HELENA, Mont. -- Zooey Zephyr worked behind the scenes during Montana’s 2021 legislative session to oppose an ultimately unsuccessful effort to ban transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming health care, including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and surgery.
When the 2023 session starts next month, she'll face a similar challenge after a Republican lawmaker recently revealed he'll run the proposal again. The move comes as GOP lawmakers nationwide are expected to continue to push for limits on transgender rights.
This time, though, Zephyr will have a seat at the table. And a vote.
Zephyr and SJ Howell are the first two openly transgender people to be elected to the Montana Legislature. They are among a record 10 transgender lawmakers who will be serving next year in state legislatures in Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. The first openly transgender lawmaker in the United States took office in 2018.
It’s part of a larger movement in which LGBTQ people are being elected in record numbers. At least 519 LGBTQ candidates won elective office this year, in positions ranging from school board up to Congress and governor, according to the Victory Fund. In California, 10% of the legislature identifies as LGBTQ.
“My hope is that by being present there ... that people will begin to understand what it means to be trans, what it means to be a trans adult and what it is we hope for for trans children," Zephyr said. "That they get to live their life, that they don't have to hide the way I had to hide, the way other trans adults from past generations had to bury themselves."
Zephyr and Howell are both Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, which could eventually hear a bill by Sen.-elect John Fuller, in which he again seeks to ban health care providers from treating transgender minors with puberty blockers, hormones or gender-affirming surgery.
Fuller’s proposed bill for the session that starts Jan. 2 is still being drafted in an effort “to make it unassailable,” he said.
Fuller introduced two bills in 2021 seeking to block medical providers from offering gender-affirming care to minors, but both failed.
He also sponsored a bill to prevent transgender women from competing on female sports teams. That measure was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, but a judge overturned the law as it applied to college students and it's not believed to have affected any high school students, said Brian Michelotti, the executive director of the Montana High School Association.
Fuller said he’s bringing forward the medical care legislation again because “we know a lot more about the consequences of those things and we have a lot more information than we had two years ago." Lawmakers, he said, want to protect children from the debilitating effects of “a lifetime medical dependency.”
He declined to cite any studies, but said he had a pile of them on his desk.
It's not clear how the legislation might fare. While Republicans gained four seats in the Legislature and have a supermajority, not all Republicans supported the bills during the 2021 session. Fuller's first effort failed narrowly in the House and his second bill passed the House before being killed in the Senate.
Opponents of the proposal also have more research backing their arguments that gender-affirming medical care saves the lives of children suffering from gender dysphoria — the sense of unease that a person might have because their biological sex does not match their gender identity.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health said this year that it believed treatment could begin earlier than previously recommended, with some patients beginning hormone therapy as young as age 14 and some surgical procedures starting as young as 15 and 17.
Transgender rights and medical treatment for transgender minors are highly charged issues around the country, leading to threats and violence.
The Montana bill comes as Arkansas, Alabama and Arizona have all passed legislation to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors. The Arkansas and Alabama laws have been subject to legal challenges.
A Texas judge has temporarily blocked a law that would have allowed the state to investigate parents for child abuse if their minor children received transgender medical care.
Fuller rejects the idea that his legislation means he hates the LGBTQ community. Instead, in a letter to the editor of the Daily Inter Lake, he said his proposal is meant “to protect children from being spayed, neutered and mutilated.”
Zephyr said legislation like Fuller’s, whether intended or not, “legitimizes" attacks against trans people.
“The far-right influencers who do want to paint LGBTQ people as pedophiles and groomers, they use this legislation as a way to amplify that violent rhetoric, which is exactly what drives the violence we’ve seen rising across the country, and events like Club Q,” Zephyr said.
Zephyr was referencing a recent shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in which five people were killed. The suspect has been charged with murder and hate crimes.
Montana lawmakers may also consider other bills that affect transgender residents.
Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell has proposed a bill to forbid minors from attending drag shows and ban drag story hours in libraries, daycare facilities, pre-K or after-school programs, according to emails Mitchell sent to legislative staff.
For her part, Zephyr plans to introduce two bills to protect the LGBTQ community — one would ban the “gay/trans panic” defense as a legal defense in Montana and another would protect the right of transgender people to adopt children.
The gay/trans panic defense asks jurors to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction that led to the criminal charges, according to the American Bar Association. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia ban the use of such a defense, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based think tank.
Montana has protections allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, but does not have specific protections for trans folks, Zephyr said.
Jason Pierceson, a professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, whose expertise includes gender and politics, said legislation attacking the LGBTQ community is “really an attempt by the religious right and tied to the Republican Party to erase trans people from public life, to enact policies erasing all kinds of legal protections and in some ways trying to erase them more fundamentally from society.”
Zephyr and Howell's presence in the Montana Legislature could help make a difference, he said.
“We know that representation like this matters in state legislatures,” Pierceson said, “particularly for expanding lesbian and gay rights.
Zephyr said she hopes to work with moderate Republicans “to help push back against what are extreme and dangerous attacks — attacks that deny trans people lifesaving medication.”