I imagine for Zooey as well.”

Other LGBTQ people and advocates signaled that the two candidates’ likely election is cause for celebration, and not only because of historical significance. When Zephyr won her primary race on Tuesday, former Democratic state lawmaker Bryce Bennett said her term as a lawmaker would mark a new chapter in Montana politics. 

“With her election she will ensure the days of legislators talking about trans people are over, and the era of them having to talk WITH trans people begins,” Bennett tweeted. “For the first time in 133 years of statehood, young people coming to terms with their gender identity will look to their legislature and see someone who knows their story, their struggles, and the bright possibilities ahead. There is no way to describe how powerful that is.”

After months of campaigning for votes in their districts and knocking doors, Howell and Zephyr made clear that LGBTQ issues are far from the only policy topic on their radar. Their soon-to-be constituents said housing and homelessness, climate change and lack of quality mental health care are all weighing heavily on their communities.

“Health care, and specifically mental health care and substance use disorder, is also something that I have heard quite a lot about,” Howell said. “I think people are recognizing the real strains on the system that we have.”

With months to go until the general election, Howell said they’re looking forward to spending more time building relationships with people and organizations in their district. 

“I think the next few months is about staying out on the doors and hearing from folks and connecting to constituents and starting to think about January and the policies that our state most needs. And about how we can move policies forward in the political climate that we’re operating in,” Howell said. “I think Zooey and I both want to be not just, you know, historic first legislators, but effective legislators who are connected to our communities and ready to get to work.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.