Zooey Zephyr and the Illiberal Decorum of Montana’s Christian Right

On the eve of Montana’s sixth legislative session, in 1899, a freshly elected state senator named Frank Whiteside arrived in Helena to find a capital awash in money. Whiteside had heard rumors that William Andrews Clark, Sr., a mining baron who lived in a thirty-four-room mansion with frescoed ceilings, was offering lavish bribes to legislators in a bid for the U.S. Senate. Ten days later, with the lobbies of the statehouse so packed that crowds extended far into the street, Whiteside stood on the House floor and announced that he had gathered hard evidence of Clark’s scheme. Lawmakers watched as the House secretary produced a stack of sealed white envelopes and began to extract a series of crisp thousand-dollar bills, for a total sum of thirty thousand dollars. “Have the people of this state gone mad?” Whiteside proclaimed, “or is it I who have gone insane?” His colleagues promptly ousted him. (Clark went on to serve a single, ignoble term in the Senate; later, Mark Twain described him as a “shame to the American nation.”)

The Montana state legislature, like many of its counterparts, has a long history of indecorous behavior. In 1957, a Democratic legislator named Jake Frank brawled with two members of his Party whom he viewed as beholden to corporate mining interests. “I was sincere about doing some good,” he said later. “That’s the thing that had to happen.” Bob Brown, a Republican who was elected to the legislature in the nineteen-seventies and went on to serve for more than two decades, recalled once seeing a lawyer crawl across desks on the House floor to try to throttle a representative who was sympathetic to a power company.

But this session marks the first instance since Whiteside’s ouster, a hundred and twenty-four years ago, that the Montana legislature has endeavored so intently to silence one of its own representatives. On April 18th, Zooey Zephyr, a Democratic representative from Missoula, stood to speak against Senate Bill 99, which would prohibit transgender minors—and their parents and doctors—from pursuing a range of medical treatments, including hormone therapy, puberty blockers, and gender-affirming surgery. The legislation has been roundly opposed by Montana’s medical establishment. “Major medical organizations throughout the country are unified in recognizing the strong, cohesive evidence that appropriate gender-affirming care improves health,” Lauren Wilson, the president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote in an op-ed. “Taking away this care will, without a doubt, harm kids.”

The day before the debate, Montana’s governor, Greg Gianforte, had presented a letter to the legislature proposing to amend the bill such that it more clearly articulated “the necessarily binary definitions of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ ” (He referred to gender-affirming care as “Orwellian newspeak.”) On the floor, SJ Howell, a transgender Democrat from Missoula, said, “The governor’s amendments make clear that we are very specifically targeting a very small set of Montana kids, without regard for the specific context of those kids’ needs, the specific rights of those kids’ parents, and the specific advice of those kids’ doctors.” Zephyr, who is also transgender, gave impassioned remarks about the gruelling psychological consequences of such a prohibition. The majority leader, Sue Vinton, objected, “We will not be shamed by anyone in this caucus.”

Zephyr paused. She is tall and lean, with pin-straight brown hair; in a room full of Father’s Day ties, she stood apart in a flame-colored dress. She swept her gaze across the aisle, then responded, in a crisp, clipped voice, “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.”

There were murmurs on the floor. Hours after Zephyr’s comment, a group of hard-right legislators called the Freedom Caucus requested that Zephyr be disciplined for what it called “hateful rhetoric.” Matt Regier, the House speaker, demanded that she apologize and refused to acknowledge her during bill debates. On Monday, April 24th, a group of supporters from Missoula streamed into the House gallery. For two hours, the session proceeded with its normal staid rituals: motions were raised, amendments approved, a bill related to county-road access clarified. Speaker Regier periodically glanced up to the gallery, where the protesters sat quietly. Then the debate turned to a bill over parental rights in schools, and Zephyr pressed her button to talk. Regier did not recognize her, and the people in the gallery began to chant, “Let her speak!” Zephyr held the microphone above her head. Regier requested that the sergeant at arms clear the gallery, and the crowd became increasingly agitated. Law-enforcement officers in riot gear entered and arrested seven people. Two days later, Vinton brought a measure to have Zephyr removed from the floor for violating the “safety, dignity, integrity and decorum of the House of Representatives.” The motion passed along party lines.

