When Montana’s far-right Freedom Caucus called for Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr to be censured last month, the irony was not lost on her.
Their letter called for civility, claiming that her impassioned speech against a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors violated decorum rules. And at the same time, the letter misgendered her.
“I was unsurprised at the hypocritical nature of a letter like that,” Zephyr, the first openly transgender woman serving in the state Legislature, told me in an interview. “It is a caucus that also, in its own words, describes itself as a supporter of limited government. Yet it is a caucus that has advocated for the use of government to remove life-saving health care from my community.”
The state’s Freedom Caucus formed in January as part of a national network of state legislators emulating the House Freedom Caucus, which won concessions to its agenda by blocking Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker.
I spoke with Zephyr about the experience of being censured, why it’s so important to hear from a range of voices in the state House, and what’s next for her—and for the state, as the measure she spoke out against, Senate Bill 99, has been signed into law and is set to go into effect in October.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
Shirin Ali: Can you walk me through that day in April when the Montana House was debating a measure to ban gender-affirming health care for minors?
Rep. Zooey Zephyr: [Senate Bill 99] impacted all levels of care in some way, including, at its simplest, banning the use of state facilities for performing or advocating for things like social transition. That’s a type of care that is basically growing your hair, wearing preferred clothing, using a new name or pronoun. The bill also banned care along the spectrum, from puberty blockers to hormone replacement therapy, which is the kind of care I’m on, to surgeries as well.
There are a couple important notes to remember about this bill. This is care that is done slowly and carefully with the patient, with their parents, with therapists and doctors, in accordance with guidelines from every major medical association across the country. Every major medical association acknowledges that gender-affirming care is necessary care. It is life-saving.
The second thing to note is, while it banned an array of care, it also banned gender-affirming surgeries for trans youth, which are performed rarely. I think we have seen a handful of surgery cases, mastectomies in particular in Montana, and these surgeries are banned for trans youth. But if a cisgender teen gets their parents’ and family’s approval and doctor’s approval for breast augmentation, breast reduction, or a mastectomy, they’re allowed, but not in this instance of gender-affirming care.
This was the second time the House had discussed this bill. Specifically, we were debating the governor’s amendments to Senate Bill 99 and an amendatory letter that the governor wrote about the bill. In that letter, he used harmful language, describing gender-affirming care as, quote, “Orwellian Newspeak.” I had spent this entire legislative session watching bills targeting all aspects of LGBTQ existence in Montana. We have heard bills targeting our art forms, the ability to have our stories exist in public spaces—like libraries. On that day, I had just heard a bill to write us out of code entirely, Senate Bill 458, which misdefines sex and writes trans, nonbinary, and many intersex people out of Montana code entirely.
In addition to that, I had seen the impact this legislation had on my community. I have seen the way in which trans youth were suffering in this state for fear of losing their health care. We had a letter from an emergency room doctor who said they were caring for a trans patient who had come in suicidal. When they asked what was going on, the trans patient said, “My state doesn’t want me.” There was also a family in Montana whose trans teenager attempted suicide while watching one of the hearings for one of the anti-trans bills.
When I rose to oppose Senate Bill 99, I was rising to speak to the very real harm to the lives that were at stake in this bill. What I was doing was holding the Legislature accountable for the real impact that their vote has.
And when you spoke up and voiced your concerns about the bill, what was the reaction on the House floor?
On the House floor we have a variety of debates on important pieces of legislation, and many of us speak with conviction about the issues that are near and dear to our hearts, that impact our communities. I spoke with conviction, precision, and with clarity, to the real harm that these bills do. As happens sometimes during discussions, the majority leader rose up to object to things that I had stated and then we moved on, because that’s what happens on the House floor. There have been things that the majority has said, and our minority leader stands up and says, “I object to that.” And then we move on. So I was not surprised that the majority leader stood up, but we carried on because we had a variety of bills that we were debating on the House floor.
Did you have any sense that Republicans in the Montana House would go so far as to formally silence you over what you said?
I was obviously elected to represent my constituents and to speak to the issues that they sent me there to speak about. So when I spoke on Senate Bill 99 in opposition, when it came to the next pieces of legislation that we heard that day, I was focused on those. When I went home that evening, I was focused on the hearings in my committee that were coming up the next day, the bills that were going to be on the House floor, and discussing how my caucus and I were going to talk about those bills. My focus was on the work ahead, and I learned that evening that the Freedom Caucus, while misgendering me, had called to censure me. I believe I put out a statement in response to that, that same day. Then I went back to work and spent some time with other legislators later that evening.
Montana has passed numerous bills targeting LGBTQ people. As a lawmaker actively fighting against every single one, has the process felt frustrating?
