Tension Builds in Transgender Policy Debate in Montana (2023)

On April 13, Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr was sitting in the basement of Montana’s Capitol building reflecting on her time as one of the state’s first two openly transgender legislators. She wondered whether she needed to display more anger over anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, or whether she should focus on promoting more of what she called “transgender joy.”

“The thing that keeps me up at night is, am I doing a good job for my community?” Zephyr said.

Five days later, the anger bubbled over as Zephyr spoke against amendments from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to Senate Bill 99, which would prohibit minors with gender dysphoria from receiving certain medical and surgical treatments. Zephyr said the lawmakers who voted for the measure should be ashamed.

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That prompted Republican Majority Leader Sue Vinton to speak. “We will not be shamed by anyone in this chamber,” Vinton said.

“Then the only thing I will say is: 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,” Zephyr said in response.

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Later that day, the Montana Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of lawmakers, released a statement calling for Zephyr’s censure for using “inappropriate and uncalled-for language.” The release and a Freedom Caucus post on Twitter used male pronouns to refer to Zephyr, leading to fresh outrage by LGBTQ+ supporters accusing Republicans of deliberately misgendering her.

Two days later, Republican House Speaker Matt Regier would not allow Zephyr to speak during a debate on another bill. Regier said it was because she had committed a breach of decorum.

With two weeks to go in the legislative session, Republican lawmakers, who are in the majority, are sponsoring anti-LGBTQ+ bills. There are at least four related measures, including the bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

Many similar bills are being heard in conservative-led statehouses across the U.S. The American Civil Liberties Union has tracked more than 460 anti-LGBTQ+ bills so far in 2023 legislative sessions.

Back in the Capitol on April 13, Zephyr stopped at a storytelling event presented by drag performers on the second floor. Parents, children, and supporters sat in folding chairs and on the floor while drag performers read stories.

Zephyr was visibly emotional. A short time later, former Democratic lawmaker Moffie Funk, who also attended the storytelling event, approached Zephyr to thank her for her work.

“I have just been so impressed to see the way Rep. Zephyr has handled questions on the floor, just keeps her calm, stays cool, and is so powerful in her words and so powerful in the way she represents her community and Montana,” Funk said.

Before the session, Zephyr said she had a goal of changing at least one person’s heart on LGBTQ+ issues.

(Video) #GOP lawmaker asks inappropriate question to #trans female

One lawmaker who typically votes in favor of anti-transgender bills told Zephyr about having read something about her in a far-right blog and said, “That doesn’t sound like Zooey; she wouldn’t do that.” The lawmaker, whom Zephyr didn’t name, subsequently stopped reading the blog.

Proponents of measures like SB 99 and House Bill 359, a bill that would have banned minors from drag shows and would have banned events like drag storytelling in public schools or libraries, frame the legislation as necessary to protect children.

In a small victory for LGBTQ+ supporters, HB 359 was amended to remove references to drag performers and now would prohibit minors from attending “adult-oriented” shows.

Democratic Rep. SJ Howell, who is transgender and nonbinary and uses the pronouns “they” and “their,” has been working at the Capitol for a decade, first as a lobbyist and now as a lawmaker representing Missoula. In all their work, Howell said, it’s very clear that relationships matter. Progress is a long game, and it may take years to pass legislation that promotes the rights and recognition of transgender and nonbinary people, Howell said.

One thing that could hinder that progress is the national debate over anti-LGBTQ+ policy proposals.

Erin Reed, who describes herself as a queer writer and content creator, has been tracking the LGBTQ+ bills nationwide and is also Zephyr’s partner of almost a year.

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Four years ago, the debate playing out in statehouses was over transgender rights in sports, Reed said, but that’s shifted. Now, a third of the bills target health care — like gender-affirming hormone therapy, mostly related to minors — and the rest focus on banning drag shows or the use of preferred pronouns and bathrooms, or targeting the rights of transgender people in insurance coverage and workplace protections.

But beyond the flood of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, at least 15 states have passed LBGTQ+ protections, Reed estimated.

Howell said it’s challenging being a state representative trying to focus on Montana when so much focus has been on this national issue.

Personally, Howell said, they came to the legislature to build relationships and make good policy, and they see many of their colleagues as friends.

“When the mutual respect isn’t present, it can be deeply frustrating and harmful, and we can do better as a body,” Howell said.

Republican Rep. Neil Duram sits between Zephyr and Howell on the House Judiciary Committee, which has heard all the LGBTQ+ bills this session. He said having both in the legislature better represents Montana.

“If it was just me, and 99 other people like me on the House floor, we may not set the best policy for the people of Montana,” Duram said.

Duram spoke during a House floor session discussing House Bill 361, which would allow classmates to refer to a transgender student by their birth name or gender assigned at birth, unless it crossed into bullying. He said he’s enjoyed getting to know Judiciary seatmate Zephyr and that he’ll make sure people aren’t “inflicting bullying behavior.”

Duram voted for HB 361. He said his decision was encouraged by his community.

