Protestors unfurl a banner that reads "Democracy Dies Here" ahead of a demonstration at the state capitol on Monday, April 24. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Protesters temporarily shut down business in the Montana House of Representatives Monday after Republican leadership again refused to call on Rep. Zooey Zephyr, extending an ongoing standoff stemming from the transgender lawmaker’s comments last week against a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors.

Zephyr, a Missoula Democrat, was passed over by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, after registering to speak on a parental rights in education bill, a continuation of a refusal to recognize Zephyr to speak that began last week after she suggested Republican lawmakers  would have blood on their hands for supporting the gender-affirming care proposal, Senate Bill 99.  

As they have done multiple times in recent days, Democrats objected to the House Speaker’s refusal to recognize Zephyr, putting a motion to uphold Regier’s ruling up for a vote. Regier described the vote as about “upholding decorum,” and the motion passed on near-party lines. Republican Reps. Gregory Frazer of Deer Lodge, David Bedey of Hamilton and Casey Knudsen of Malta, voted against the motion to uphold the speaker’s ruling.

Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, makes a thumbs-down motion at protesters in the gallery. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

“Bullshit!” yelled a protester from the House galley as the outcome of the vote became clear. Around 100 people had crowded into the gallery at the beginning of the floor session and sat mostly silent as they waited for Zephyr to attempt to speak on a bill. 

Chaos unfolded from there, with chants of “Let her speak” and “Whose House? Our House” drowning out Regier’s attempts to gavel down the protesters. Regier ordered the gallery closed, and police from the Montana Highway Patrol and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department —  some of whom were dressed in riot gear —swept in and handcuffed demonstrators who wouldn’t leave the gallery. Police shoved and jostled some protesters with batons as they made arrests.


Zephyr later lauded the actions of the people in the gallery. 

“For the third consecutive day, I have been denied the opportunity to represent my constituents in the Montana Legislature and to speak on their behalf,” Zephyr said in a written statement posted to Twitter. “When my constituents and community members witnessed my microphone being disabled, they courageously came forward to defend their democratic right to be heard — and some were arrested in the process. As an elected representative, I am devoted to supporting those who speak in defense of democracy, as it is my duty to ensure their voices are heard and respected.”

Officers arrested seven people on misdemeanor criminal trespassing charges, according to Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton. Dutton was also present, escorting at least one cuffed protester out of the building himself. The arrestees are being held at Lewis and Clark County jail and will be released without bond once they’re booked, Dutton told Montana Free Press via text. 

Supporters of Rep. Zooey Zephyr stand in front of the state Capitol on Monday, April 24, 2023. Credit: Mara Silvers/MTFP

There was a heightened police presence at the Capitol throughout the day Monday. Many of the protesters initially came to the Capitol for a rally in support of Zephyr earlier in the day. 

Lawmakers vacated their seats and stood behind the marble pillars on either side of the House floor during the protest. Republicans eventually exited the chamber while Democrats mostly remained. Zephyr continued to stand by her seat raising her microphone toward the gallery. 

House Republican leadership later called the protest a “riot by far-left agitators” in a statement.

“House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety, and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena,” the statement reads. 

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, also released a statement. 

“Today we saw Montanans show up and engage in the democratic process, and some of those Montanans were arrested,” she said. “To me, it’s an incredible statement in support of the trans, nonbinary, and Two Spirit community — and against the Republican agenda that would strip our neighbors of their basic rights, dignity, and humanity.”

Credit: Mara Silvers/MTFP

The House reconvened about 30 minutes after the arrests. The chamber then passed the parental rights proposal, Hamilton GOP Sen. Theresa Manzella’s Senate Bill 518, 60-39. Other remaining items on the agenda included House Bill 359, legislation from Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, that initially targeted drag performances in schools, libraries and other public spaces. The Senate added an amendment to Mitchell’s bill last week that replaced any reference to drag with the term “adult-oriented” — an attempt, said amendment sponsor Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, to help the bill pass legal muster. 

Mitchell on Monday said the amendment “completely derailed the intent of this legislation” and asked the House to vote not to concur the Senate amendment. Mitchell’s motion passed 66-33, sending the bill to a conference committee that will reconcile the House and Senate versions. 

Monday’s protest action followed a rally of more than 200 people outside of the Capitol to support Zephyr and demand that she be allowed to speak. A constituent from Zephyr’s district, House District 100, said they felt better represented in Helena because Zephyr is in the Legislature. Others said Republicans’ silencing of Zephyr is an attempt to ignore the impact of the bills they were passing. 

“It’s so important that we demand that this stops now. This has really gone far enough,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, a longtime lobbyist who is transgender nonbinary, and was elected alongside Zephyr in November. “… The fact is that there is a long pattern of refusing to hear from people who are directly impacted by the decisions we make in this building and it has to stop.”

“The fact is that there is a long pattern of refusing to hear from people who are directly impacted by the decisions we make in this building and it has to stop.”

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula

Zephyr told the crowd at the rally that she appreciated their support and called representing her Missoula district “the honor of a lifetime.” She recounted a story from her campaign when a grandmother in her district talked to Zephyr about her transgender grandson who had left the state. 

“What she said to me was, ‘please try to make this state safe enough so my grandbaby can come home,’” Zephyr said. 

Zephyr said Monday she chose her words intentionally when she criticized SB99 and its supporters last week. 

“I did what I’ve always done,” Zephyr said. “Which is stand up, speak, pick my words with precision, speak with clarity, and call out the harm that these bills do.”

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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.

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.