Transgender Montana lawmaker Zooey Zephyr banned from House chamber for remainder of legislative session

Zooey Zephyr (right) attends a legislative training session at the state Capitol in Helena, Montana, on November 16, 2022.
Zooey Zephyr (right) attends a legislative training session at the state Capitol in Helena, Montana, on November 16, 2022. Photo credit: CNN/Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP

Montana's Republican-dominated House voted Wednesday to ban Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who had said GOP lawmakers would have "blood" on their hands for passing bills restricting transgender rights and rallied protesters Monday after Speaker Matt Regier blocked her from being recognized to speak, from the House chamber for the remainder of this year's legislative session.

Under the disciplinary measure approved on a 68-32 vote Wednesday, Zephyr -- the 34-year-old Democrat from Missoula who last year became the first openly transgender woman elected to Montana's legislature -- will be allowed to retain her seat and cast votes remotely. But she will not be able to participate in debates. The session is scheduled to end next week.

"We have a week and a half left of the session, and we'll be covering important topics — housing bills, the state's budget — and every bill that goes forward for the remainder of this session, there will be 11,000 Montanans whose representative is missing, whose voices cannot be heard on those bills," Zephyr told CNN's Erin Burnett on "OutFront" later Wednesday.

The move by Montana Republicans comes just weeks after two Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee were expelled over their protests on the House floor demanding action to address gun violence after a mass shooting at a Nashville school. It's the latest example of a Republican-dominated state legislature restricting who can be heard -- and what can be said -- about policy debates that minority Democrats in the state view as matters of life and death.

Montana House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, the Republican who sponsored the resolution, said on the House floor Wednesday that Zephyr had "encouraged the continuation of the disruption of this body, placing legislators, staff and even our pages at the risk of harm."

"Freedom in this body involves obedience to all the rules of this body, including the rules of decorum," she said.

Zephyr, who was given five minutes to address the chamber ahead of the vote, said Republicans who hold a supermajority in Montana's House and Senate were using decorum as a "tool of oppression" and said his restrictions on her speech and of protesters supporting her were a "nail in the coffin of democracy."

But, she added, "you cannot kill democracy that easily."

Regier has refused to recognize Zephyr to speak on the House floor since last week.

The clash started when, in a floor speech opposing a measure that would prohibit gender-affirming care for minors, Zephyr said Republicans who backed that proposal would have "blood on your hands." Studies have consistently found alarmingly high rates of suicide among transgender teens.

Regier, backed by a Republican supermajority, ruled that Zephyr's comments violated House rules. Until Wednesday's debate of the resolution to discipline Zephyr, he had refused to recognize her to speak until she apologized.

Pro-Zephyr activists packed into Montana's House gallery on Monday. When Zephyr stood and held her microphone in an attempt to be recognized, the crowd erupted into chants of "let her speak!" Seven protesters were arrested.

Republican leaders canceled Tuesday's scheduled House floor session, and announced late Tuesday night that they would consider "disciplinary action" against Zephyr on Wednesday over her role in Monday's protests.

Zephyr defended her actions Wednesday and described the protests as peaceful.

"This was a bill that was one of many targeting the LGBTQ community in Montana. This legislature has systematically attacked that community. We have seen bills targeting our art forms, our books, our history and our health care," Zephyr said. "And I rose up in defense of my community that day, speaking to harms that these bills bring and that I have first-hand experience knowing about. I have friends that have taken their lives because of these bills."

She said she heard from a family whose transgender teenager attempted suicide while watching a legislative committee debate one such bill.

"When I rose up and said there is blood on your hands, I was not being hyperbolic. I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body," she said.

"And when the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed. He's asking me to be complicit in this legislature's eradication of our community, and I refuse to do so and I will always refuse to do so."

Regier allowed three members of each party to debate the motion ahead of Wednesday's vote.

Rep. David Bedey, a Republican, said Zephyr should have left the House floor or helped try to calm the crowd of protesters on Monday.

"Spirited debate and the free expression of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of turmoil and instability," Bedey said. "What is at stake is the expectation that any member of this body, whoever that might be, has a duty to strive to maintain decorum so that the people's work, the work of all Montanans, can be accomplished."

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, the top-ranking Democrat, said she had told Regier that "there are other paths that we could take."

"Just because you can do it doesn't mean it's the right choice," she said.