Helena parent Shani Henry testifies before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday in opposition to House Bill 361, which Henry said would undermine school anti-bullying policies and make it “extremely difficult for teachers and administrators to protect trans and non-binary students.” Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

UPDATE: House Bill 234, which revises the application of Montana’s obscenity law to public school employees, passed its final vote on the House floor Thursday, Feb. 9, 53-45. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.

A pair of legislative proposals sparked considerable debate across the Montana House Wednesday about their potential impacts on transgender youth and local control in the state’s public school system. 

The first arose during a morning hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers fielded testimony on House Bill 361, introduced by Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, which would change Montana law to explicitly state that misgendering a transgender student or calling them by their dead name — the name they were given at birth — is not considered a discriminatory practice. The bill would also prohibit school districts from disciplining such behaviors.

Ler characterized the bill as an effort to ensure students aren’t punished by teachers or school officials for references made out of confusion. He framed gender identity as a binary that does not allow for transgender existence, drawing a parallel to teaching his three children “from a very young age that cows are cows and bulls are bulls.”

“Imagine one day my son goes to school and he is told the facts he has learned are no longer true,” Ler said. “And further, he can get in trouble for doing otherwise.”

Ler’s position was seconded by the bill’s lone supporter, Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszloffy, who speculated on the difficulties teachers face in instructing students to use appropriate pronouns. In some schools, Laszloffy said, failure to do so can “land a student in serious trouble,” pointing to a 2022 incident in a Wisconsin school that triggered a Title IX investigation

Ler’s framing of the issue — and the bill itself — sparked fierce backlash from a stream of transgender youth, LGBTQ advocates and public school educators who argued that HB 361 would open the door to unchecked bullying and harassment. Kassia Finn, a mother of three, told committee members about her son’s struggles with in-school bullying about his gender identity. Those struggles, Finn testified, ultimately prompted her family to move across the state “for our children’s safety.” When Finn was finished, her son, Max, stepped to the microphone.

“In the past, I have been heavily bullied to the point of faking being sick to go home early,” said Finn, who told lawmakers he has identified himself as transgender to his middle-school classmates. “Even now I have slurs yelled at me, I get called awful names and I get tripped in the school hallways. My teachers do their best to stop this from happening, but it still happens day in and day out. If my teachers can’t or won’t intervene, it gets much worse.” 

Similar stories poured out from nearly a dozen other opponents regarding the adversity they’ve faced on the basis of their gender identities. SK Rossi, testifying on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, shared a personal account of a nephew who tried to educate a friend on how to respect a transgender classmate. Despite the effort, the friend continued to misgender their classmate so they “stopped being friends.” Rossi said the story shows that HB 361 “isn’t necessary” and that students are “good at navigating these conversations themselves.”

“The problem with the bill is that it takes away the ability of schools and teachers and administrators to intervene when something becomes cruel before it becomes physical,” Rossi continued. “Because by the time it becomes physical, it’s too late.”

Educators and parents also argued that HB 361 not only threatens to undermine anti-bullying efforts in Montana schools but poses a direct challenge to local control. Emily Dean, director of advocacy for the Montana School Boards Association, told lawmakers the proposal would bar district officials from enforcing bullying and discrimination policies adopted by their elected school board trustees. Speaking for the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Sarah Piper added that such policies should rightly be developed at the local level and not through “legislative overreach.” 

That concern was echoed by Chloe Runs Behind, testifying on behalf of the nonprofits Forward Montana and Montana Women Vote.

“This bill seeks to increase government control over Montana public schools, restricting teachers and administrators abilities to facilitate a safe environment for all students,” Runs Behind said. “I want to be clear that I do not think that schools should be more punitive, but I do think that schools should be able to disrupt disrespectful and malicious behavior.”

As the hearing turned to questions from the committee, Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, sought to reframe the discussion from a different angle. He directed his inquiry at Dean, from the Montana School Boards Association, asking whether a student with certain beliefs about gender should be “forced to violate their own conscience, their own sense of reality” or feel their beliefs are respected. Dean reiterated her stance that conversations of that nature are, under state law and the Montana Constitution, rightly the purview of local officials and community members. However, she acknowledged that “every student wants to feel respected and should feel respected.”

Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, then redirected Hinkle’s question to Kevin Hamm, an HB 361 opponent and LGBTQ activist from Helena.

“Miss Hinkle,” Hamm replied, “if you want to know how one person treats another person, it’s based on the respect that they show. And to answer your question, trans people exist. That you don’t like them is irrelevant. Respect them. Treat them well. If you don’t, you end up facing people like me, who no longer respect you and treat you with the disrespect that you have shown others.”

Later on Wednesday, the state House passed a bill targeting “obscene” material in public schools following an emotional debate featuring testimony from Montana’s first two transgender lawmakers. 

House Bill 234, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, would apply criminal penalties to public school employees who display or distribute to minors any material that is determined to meet the state’s definition of obscene.The bill passed 55-45, with several Republicans joining all Democrats in opposing the measure.

Phalen said his bill merely brings schools to the same level as other entities covered in state obscenity law. 

“It is for this reason we do not see obscene acts or pictures on billboards,” he said. “At a gas station, this material would be covered rather on public display. The code revision would bring our public schools up to the level of the local gas station.”

The push to eliminate ostensibly obscene materials in schools is central to the self-styled parental rights movement, which has expressed criticism in Montana over pandemic-era masking protocols and school policies built around educational equity. At a national level, grassroots parental rights organizations such as Moms for Liberty have also zeroed in on books describing or depicting the experience of young transgender people, chief among them the graphic-novel-style memoir “Gender Queer.”

On Wednesday, Montana librarians, in partnership with a national group called Every Library, distributed copies of “Gender Queer” on lawmakers’ desks, each wrapped in a different color so as to make a rainbow pattern when arranged together. Phalen, meanwhile, distributed copies of panels from the book that he deemed particularly obscene. 

 “It isn’t targeting obscenity, it’s targeting people like me…and my life, my existence, is not obscene.” 

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula

Holding up a copy of “Gender Queer” on the floor, Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, who is trans and non-binary, argued that there is “value in this book,” particularly for individuals who see “their experience, their perspective” reflected back at them. Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, who is transgender, said that the organizations backing changes to obscenity laws aren’t focusing on AP Literature classics like the “Canterbury Tales,” “Catcher in the Rye” or the famously violent “Blood Meridian,” but rather on books that discuss race and sexual orientation. 

“It isn’t targeting obscenity; it’s targeting people like me,…and my life, my existence, is not obscene,” Zephyr said. 

Supporters of Phalen’s bill said their interest is protecting children, and expressed skepticism that teachers and school boards could effectively shield their children from harmful material. Books like “Gender Queer,” some said, are improperly exposing students to sexual material. 

Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, reminisced about pursuing the “thirst for knowledge” in his school library. But “sexualization is not that thirst for knowledge.” 

Republican opponents of the bill focused on its criminalization of school officials and warned that it would infringe on the local control of school board trustees, whose responsibility it is to approve curricula. 

“As a conservative, I’m compelled to resist the heavy hand of state government interfering with what can and should be handled at the local level,” Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said. 

He also noted that the state’s statutory definition of obscenity is variable, and that the section of code Phalen’s bill modifies is ineffective. The first line of the statute refers to “a person having custody, control, or supervision of any commercial establishment or newsstand” — in other words, not a school librarian. 

“I recognize tomorrow on social media you’re going to read that those opposed to House Bill 234 bill are pornographers or something worse than that. You all know that’s true, that’s the way social media is today. So be it,” Bedey said. “I myself cannot in good conscience support a bill that is ineffective, opposed to conservative principles, and is a targeted attack on school employees.”

The bill still needs one more vote on the House floor to go to the Senate. 

The Legislature is taking up a number of GOP-backed bills this session concerning transgender representation and expression, including a proposal to bar minors from attending drag shows. That bill, House Bill 359, will appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. 

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.