Further into fascism: After Tennessee, GOP censures Montana transgender State Rep. Zooey Zephyr
State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, alone on the house floor stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the house gallery, April 24, 2023, in the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Montana Republican leaders voted to censure Zephyr, a transgender state representative who's been silenced on the state House floor since last week after saying to colleagues they will 'see the blood on your hands' over their votes to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender children. | Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP

HELENA, Mont.—On Wednesday, April 26, the Republican majority in control of the Montana House of Representatives voted to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr. The GOP leadership voted to ban Zephyr, who is the state’s first transgender-identified lawmaker in the state legislature, from attending or speaking during floor sessions.

She will only be allowed to vote remotely for the remaining days of the legislative session. The punishment comes after Zephyr asserted during a floor debate that lawmakers who backed a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for minors would have “blood on your hands.”

This silencing tactic comes only weeks after the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature voted to expel two Black lawmakers after they spoke out with a megaphone on the House floor for better gun control. They, too, were reprimanded by the GOP for so-called “disorderly behavior.”

By attempting to muzzle representatives expressing opinions that differ from their right-wing ideology, the Republican Party is going directly against the will of the people who voted said representatives into government. These GOP actions leave those constituents voiceless and without full representation.

In their supposed defense of “decorum,” Republicans are slipping further into anti-democratic maneuvers that evoke images of fascism which the world has witnessed in the past.

Zephyr being censured connects directly to the GOP’s continued “culture war” that is zeroed in on transgender and LGBTQ rights overall. The 34-year-old state representative explained to journalists that she first decided to run when she noted that lawmakers in Montana were taking away the rights of those in the LGBTQ community. Zephyr spoke about how the current bill in question (SB 99) could be detrimental to young people attempting to find themselves.

According to several studies, because of discrimination and gender dysphoria, along with the psychological distress of presenting as a gender that doesn’t feel like one’s own, trans youth face higher rates of suicidal ideation. A survey published in 2022 by The Trevor Project—a non-profit organization dedicated to LGBTQ youth suicide prevention—showed that more than 50% of transgender and non-binary youth in the United States seriously contemplated suicide last year.

Recent research suggests that receiving gender-affirming care can improve such mental health conditions.

Making the connection to these findings of higher rates of suicidal ideation, Zephyr told fellow lawmakers during the April 18 House session, “If you vote yes on this bill (SB 99) and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”

Instead of engaging in further debate, the Republican majority—led by House Speaker Matt Regier—decided to stop calling on Zephyr to speak during the rest of that meeting and subsequent sessions.

The super-conservative Montana Freedom Caucus (made up of the most right-wing Republican members of the House) then demanded that Zephyr be punished for “hateful rhetoric” and noted that they agreed with Majority Leader Sue Vinton who, while condemning Zephyr’s words, called for “civil debate” and “respect for each other.”

In its published statement, the Montana Freedom Caucus chose to intentionally misgender Zephyr and not use her chosen pronouns.

When asked to apologize in the Chamber by Regier, Zephyr responded, “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 is asking me to be complicit in this legislature’s eradication of our community. And I refuse to do so.”

Later, Zephyr issued a further statement, saying:

“I want to be clear: No amount of silencing tactics will deter me from standing up for the rights of the transgender community. I will not apologize for speaking with clarity and precision about the harm these bills cause. Montana Republicans say they want an apology, but what they really want is silence as they take away the rights of trans and queer Montanans.”

In their theatrics regarding decorum, the Republican majority went on to vote through bill SB 99, which denies gender-affirming medical care to young transgender residents of the state.

If the bill is approved by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, Montana join 13 other states—Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah—that have passed laws or policies restricting or completely banning gender-affirming care for youth.

According to GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, more than 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. so far in 2023.

Essentially, the Republican Party is asking everyone to remain “polite” and quiet while it targets the rights of marginalized communities.

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and President of GLAAD, issued the following statement:

“The silencing and censure against Rep. Zephyr for speaking up in support of transgender Montanans is an attack on our nation’s democratic ideals and free speech values. It’s an assault on democracy to suppress the already marginalized and under-represented voices of LGBTQ people and people of color, and the lawmakers who were duly elected to represent them.”

What Ellis is speaking to is not only the GOP’s targeting of the LGBTQ community but the survival of U.S. democracy as a whole. That’s because the Republicans’ attempt to silence elected officials is just the latest tactic in their ongoing campaign to strangle democracy in this country; it’s connected to their voter suppression and election manipulation strategies.

Law enforcement forcibly clear citizens from the Montana House of Representatives gallery during a protest after the Speaker of the House refused to acknowledge Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, on April 24, 2023. | Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP

Republicans, realizing that their ideals are more and more becoming the minority, have resorted to simply blocking the growing diverse group of voters opposed to them from being able to cast their ballots. But another way in which they suppress the vote is by trying to make people believe the results of the voting don’t really matter.

By attempting to expel and/or formally silence progressive lawmakers, the GOP is aiming to send a message to the public that even when you do vote, ultimately you have no real power. At any time, your representative can be removed if they challenge right-wing power. Messaging like this can be used to deflate and discourage progressive voters from turning out for fear that, no matter the results, political maneuvering will always get the upper hand.

They want a defeated populace that just allows them to carry out their agenda. They want people to believe that voting doesn’t matter and that democracy is a failure.

The word fascism is not one to be used lightly, but it is an apt description of the kind of behavior the GOP is showing. As a basic definition asserts, their behavior is “extremely authoritarian, intolerant, and has oppressive ideas” at its core. There seems to be a concerted effort by the Republican Party to delegitimize not only ideas but even human beings, that are counter to their ideology favoring the powerful.

Yet, what they perhaps did not anticipate was the spark that has galvanized many voters seeing these maneuvers for what they are. The reinstatement of ousted Tennessee State Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson was a people’s victory. When people became aware of the injustice of their expulsions, they gathered around and demanded their reinstatement. Unintentionally, the Republicans made these two into national leaders in the fight to save democracy.

Zephyr, too, has had a number of protesters show up in support of her, demanding she be allowed to speak. This is despite the fact that Montana Republicans banned the public from attending the legislature’s proceedings. The GOP, in trying to muzzle its opposition, has instead given them a metaphorical megaphone for their cause.

As the people organize to push back against these silencing tactics, the danger of the GOP’s anti-democratic crusade has been made even more plain.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.