Montana House Republicans voted Wednesday to censure Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat and Montana's first transgender state legislator. The vote came roughly a week after Zephyr told lawmakers they would have blood on their hands if they supported a measure to restrict gender-affirming care for minors and two days after she was accused of inciting protesters in the chamber.
The House voted 68-32 along party lines to censure Zephyr. She will keep her position but will be barred from physically participating on the House floor. She will be able to vote and attend sessions only remotely for the rest of the legislative session, which ends May 5.
Zephyr was allowed to speak ahead of the censure vote. She defended the comments made last Tuesday during the debate on a bill to restrict transition-related care for minors, when she said, “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
On Wednesday she said that the Legislature has “systematically attacked” the LGBTQ community and that she was speaking in its defense last week.
“I have had friends who have taken their lives because of these bills,” she told the House. “I have fielded calls from families in Montana, including one family whose trans teenager attempted to take her life while watching a hearing on one of the anti-trans bills.”
So, Zephyr added, she was “not being hyperbolic” when she said “there is blood on your hands.”
“I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body,” she said. “When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he’s 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.”
She added, “If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you’re doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression.”
Rep. David Bedey, a Republican, blamed Zephyr for the actions of protesters on Monday, when they shouted from the gallery after Republicans voted to block her from speaking.
“It’s an irrefutable fact that the representative in question did indeed actively support and arguably incite the disruptive antics of demonstrators who had gathered in the House gallery,” Bedey said.
He said Zephyr could have joined other legislators in leaving the House floor as the speaker directed that day, or she could have tried to calm the crowd, but he said she did neither, which he said forced lawmakers to suspend the session.
“This is an assault on our representative democracy,” he said. “Spirited debate and the free expression of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of turmoil and incivility.”
Zephyr’s remarks Wednesday marked the first time she was allowed to speak on the House floor since last week, when on Tuesday lawmakers voted to block her from speaking on any legislation due the “blood on your hands” comment.
Two days later, on Thursday, House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier refused to recognize Zephyr and would not permit her to speak on any legislation.
Then, on Monday, supporters of Zephyr gathered outside of the Capitol with banners that read, “Democracy dies here.” Later that afternoon, when the House voted again to continue to block Zephyr from speaking, protesters who were sitting in the gallery chanted, “Let her speak!” while the lawmaker held her microphone in the air. Seven people were arrested for criminal trespass, the sheriff said.
Regier’s office shared a statement Monday night describing the events as a “riot.”
The Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of 21 Montana Republicans, has led the charge to censure Zephyr and released multiple statements on social media that misgender her by using male pronouns to describe her. In a statement following the protest, the caucus said Zephyr encouraged “an insurrection” by holding her microphone in the air.
Regier canceled Tuesday’s floor session with no explanation, and that evening Zephyr shared on social media a letter from Regier’s office that said the House would consider a motion Wednesday on whether to discipline her and, if so, by censure or expulsion.
The vote follows similar events in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month, when Republican legislators voted to expel Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black Democrats, over their protests on the chamber floor against gun violence. The House fell short of the two-thirds majority vote needed to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white legislator who also participated in the protests.