HELENA, Mont. – The swift punishment brought down on Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker in Montana, began over words that others in American politics have used without hesitation or consequence: saying opponents have “blood” on their hands.
The governor of Texas. A GOP congressman in Florida. A city councilwoman in Denver. Just in the past few years, they are among the elected officials who have chastised colleagues in government with the same pointed rhetoric almost word for word — accusing them of bearing responsibility for deaths — over everything from immigration policy to gun laws.
None faced blowback, let alone retribution. But not Zephyr, who on Thursday began legislative exile after Montana Republicans barred her from the state House floor a week after saying those who voted to support a ban on gender-affirming care would have blood on their hands.
“I don't remember until now that there's been a controversy over that cliche,” said Republican Lou Barletta, a former Pennsylvania congressman who used the same words to attack the state's Democratic governor in 2021 over nursing homes. “I've never had anyone make a huge issue out of it.”
In retaliating against Zephyr, Montana Republicans accused her of crossing a line that is faint at best in political debate that happens daily in the U.S., particularly in statehouses where it is not uncommon for legislators wading into heated issues like abortion or gun rights to be scolded about “blood on your hands” by protesters or even fellow representatives.
The case that Zephyr went too far in her remarks is a stretch, said one scholar who studies American political speech, even though the Republican majority in Montana had the power to impose discipline. The confrontation is the latest example of lawmakers punishing dissent, an increasingly prevalent move.
“The phrase ‘there's blood on your hands’ is not necessarily that controversial," said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies political rhetoric. "It's not necessarily an insult. It doesn't cross the line. In fact, it's a polite way of saying that there are consequences to these decisions."
The fallout began April 18, when Zephyr made a reference to the body's opening prayer while speaking against what is part of a wave of Republican efforts to roll back LGBTQ+ rights across the country this year.
“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. The remark provoked outrage from Republicans who said the language was belittling and an affront to civil discourse.
In an interview with The Associated Press after losing her access to the House floor on Wednesday, Zephyr said she expected the House's majority leader to object in the moment but did not think the pushback would escalate. By that point, she said opponents had “closed their ears" to the harms posed by the bill.
Multiple studies have shown that transgender youth are more likely to consider or attempt suicide in general but are less at risk for depression and suicidal behaviors when able to access gender-affirming care.
“So you say what is on your heart, which is this bill is going to kill people, and if you vote for it, you are complicit in that,” she said.
Zephyr, a first-term Democrat, has plenty of company among both parties in her choice of words.
When Texas Democrats broke quorum in 2021 in protest of new voting laws, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott fumed that their absence was also stopping passage of a crime bill. “The Democrats have blood on their hands for failing to step up and do their job,” he said.
When Alabama last year moved toward ending state permits to carry concealed handguns, then-state Rep. Merika Coleman, a Democrat, spoke to her colleagues directly. “And I tell you, some of you are going to have blood on your hands because this piece of legislation passes,” she said.
The comment doesn’t always slide. When Grant Cramer, a Colorado high school freshman whose schoolmate was killed in a shooting, spoke in support of a sweeping ban on semiautomatic firearms earlier this month, he addressed four Democrats on the committee who would help decide the bill's fate: “Our blood is on your hands," Cramer said.
The chairman gently admonished the teenager.
"I thought you were going to call out all 13 of us, which I would have allowed,” Rep. Mike Weissman said, referring to the rest of the committee. “I want people to have their say, and that kind of testimony is on the line of what I feel is appropriate.”
In Florida, state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat, said he has heard remarks about blood on hands many times in debate, sometimes more than once a day. He said language is often ignored, including once when he cursed at a state agency head giving testimony.
Florida Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said she didn't know whether Zephyr’s comment was inappropriate to use in floor debate.
“It’s probably not senatorial," she said. "I’ve heard it from different people, but we just move on.”
Weber reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Jesse Bedayn in Denver contributed to this report.