Montana’s legislature has been controlled by Republicans for the past two decades, but, in recent years, its debates have become increasingly governed by evangelical sensibilities—thanks in large part to the efforts of Matt Regier’s father, Keith. In 2011, Keith Regier, then a state representative, delivered a speech to the House Judiciary Committee that implicitly compared pregnant women to cattle. “If unfinished buildings and unborn calves have value in Montana, shouldn’t unborn children?” he asked. At the time, Democratic leaders considered him a sideshow. “Regier doesn’t know anything about politics or cattle,” Brian Schweitzer, a rancher and former Democratic governor, said. But with the election of Gianforte—a wealthy businessman who once made national headlines for assaulting a Guardian reporter during a congressional campaign and winning the race anyway—Keith Regier’s coalition now wields tremendous power. He sits on the state senate, and his daughter Amy recently joined Matt in the House, where she chairs the Judiciary Committee. “Legislation with a Biblical foundation will serve Montana well,” Keith Regier told his colleagues, in a recent speech on the floor. “I always think of this phrase: ‘What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.’ ”

Zephyr’s case is the latest in a string of incidents involving Republican-controlled legislatures muzzling elected Democratic colleagues. In Tennessee, legislators expelled Black representatives speaking about gun control; in Nebraska, a Democrat who testified against a bill similar to S.B. 99, and who has a transgender child, was investigated for having a conflict of interest. “This is a sign of norm erosion and illiberalism,” Jake Grumbach, a professor at the University of Washington and the author of “Laboratories Against Democracy,” said. “State politics are now completely integrated into a national battleground in a way we haven’t seen in a long time in American history.”

Montana has long seen itself as an outlier in the West, with a strong union presence, an individual right to privacy, and a deep-seated respect for environmental stewardship. In the course of the past century, it has been the most reliably split-ticket state in the country. Since 1950, Montana voters have chosen Republican Presidential candidates in all but two elections. But during that time they often sent Democratic congressmen to Washington, including Mike Mansfield, who served as the Senate Majority Leader for most of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and Jon Tester, who has controlled his Senate seat for sixteen years. The legislature, meanwhile, was kept in check by sixteen years of Democratic governors. Schweitzer, who governed the state until 2013, used to veto bills with a branding iron.

Gianforte’s election, to the governor’s office, in 2020, prefigured a dramatic shift in the state’s political identity. A technology entrepreneur and evangelical Christian, Gianforte moved to Montana as an adult and founded a company, RightNow Technologies, that he later sold to Oracle for one and a half billion dollars. He attends a strict evangelical church, and his family foundation has given millions of dollars to religious causes, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that has defended Christians who have declined services to L.G.B.T.Q. people, and a creationist museum that suggests that people and dinosaurs cohabitated. (In one diorama, a shirtless man rides a triceratops across verdant terrain). Last year, Susan Carstensen, a former executive at RightNow, told me, “Greg may say freedom, but he’s one thousand per cent allegiant to God. He’s not free from God.”

Four months ago, lawmakers arrived in Helena with a Republican super-majority and a budget surplus of two-and-a-half billion dollars. In the next four months, they introduced nearly a thousand and seven hundred bills, referendums, and measures: bipartisan efforts succeeded in promoting new construction to address the housing crisis; Republicans pushed through income tax cuts, banned TikTok, and scaled back environmental regulations. But much of the session’s debates have been consumed by culture-war battles. Keith Regier floated a resolution suggesting the dissolution of the land bases of tribal nations. Public outcry deflated that effort, but other measures have proved successful, including a bill allowing doctors to decline care to patients on religious grounds, and another that legally codifies a binary definition of sex. In February, when a bill banning minors from attending drag shows was discussed in the House Judiciary Committee, Zephyr was among those who objected to testimony equating drag performers with sexual groomers. “It was terrifyingly cruel,” she told me. Jason Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and moderate Republican state senator, told me that “social bills” had derailed the session.

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