When Zooey Zephyr’s flight touched down in Missoula, Montana, the results of her race for the 100th district of the Montana House of Representatives dropped. She celebrated on board, surrounded by her constituents, as she found out she was elected Montana’s first transgender state legislator.
She was the last one off the plane when the flight attendant asked, “‘What’s got you so happy?’” Zephyr told ABC News in an interview.
Zephyr told her that she had won her election to which the stewardess congratulated her.
“I took a few steps away, and then turned around, and I went, ‘I'm actually going to be the first trans woman to hold office in this state,’” Zephyr told ABC News. “And she just started crying. And she said, ‘My son is trans. Can I hug you?’”
Zephyr said the flight attendant told her about how his transition was going and how the world was “a little bit scary right now,” referring to the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills and rhetoric being promoted by politicians across the country.
The flight attendant told Zephyr how she was her son’s biggest defender, and always would be.
“Moments like this felt somewhere between serendipitous and sacred, and she gave me a hug. And off, we went, tears in her eyes,” said Zephyr. The story, which she later posted to Twitter, gave her renewed hope.
“It confirms what I knew … which is you're never far from someone who loves us. And that was true on the plane and it was true when it got posted and I know it's true for so many trans people and parents and families of trans folks,” Zephyr said.
Zephyr is one of more than 300 LGBTQ candidates to take on elected roles across the country, according to the political advocacy group Victory Fund.
She says her win feels bigger than her: “I think about it more in what it means for my state to have a trans voice in that room, both myself and the nonbinary, trans nonbinary candidate who won their election, SJ Howell. When these anti-trans bills come to the legislature in Montana, there will be trans representation. And it makes a difference.”
She said that in the few days of legislative orientation she’s had to learn the ropes of the state legislature among her colleagues, she already “saw the difference” she was making.
“I was approached by a number of Republican legislators who said, ‘Hey, I want you to know, you're gonna get a lot of you-know-what here, but I'm really glad you're here. It's great to have you here. You let me know if people are causing you trouble,’” she said.
She continued, “we were able to hold very pleasant conversations and stay in touch and build the kind of rapport that I believe over time helps people understand what it's like to be a trans person in America today.”
And though Montana is a red state, Zephyr said she ran on progressive values, promising better housing, tax relief, mental health and LGBTQ rights.
She said her win proves that attempts to vilify LGBTQ people isn’t a winning strategy.
However, the attack on LGBTQ bar Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, along with several other recent violent threats on the LGBTQ community, have hurt her deeply.
She says it's reflective of the impact that harmful political rhetoric against LGBTQ people can have.
“[Far-right politicians] stoke fear with their constituents, media, take those talking points and launder them and give them a sense of legitimacy,” Zephyr said. “And then someone will believe it, and believe it so deeply that they will seek us out and kill us. And that, to me, is the story that is repeating and repeating. And the story we need to fix.”
She urged people who feel motivated to help by the ongoing attacks on marginalized groups to get involved in their communities -- it's what pushed her into politics.
"It starts with grounding yourself in your community, finding the place, and places where people need help. And then just helping relentlessly," she said. "You can get involved, whether that's testifying, whether that's looking at working at your local nonprofits, you're always really close to doing the work that you want to do. And for me, that meant getting into a room where my voice could do good."