HELENA, Mont. – Montana transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr spent her first day in legislative exile Thursday relegated to a bench in a noisy hallway across from a snack bar outside the state House chambers where she is no longer allowed.
Zephyr defiantly stayed put even after the Republican House speaker said she couldn’t be there and a House security officer threatened to move the bench where she had set up her laptop. She listened to debate and voted remotely from there, with a gold sticky note on the wall above her head that read “Seat 31,” her seat assignment in the house. The note was placed there by transgender and nonbinary Rep. SJ Howell.
Republicans had wanted Zephyr to participate from behind the doors of the House Minority’s offices a day after they voted to ban her from the House floor for the rest of the session, which ends early next week.
Her refusal to do so came as Democrats sought to keep Zephyr’s banishment in plain view after a week’s worth of nationwide public scrutiny over Republicans’ unprecedented actions to silence her, which continued Thursday.
Republicans moved to sideline Zephyr further by shutting down the two committees she serves on and moving the bills they were to hear to other committees, Democratic Rep. Donavon Hawk said in a statement.
“I walked out yesterday with my head held high and I walked in with my head held high today, ready to do my job," Zephyr told The Associated Press.
As cameras snapped and espresso beans churned in a machine nearby, Zephyr and Democratic leaders promised she would remain in the public eye unless Republicans elected to further limit where she could go in the Capitol.
“There are many more eyes on Montana now,” Zephyr said. "But you do the same thing you’ve always done. You stand up in defense of your community and you ... stand for the principles that they elected you to stand for.”
The motion Republicans passed bars Zephyr from the marble-pillared House, the gallery above it and a waiting room, but not the public space in the hall where she set up. Minority Leader Kim Abbott said the lawmaker would be voting there, within public view.
The showdown began last week, when Zephyr told lawmakers backing a bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors that they would have blood on their hands. The phrase has been used recurrently by both Republicans and Democrats discussing the nation’s most polarizing issues, but Montana House leaders said they would block Zephyr from participating further in the debate until she apologized for saying it.
Zephyr did not back down, instead participating in a protest that disrupted Monday's House session as observers in the gallery chanted, “Let her speak!” — an action that led to Wednesday's vote to banish her from the floor.
The Republican response to her comments, and her refusal to apologize for them as demanded, have transformed Zephyr into a prominent figure in the nationwide battle for transgender rights and placed her at the center of the ongoing debate over the muffling of dissent in statehouses.
“Silencing an elected representative, in an attempt to suppress their messages, is a denial of democratic values. It’s undemocratic,” White House Press Secretary Kaine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.
The attention is a new phenomenon for Zephyr, a 34-year-old serving her first term representing a western Montana college town after being elected in November.
In her interview with the AP, Zephyr likened efforts to silence her to the decision by Tennessee lawmakers to expel two Black representatives for disrupting proceedings when they participated in a gun control protest after a school shooting in Nashville. The two were quickly reinstated.
Tennessee lawmakers not only rejected gun control laws, but by expelling the lawmakers they sent a message saying: “'Your voices shouldn’t be here. We’re going to send you away,'” Zephyr said.
As in Montana, GOP leaders in Tennessee had said their actions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, one of the lawmakers who was expelled earlier this month, has called the Montana standoff anti-democratic and Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt likened her fight to Zephyr's after being served notice Wednesday of a complaint filed against her that she said was an effort to silence her voice on a gender-affirming care ban under consideration.
"It’s so important that we not be silent about this from state to state to state. And it’s so important that people stand up against this rising movement, this radical movement, and say it is not welcome," she said.
Zephyr is undeterred. She said throughout the events of the past week, she has both aimed to rise and meet the moment and continue doing the job she was elected to do: representing her community and constituents.
“It’s queer people across the world and it’s also the constituents of other representatives who are saying, ‘They won’t listen’ when it comes to these issues. It’s staff in this building who, when no one is looking, come up and say ‘Thank you,'” she said.
The story has been edited to correct that the color of the sticky note is gold not pink.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press reporter Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.