Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the first openly transgender woman in the Montana Legislature, will likely not be allowed to speak about bills on the House floor for the remainder of the 2023 session after Republicans took issue with comments she made this week about a bill restricting gender-affirming health care for trans minors.
Zephyr, a freshman Missoula Democrat and vocal opponent of GOP legislation concerning trans Montanans, attempted to participate in a debate on the House floor Thursday about Senate Bill 458, sweeping legislation that would insert a binary definition of sex into state law, but was not recognized to speak by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell. When House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, asked the speaker why Zephyr wasn’t recognized, Regier pointed to legislative rules giving him the prerogative to allow — or disallow — lawmakers to speak on the floor.
Republicans largely endorsed Gianforte’s revisions, but none of the governor’s changes 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.
“It is up to me to maintain decorum here on the House floor, to protect the dignity and integrity, and any representative I don’t feel can do that will not be recognized,” Regier said.
SB 458 passed the House Thursday 63-37, with a small handful of Republicans voting in opposition.
Zephyr’s criticism of legislation restricting transgender health care and expression was especially pointed on April 18, when the House was debating amendments to Senate Bill 99, the gender-affirming health care bill. She told lawmakers they should be ashamed for endorsing legislation that could force a transgender minor to go through puberty without receiving gender-affirming medical care, a circumstance Zephyr called “tantamount to torture.”
“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,” she added.
Her remarks generated an objection from House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and later a call from the hard-right Montana Freedom Caucus for Zephyr to be censured. But the practical consequences were not apparent — at least publicly — until Thursday, when Regier made clear he felt Zephyr had breached decorum and declined to recognize her to speak on the House floor.
Speaking to reporters after the floor session Thursday, Regier said he took specific issue with Zephyr telling other lawmakers they should be ashamed of their votes on SB 99. He said he would see how things “unfold,” but that essentially he will not recognize Zephyr on the floor until she apologizes for her remarks.
“There’s a reason the speaker can choose not to recognize. I believe that’s there … to [uphold] decorum moving forward. So until that trust is restored and I can assure the integrity of the House is a priority, there’s going to be a pause.”
Apologizing isn’t something Zephyr plans to do, she said Thursday.
“I have lost friends to suicide this year,” she said. “I field the calls from multiple families who dealt with suicide attempts, with trans youth who have fled the state, people who have been attacked on the side of the road, because of legislation like this. I spoke with clarity and precision about the harm these bills do. And they say they want an apology, but what they really want is silence as they take away the rights of trans and queer Montanans.”
Abbott appealed Regier’s decision on the floor, sending the question of whether the speaker was within his rights to block Zephyr from speaking to the House Rules Committee. The House then recessed to allow the committee to meet.
Democrats on the committee acknowledged that legislative rules give the speaker broad latitude to recognize lawmakers on the floor, but said that Regier did not follow the proper procedure for disciplining a member who violates legislative rules.
House rules state that the speaker or presiding officer shall call a member to order and force them to take their seat if they break legislative rules on the floor. But the speaker did not explicitly call Zephyr to order, a tacit acknowledgment that no rule was broken, according to Bozeman Rep. Jim Hamilton, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee.
“I will submit that the speaker can choose to recognize or not recognize someone, but if they do so when there’s a situation of no rules violation, I would submit to you that we are on very thin ice and [setting] very bad precedent that arbitrary lack of recognition could be applied to every single one of us here at the table,” Hamilton said.
Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, took a more philosophical stance, arguing that Republicans were censoring a lawmaker speaking on behalf of her constituents and conscience and opening the door to “fascism,” itself a comment that elicited an objection in committee.
“In this body we talk about freedom, but our freedom only goes as far as impacting someone else’s freedom,” she said. “We need to understand that it’s not my way or the highway. It’s about everyone having equal access to this floor to be able to discuss and be able to represent their community. And I believe where we are at is discriminatory.”
The Legislature’s American Indian Caucus, of which Stewart-Peregoy is a member, issued a statement Thursday evening defending Zephyr for “bringing to the Legislature a voice for the voiceless and making noise where the Montana Freedom Caucus would prefer silence.”
The Freedom Caucus, of which Regier is not a member, issued a statement lauding the speaker’s decision.
Republicans on the House Rules Committee maintained that the crux of the issue is that decisions about recognition are ultimately the speaker’s prerogative, and that the rules lay out a process for appealing such decisions on the floor — a process that Democrats didn’t quite follow.
“One can debate whether or not the person should have been recognized, but the proper recourse is for two people to stand [and object] and us to take it to the boards [for a vote],” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton. “I think it was properly within [Regier’s] prerogative to not recognize. It should have been disputed at that time.”
The House Rules Committee ultimately voted on party lines to affirm Regier’s decision. When the House returned, Zephyr again attempted to speak on a bill and was again denied. This time, Democrats followed the process that Bedey had described, and lawmakers backed Regier on mostly party lines.
For now, it appears Regier’s decision applies only on the House floor. Committee chairs have broad latitude to run their committees as they wish.
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