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Montana transgender lawmaker silenced for third day; protesters interrupt House proceedings

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As Republican leaders in the Montana legislature doubled down on forbidding Rep. Zooey Zephyr from participating in debate into a second week, her supporters on Monday interrupted proceedings in the House by chanting "Let her speak!"

Zephyr, a first-term Democrat from Missoula, wanted to speak about a proposal that would restrict when children could change the names and pronouns they use in school, with their required parents' consent.

When lawmakers voted to continue subjecting Zephyr to a gag order, denying her the chance to speak, the gallery, made up mostly of her supporters, erupted, forcing legislative leaders to pause proceedings and clear the room.

It was the latest development in a three-day fight over Zephyr's remarks against lawmakers who support of a ban on gender-affirming care. Zephyr, who is transgender, hasn't been allowed to speak on the statehouse floor since Thursday because she told her Republican colleagues last week they would have "blood on their hands" if they banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.

Supporters were escorted from the gallery above the state House floor, including several by force. Leaders cut the sound on the video feed and Zephyr remained on the floor holding her microphone.

"For the third consecutive day, I have been denied the opportunity to represent my constituents in the Montana legislature and speak on their behalf," Zephyr said in a statement Monday night. "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. I stood by them in solidarity and will continue to do so. 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."

The display followed a promise Zephyr made earlier on Monday when she told supporters on the statehouse steps that she planned to continue to speak against legislation that some experts and members of the transgender community, including herself, consider a matter of life and death.

"I was sent here to speak on behalf of my constituents and to speak on behalf of my community. It's the promise I made when I got elected and it's a promise that I will continue to keep every single day," Zephyr said before walking into the House chamber.

Supporters waved pride flags and chanted "Let her speak!" while she connected the transgender community's plight against gender-affirming care bans to the political fights animating other marginalized groups throughout the United States.

"When those communities who see the repercussions of those bills have the audacity to stand up and say, 'This legislation gets us killed,' those in power aren't content with just passing those hateful harmful bills," she said. "What they are demanding is silence. We will not be complicit in our eradication."

Ban proponents see Zephyr's remarks as unprecedented and personal in nature. She and her supporters say they accurately illustrate the stakes of the legislation under discussion, arguing that restricting gender-affirming care endangers transgender youth, who many studies suggest suffer disproportionately from depression and higher suicide rates.

Zephyr was silenced and deliberately misgendered by some Republican lawmakers in response to her remarks last week. She planned to keep trying to speak on the House floor Monday despite Republican leaders insisting that won't happen until she apologizes. House Speaker Matt Regier and his Republican colleagues had indicated they have no plans to back down. Near the start of the proceedings Monday, they pushed an item Zephyr requested to speak on to the end of the agenda.

After speaking and before the House convened, Zephyr spoke to some in the crowd who had gathered at the statehouse to support her. A 21-year-old from a small southwest Montana town teared up as he told her about his fears of coming out as trans in his community. Others hugged her, thanked her for fighting and apologized that she had to do so.

Katy Spence, a constituent of Zephyr's who drove to the Capitol from Missoula on Monday, said the standoff was about censoring ideas, not decorum.

"She's been silenced because she spoke the truth about what these anti-trans bills are doing in Montana, to trans youth especially," she said.

Months after Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, the state joined a list of legislatures in passing new restrictions on transgender kids. Legislation this year has addressed issues ranging from the health care they can access to the sports teams they can play on, to the names they can go by. 

The dispute started last Tuesday when the House was debating Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's proposed amendments to a measure banning gender-affirming care for minors. Zephyr spoke up in reference to the body's opening prayer.

"I hope the next time there's an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands," she said.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican, immediately called Zephyr's comments inappropriate and disrespectful. That evening, a group of conservative lawmakers known as the Montana Freedom Caucus demanded Zephyr's censure and deliberately referred to her using male pronouns in their letter and a tweet. That's known as misgendering — using pronouns that don't match a person's gender identity.

The bill banning gender-affirming care for minors is awaiting Gianforte's signature. He has indicated he will sign it. The bill calls for it to take effect on Oct. 1, but the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal have said they will challenge it in court.

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