Protesters Arrested After Montana House Silences Transgender Lawmaker

HELENA, Mont. — Republican leaders abruptly canceled a planned session of the Montana House of Representatives on Tuesday, a day after their refusal to let a transgender lawmaker speak led to angry protests and arrests in the House chamber.

Police officers in riot gear cleared the House gallery on Monday and arrested seven people, according to local news reports, after a day of protests that grew more intense following a rally on the Capitol steps in support of the lawmaker, Representative Zooey Zephyr.

In a brief news conference on Tuesday, the Republican speaker of the House, Matt Regier, said that Montana legislators had not silenced anyone and blamed Ms. Zephyr for the standoff, saying that she was not following House rules. “The only person who is silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr,” he said.

Monday’s session began with protesters cramming the House gallery and Democrats objecting when Ms. Zephyr, the Legislature’s first transgender member, tried to speak and was not recognized. Republicans upheld the denial in a party-line vote, and Mr. Regier called on Ms. Zephyr to apologize for telling colleagues last week that banning transition care for transgender minors would leave them with “blood on your hands.”

Protesters in the balcony began yelling, “Let her speak.” As Ms. Zephyr stood and held her microphone in the air, Mr. Regier ordered the gallery cleared, and police officers moved in with batons and face shields. “I am devoted to those who rise in defense of democracy,” Ms. Zephyr said in a tweet after the arrests on Monday, while Republican leaders released a statement calling it a “riot by far-left agitators.”

The increasingly tense confrontation started last Tuesday, when Ms. Zephyr, a first-term Democrat representing Missoula, made an impassioned speech on the House floor, saying lawmakers who voted against transition care for minors “should be ashamed” and that she hoped they would “see the blood on your hands.”

The Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers, responded by accusing Ms. Zephyr of using “hateful rhetoric.” The group’s letter misgendered Ms. Zephyr, using male pronouns. Speaker Regier then refused to call on Ms. Zephyr during the debate over two other bills last week, including one that would define sex as binary depending on whether a person produces eggs or sperm.

“It is particularly troubling that the moment they were confronted with the impact their legislation has, they chose to silence the only trans woman elected to public office in Montana as opposed to doing the right thing and voting down this harmful legislation,” Ms. Zephyr wrote in a statement last week.

The Montana bill that she objected to would ban hormone treatments and surgical care for transgender minors. It has not been finalized but appears to have majority support in both the House and Senate, and could soon reach the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, who has called gender-affirming care a misleading term and compared it to “Orwellian newspeak.”

Montana is one of several states where Republican-controlled legislatures have sought to prohibit what is known as gender-affirming care for young people, an effort that has accelerated in 2023 as transgender issues have taken on growing prominence in the national debate. This year, 11 states have passed laws prohibiting such care for young people. Previously, just three state legislatures had enacted full or partial bans.

Few of those legislatures have had to debate those laws with a transgender lawmaker as a member. That may change, if slowly: Over the last few years, a growing number of L.G.B.T.Q. people have been running for office and winning elections.

Republican legislators have characterized gender-affirming care as harmful and experimental, saying that children and teenagers are not mature enough to make permanent decisions. But major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support this care, and opponents of the bans say that they pose serious mental health risks to young people, infringing not only on their rights but also on the rights of doctors and parents.

About 1.3 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States identify as transgender, and lawmakers’ efforts to restrict their care have thrust them into the center of one of the nation’s most pitched political battles. The barrage of state legislation is part of a long-term campaign by national conservative organizations that see transgender rights as an issue around which they can harness some voters’ anger, and raise money.

Francesca Paris and Remy Tumin contributed reporting.

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