The far-right assault on core democratic rights has further intensified in Montana in recent weeks as the Republican-controlled legislature sought to silence Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the state’s only transgender lawmaker, for using her position to mount a passionate resistance to the attacks on trans rights. All working-class people must unite to fight these attacks, which are being weaponized against our entire class.
The freshman legislator was expelled from the floor of the Montana House of Representatives on April 26 in a move powered by a coalition of hard-right legislators within the Montana Freedom Coalition. The expulsion came several days after she was censured and unofficially silenced by the Republican speaker of the Montana House, Rep. Matt Regier, for telling Republicans they would have “blood on their hands” if they passed a series of anti-trans bills then under consideration.
In response, Zephyr worked unbowed from a bench in a nearby hallway and lunch counter while also speaking out about the anti-democratic action. She has characterized it as not just the silencing of herself, but also of the roughly 11,000 Montanans she represents from the Missoula-based 100th House District.
“Your rights stop at a legislative supermajority,” Zephyr told reporters in a May 2 interview. “If two-thirds of a body decide that you and your constituents don’t deserve representation, you don’t get it … That should be a huge worry for people who want to stand up for democracy.”
‘Blood on your hands‘
Montana’s Republican supermajority made LGBTQ communities a target throughout the legislative session, as they are doing in dozens of states across the country. A ban on gender-affirming health care for trans youth was passed and signed immediately after the action against Rep. Zephyr. Bills severely restricting drag performances and erasing any mention of transgender people or even of the concept of gender from all Montana state documents also reached the desk and pen of Republican Governor Greg Gianforte.
In the debate on affirming health care on April 18, Zephyr blistered GOP legislators as she had in many debates and hearings in the session.
“If you vote ‘yes’ on this bill 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,” she exclaimed. In previous committee hearings, Zephyr led a flood of testimony from trans children, their families and their doctors about how the attacks on trans rights have greatly increased the risk of trans youth attempting suicide.
After her comments, Regier declined to recognize Zephyr to speak on the House floor, even when she turned on her desk light indicating she wished to do so. All the anti-trans bills were then passed.
Following this silencing, protesters organized a rally outside the Montana State House demanding Regier “Let Her Speak!” and several dozen protesters carried the message into the House chamber itself, filling the gallery and chanting. As riot police filed in to disperse and arrest them, Zephyr raised her microphone high, amplifying their voices. The GOP-majority House found this to be a violation of decorum and forbade her from entering the chamber again while the House was in session.
However, the protests weren’t snuffed out by the heavy-handed police response. Instead, they grew and multiplied with demonstrations in cities across Montana and a large march, rally, and drag show in Missoula.
Last week Rep. Zephyr filed a legal challenge to her censure. A state judge rejected the challenge to the decision, but with the end of the legislative session, she will now be allowed back on the House floor when the Montana House next reconvenes.
Standing together against extreme right-wing bigotry
The ripples of protest extended beyond Helena as the story gained national and international headlines. They also trained greater focus on how elected officials representing oppressed communities are being systematically attacked.
In March, Oklahoma Republicans censured Democratic State Rep. Mauree Turner, who is Black, non-binary and Muslim. The censure decision stemmed from claims from local police that Turner interfered with an investigation into a transgender protester who demonstrated against that state’s attacks on trans rights.
The day after the censure vote, Zephyr made a joint appearance with Tennessee House Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson on MSNBC. Two weeks prior, reactionary hard-right legislators tried to expel the Black lawmakers for joining a protest on state inaction to gun violence.
Both representatives stated their support for Zephyr, having also been a target of similar tactics. “What we warned about in Tennessee was that this would set a precedent,” Rep. Jones noted. “We knew that if they came for one of us they’d come for others of us. We are going to stand together as a multiracial, multigenerational movement to say that we will not allow fascism to move forward without a challenge. We care more about democracy than we do about ‘decorum.’”
What we are seeing in Montana, Tennessee and Oklahoma is an age-old tradition of bigotry and white supremacy: the concept that “one better know their place.” The message in the affronts to Turner, Jones, Pearson and Zephyr are clear.
This antebellum concept is a tool of present-day, far-right politicians targeting not only trans people and LGBTQ rights in general, but the right to an abortion, the ability of labor unions to organize and the ability of African Americans to vote, among other core democratic rights. They seek to replace decades of social and political gains of oppressed people with an anti-democratic, white supremacist, misogynist and anti-working class regime.
The massive wave of anti-trans legislative attacks across the United States comes as a right-wing response to basic victories won by trans people over the last decade. These attacks are unprecedented in their quantity and explicit intention to eradicate trans people, endanger families and erase the reality of medical best practices. Currently, legislators in 49 states have proposed anti-trans legislation in 2023, a total of 541 bills, with 69 bills passed into law in 14 states so far. These bills include things like felony charges for health care providers providing gender-affirming care for people under 26, forcible misgendering and deadnaming of trans people, child abuse charges for supportive parents, not allowing people to be visibly trans in public, and more.
States that are considered “safe harbors” for trans people remain largely unprepared to provide adequate and competent support and services for their existing trans residents, in addition to taking on a growing wave of people fleeing states with dangerous legislation. Anyone standing for justice for any oppressed community needs to stand against this legislation and demand dignity, autonomy and protection for trans people everywhere.
The response of the reactionary right goes beyond anti-LGBTQ oppression to threatening all marginalized communities. In a number of states, reactionaries seek to take state control of legislative districts and cities that are majority Black and Brown in an effort to gain not just physical, but also socio-political control. Consider the actions of ultra-right Governor Tate Reeves in Mississippi, who signed a bill that would put the state in charge of public safety and judiciary within the majority-Black city of Jackson. Just north in Tennessee, Rep. Pearson noted GOP attempts to threaten his district for his stance on gun control.
“I’ve been told, [Republican lawmakers] are threatening to withhold over $300 million of funding to Shelby County in Memphis if I am reinstated,” Pearson stated to The Wrap this week. “But the voices of the people are clear. They want, and deserve to have, restoration of representation. Their representation in District 86 was taken from them because their representatives stood up and spoke up for six people in Nashville who will never have the chance to speak again because they were killed by gun violence.”
Only the masses can make real change
While the movement’s gains were ultimately solidified in laws and regulations codified by politicians, they didn’t do so out of the goodness of their hearts — it was out of fear of the millions of people fighting for the abolition of oppressive laws and for far more radical demands too.
The kind of resistance seen in the streets of U.S. towns and cities as the far-right pushes forward its hateful agenda is a signal that the masses are not prepared to leave the task of defeating the bigots to elected politicians alone. Even in “deep red” states like Montana, West Virginia and Missouri, resistance is growing stronger as activists and community members build bridges across the gulfs of identity the ruling class tells us should divide us. Instead, we are becoming increasingly united.
The recent betrayal by President Biden, who claims to be a supporter of LGBTQ rights even as his government moves to accommodate the far-right offensive, will only further embolden working and oppressed people to look to their own collective defense.
If we expect to defend trans rights, or any of the rights under attack by the bigots, we must continue to organize our communities and struggle not just to defend the oppressive status quo, but fight for a new world governed by a new system that will pull up our oppressions by the root, abolishing them once and for all.