Montana flag Capitol
A Montana flag flies in front of the Capitol building, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

A version of this story was first published in Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.

For almost three weeks, Senate Bill 99 sat in a stack of papers on some desk in the Capitol, fading slightly from the political foreground. After passing through a procedural step called “enrolling,” the bill was awaiting signatures from the Senate president and House speaker before it could be transmitted to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office.

The bill to ban specific medical treatments for transgender minors — who want to live their lives in congruence with how they feel about their gender instead of abiding by the label of “male” or “female” they were given at birth — sailed through the Republican-held chambers earlier in the session over the vocal opposition of Democrats. Politically speaking, the only question that remained about SB 99 was how Gianforte felt about it

Lawmakers, lobbyists and the media finally got some clarity about the topic on Monday. Shortly before noon, the governor’s office notified legislative leadership and staff via letter that Gianforte wanted to request amendments to SB 99, according to a timeline provided to Capitolized by Jerry Howe, executive director of Legislative Services. Within hours, the bill was moving again — it received the needed signatures from Senate President Jason Ellsworth and House Speaker Matt Regier and then proceeded to the second floor to be marked up with bright red revisions from the governor. (Howe said two procedural missteps by legislative staff and a Senate clerk temporarily made the bill’s official status page reflect that Ellsworth and Regier had signed the bill on Thursday and that the bill was transmitted to the governor on Friday. The page has since been corrected.)

In another letter accompanying his requested amendments, Gianforte said he shared Republican lawmakers’ “profound commitment to protect Montana children from invasive medical treatments” while dismissing many of the medical best-practices for how to treat adolescents and teens struggling with gender dysphoria, going as far as to call “gender affirming care” a misleading term equivalent to “Orwellian Newspeak.” His amendments, he said, would make the bill even better. 

“Senate Bill 99 protects Montana children from permanent, life-altering medical procedures until they are adults, mature enough to make such serious health decisions,” Gianforte wrote. Among his proposed changes, Gianforte suggested revising the bill’s definitions of “male” and “female” and tightening the prohibition on public funds for any treatments or procedures listed in the bill, including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and mastectomies. 

Republicans in the Senate and House largely endorsed Gianforte’s revisions later that day and on Tuesday. But none of the governor’s revisions won approval from the groups that the bill would affect: transgender, nonbinary and two spirit Montanans and their families and much of the state’s medical community who say access to a breadth of treatments helps protect trans youth from depression and suicide, which they experience at disproportionately higher rates compared to other minors.

“Just like all routine care pediatricians provide, gender-affirming care is safe, collaborative, and developmentally appropriate,” said Dr. Lauren Wilson, president of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a Monday statement about Gianforte’s amendments. “This bill is an overly broad blanket ban that takes decisions that should be made by families and physicians and puts them in the hands of politicians. The Montana medical community has been united in opposing this bill throughout the legislative process.”

When the bill was again before House lawmakers for consideration, Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat from Missoula and the first openly transgender woman in the Legislature, had even sharper words for her Republican colleagues. 

“In the governor’s letter, he said ‘Montanans who struggle with their gender identity deserve love, compassion and respect.’ That’s not what trans Montanans need from you. We need access to the medical care that saves our lives,” she said. “… If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture, and this body should be ashamed.” 

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, stood to object to Zephyr’s last comment.

“I speak on behalf of our caucus. We will not be shamed by anybody in this chamber. We are better than that,” Vinton said. 

“The only thing I will say is 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 responded, prompting another objection from Vinton.  

The House approved the governor’s amendments in a 66-34 vote. After the chamber adjourned, a conservative Republican caucus called the Montana Freedom Caucus issued a statement calling for Zephyr to be censured for “attempting to shame the Montana legislative body and by using inappropriate and uncalled-for language during a floor debate.” In the letter and a later tweet, the caucus referred to Zephyr with male pronouns.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, later called that statement, including the “intentional and repeated misgendering of Rep. Zephyr … blatantly disrespectful and the farthest thing imaginable from the ‘commitment to civil discourse’ that these letter writers demand.”

House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, did not respond to a question asking whether he supported the call for censure before publication. Abbott panned that possibility, saying in a text message Wednesday morning there was “zero percent chance” of censure, even though she had not spoken to Regier about the issue at the time of her comment.

“That shit’s not happening,” Abbott said. 

 SB 99 is expected to soon return to Gianforte’s desk to await his signature. 

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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.