Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr still unable to speak on House floor : NPR
Amy Beth Hanson/AP
HELENA, Mont. – As of last week, Montana’s Republican House Speaker, Matt Regier, has refused to recognize or allow Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat, to speak.
Zephyr, who represents parts of Missoula, is the first transgender woman elected to the legislature. She has been blocked from speaking since last Tuesday when she told supporters of a bill to prohibits gender-affirming care for the minors who she hopes will see “blood on [their] hands,” alluding to studies showing that transgender health care can reduce suicidality.
Major US medical groups, including the American Medical Associationthey say that gender-affirming care is “medically necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender diverse people.”
On Tuesday, the Speaker canceled the House session. Speaking to the media, Regier did not say why, or take questions, but he disputed the characterization of Zephyr as being silenced, saying she has the option to apologize and be recognized again on earth.
“The only person who silenced Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr,” he said, adding that House members are free to participate in the debate while following House rules.
Democratic leaders disagree that Zephyr violated rules against using accusatory language on the floor, saying the Speaker does not have the right to block her speech indefinitely.
While the House has yet to take formal steps to expel Zephyr, the decorum debate comes just about three weeks after House Republicans in Tennessee vote to dismiss two young Black Democrats, Rep. Justin J. Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones, from that room.
The Tennessee House speaker said lawmakers violated the rules of decorum after Pearson, Jones and another Democrat used a megaphone on the House floor during a gun reform protest. In just a few days, the two legislators were voted back into their seats by the local councils.
Republican leaders in Montana could call for a vote to formally impeach Zephyr, but they haven’t.
Law enforcement shut down protests to support Zephyr
On Monday, when Zephyr was ignored after indicating that he wanted to speak during a debate, protesters shouted “Let her speak.” The bill was one that states that the preferred pronouns of transgender and non-binary students do not have to be recognized by others in the school.
More than 150 protesters had gathered in the House gallery to show their support for Zephyr, and when Speaker Regier slammed his gavel and called for order, the chanting continued and grew louder. That day he asked the sergeant-at-arms to clean the gallery.
Law enforcement with the baton riots started by asking the protesters to leave, before physically pushing them towards the door.
Many Republican lawmakers left the chambers, while many in the Democratic Caucus stayed back and watched. Zephyr remained at her desk throughout the commotion, holding her microphone above her head in order to amplify the protesters.
Fifteen minutes later, the last of the protesters were arrested and the doors of the room were locked. Seven people were charged with criminal trespass and transported to the Lewis and Clark County Jail, according to Sheriff Leo Dutton. All were released within a few hours.
“My constituents and the community came out and shouted ‘let her speak’ – I felt proud of them,” said Zephyr outside the Capitol while waiting with the arrested. “Because when they stood up, they are standing in the name of democracy. They are standing to ensure that their elected officials are heard. That the causes they care about are not silenced.”
Republican leaders issued a statement calling Monday’s events “an uprising by far-left agitators” and said they “condemn violence and will always be for civil debate”.
“Protests like this are part of this process,” said Democrat Kim Abbott, the House Minority Leader. She disputed the Republicans’ characterization of the events, saying the protesters were not violent. “Absolutely people have the right to come to a peaceful protest, and they did.”
Earlier in the day, before the protest in the House, hundreds of people gathered outside the Capitol demanding that Zephyr be allowed to speak.
“Leadership has chosen to abandon any notion of integrity,” Missoula resident Gwen Nicholson told the crowd, “instead opting for cheap, undemocratic underhanded tricks to silence speech they don’t like in order to pass shameful laws intended to limit freedom, oppress minorities and consolidate power among a select few.”
Late last year in an interview, Zephyr told NPR one reason she decided to run for office in Montana: “Watching the bills go through the legislature with one vote, I cried and thought to myself, “I bet I can change one heart, I bet I can change one’s mind. We need representation in that chamber. I’ll try to get in there.” ”
Even if the work in the House is stopped for one day, the members are still under a strict deadline. The Montana Constitution says it must adjourn in eight days, and they have yet to finish putting together a budget, typically their most important task.