For me, it was not frustration—it was a recognition that this was the last time I was going to get to speak on this bill. What was happening was a recognition that I was in a moment in which the Legislature needed to be held accountable for what it was going to do with this vote. It was harm that was not theoretical, harm that had already been happening in our state to trans youth, due to the Legislature taking up legislation like Senate Bill 99 and others.
You were elected in 2022 and became the only openly transgender woman in the Montana Legislature. What’s your experience been like so far?
As legislators, we talk to our communities to understand their needs, desires, hopes for what our state can be. My first question on every door that I knock is: What do you think Montana could do better? So we gather that kind of information, and then, in addition to that, each of us brings our own lens to the Legislature. I bring my lens as a woman, as a trans person, a renter, as someone who relies on health care for her quality of life. I bring those lenses to the Legislature and the hope is that when you put together 100, 150 different lenses, that we can collectively come to solutions that are right for everyone in Montana. There are not a lot of full-time renters in the Legislature, and when there are fewer legislators with a particular lens, their voices become important and necessary on those issues. I spoke with landlords and other renters about how landlord-tenant law should look in the state of Montana.
When it came to LGBTQ rights, there were four of us in the House, openly LGBTQ people, and part of our role was to speak to other members of the Legislature, with the hope of moving different issues of LGBTQ rights and particularly trans rights. Representative SJ Howell and I had many conversations with our colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, about the importance of gender-affirming care, the importance of drag to our history, and the harm of a bill like Senate Bill 458.
Montana is far from alone when it comes to anti-trans legislation. At least 430 bills have been introduced across the country that target LGBTQ education, health care, and free speech. How do you view your experience in the midst of that?
This year, we’ve seen hundreds of bills targeting the trans community, more than all previous years combined. We’ve watched the way in which these attacks have escalated from bills targeting our participation in sports—it’s important to acknowledge that the people pushing for trans sport bans, their goal was the eradication of trans people from public life entirely. We’ve watched the escalation, like Senate Bill 99 here in Montana, and then Missouri looking for a full adult health care ban, places like Florida, which is looking to allow trans children to be removed from parents.
My role in the Legislature is twofold. First, to hold the Legislature and legislators accountable for when they bring these bills forward, when they try to push and pass these bills in a state like Montana where there is a Republican supermajority. My second goal is to move the needle on these issues, to make sure that Republicans understand the harm they’re doing, and, down the line, work to stop these harmful bills from coming altogether.
I think we’re seeing extremism on the right that is out of step with our communities and the acceptance of trans people, which is growing in this country. You are never far from a trans person, or someone who cares about us deeply. That’s true in the Legislature, or if you’re at a coffee shop in your town, and it’s true if you’re in the governor’s office.
The attacks we’re seeing on the trans community now are echoes of the same attacks we saw against the gay community in the ’90s. The same handful of detransitioners that get flown out to hearings are an echo of the “ex-gays” being flown out in the ’90s to hearings. In the ’90s, there was language used around gay people saying that they couldn’t have children so they were “recruiting.” You see the same harmful language used around trans people today, where people on the right attack us with words like “groomer.” It’s important to acknowledge that these attacks against the trans community are echoes of attacks against the rest of the LGBTQ community in the ’90s, and that they will fail for the same reason that those attacks failed. Which is to say, trans people are a part of every community. They’re part of your community, friends, neighbors, colleagues.
Senate Bill 99, which bans gender-affirming care for minors, was signed into law by governor Greg Gianforte despite your opposition. What do you think comes next for Montanans now?
Yes, it was signed into law by the governor despite the governor’s child, who is nonbinary, lobbying the governor to veto it. That bill has now been challenged in court by two families.
As I said in my speech on Senate Bill 99, to force a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans is tantamount to torture. Trans youth need access to gender-affirming care—it is life-saving and medically necessary. It is approved by every major medical association in this country. That care is being removed, so obviously, the stakes are high.
Now, the way Montana law works, this bill does not go into effect until Oct. 1. The bill has been challenged in court, and my expectation would be that the courts would recognize that Senate Bill 99 is as cruel as it is unconstitutional. We have a right to privacy enshrined in our Montana Constitution, and that has been recognized to include privacy in our medical decisions. My expectation is that the courts will recognize that and how it infringes on a series of rights enshrined to Montanans.
Your colleagues voted to censure you, which means you won’t be allowed to speak on the Montana House floor for the rest of this legislative session and unless you’re reelected next year. You’ve now kicked off those reelection efforts. How are you feeling about that?
I feel as I always have felt: loved and cared for by the city of Missoula. It is my home, a community that I take public transit through every day. It is a community that I walk through every weekend. When I campaigned, I was knocking on the doors of friends and neighbors and [even if] I didn’t know the person who I was speaking to, it seemed I was always one or two connections from love. I feel supported by my community. I feel humbled that I have gotten to be their representative and hopeful that they will continue to want me to be that representative going forward.