“And, ultimately, that’s where my conscience is going to sit,” he said.

On the morning of April 13, Howell and Zephyr were hearing testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill that would define sex in Montana law, Senate Bill 458. The vibe in the room felt heavy.

Sen. Carl Glimm, sponsor of SB 458, said the bill seeks to define the terms “sex,” “male,” and “female” in state law. Glimm said the bill was necessary because people conflate sex and gender and maintained the bill wasn’t about gender fluidity or expression.

“Gender is obviously something different than biological sex. Biological sex is immutable and that means you can’t change it, and there’s only two biological sexes,” Glimm said. “You may claim to be able to change your gender or express your gender in a different way, but you can never change your biological sex.”

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LGBTQ+ advocates, like the Montana Human Rights Network, say that by defining people as simply male and female, the bill would legislate “transgender, nonbinary, and intersex people out of existence.” The Montana Human Rights Network said the definitions used in SB 458 were based “on an unscientific and archaic understanding of basic biology.”

About an hour after the hearing, people gathered outside the Capitol in an April snowstorm for a drag show.

Performers lip-synced for a crowd ranging from kids to college students to retired folks who were waving rainbow-colored flags and carrying umbrellas.

As “Rise Up” by Andra Day played in the background, Katie Fire Thunder said she came to the drag show from Bozeman to show her allyship with the LGBTQ+ community.

Fire Thunder called this session’s anti-LGBTQ+ bills “disgusting,” and said they don’t represent Montana or what young people care about. But having both Zephyr and Howell serving in the Capitol has made a major difference, Fire Thunder said.

“When things are really hard and there’s all these hateful people, they’re a little glimmer of hope,” Fire Thunder said.

Kole Burdick, 20, also of Bozeman, said it’s important to “uplift queer people and show moments of queer joy,” and commended Zephyr and Howell for their work.

“I think they’ve been working really hard to protect our community and keep our community safe, and I really appreciate them for that,” Burdick said.

Keely Larson is the KFF Health News fellow for the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, and KFF Health News. Larson is a graduate student in environmental and natural resources journalism at the University of Montana.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).


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Why was Zooey Zephyr suspended? ›

Zooey Zephyr became a lawmaker to make a difference, she said. Specifically, she wanted to stop legislators in Montana from passing anti-LGBTQ bills. Now, the Montana legislature has voted to discipline her for her conduct on the floor of the House earlier this week.

Who is the transgender representative in Montana? ›

WHO IS ZEPHYR? Last year, Zephyr became the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, placing her among a record number of transgender lawmakers who began serving across the U.S.

Why did Megan Fox replace Zooey? ›

At some point, though, things changed—to the point where the Fox sitcom, which aired its 100th episode Tuesday night, was able to replace its star entirely with another character played by Megan Fox, to cover for Deschanel's maternity leave.

What happened to Zooey Deschanel? ›

She currently hosts a rewatch podcast, Welcome to Our Show, with Lamorne and Hannah. Prior to What Am I Eating, Zooey had appearances on Apple TV+'s Physical and Netflix's StoryBots: Answer Time. You can catch Zooey's new TV project when the series premieres in early 2023.

Who are the transgender politicians in Montana? ›

Upon defeating Republican opponent Sean Patrick McCoy that November, Zephyr became the first trans woman to be elected to the Montana legislature alongside SJ Howell, the first non-binary person to be elected. Zephyr assumed office in January 2023. On April 28, 2023, Zephyr announced she would seek re-election in 2024.

Who is the famous transgender Cox? ›

A prominent actress and the first openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy, Laverne Cox has promoted visibility and awareness on behalf of the transgender community. Laverne Cox was born on May 29, 1972. Assigned male at birth, she grew up in Mobile, Alabama with her mother and twin brother.

Who is the female Congress from Montana? ›

She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana in 1916; she served one term until she was elected again in 1940. As of 2022, Rankin is still the only woman ever elected to Congress from Montana.

Why is Zooey divorcing? ›

Following three and a half years of marriage, they separated on Jan. 8, 2019. Nine months later, Pechenik filed for divorce citing "irreconcilable differences." According to the divorce filing, Pechenik, a producer, requested joint legal and physical custody of their kids.

What is Schmidt's first name? ›

Schmidt's first name is a long-kept secret of the series, until the penultimate episode of season 6 "San Diego" in which it is revealed to be Winston and his middle name is Saint-Marie. He agreed with Winston Bishop to be called by his last name to avoid confusion.

Did the cast of New Girl get along? ›

All the befriending that the cast had done was limited to the set only. Lamorne, Jake, and Max regularly grabbed lunch together while working, but they never spent time together in the after hours.

Does Zooey Deschanel have a disability? ›

Zooey Deschanel – ADHD

This actress is probably best known for her overexcited character Jess on the well-loved show New Girl.

Who did Zooey have a baby with? ›

The New Girl actress is a mom to two young children whom she shares with her ex-husband Jacob Pechenik: daughter Elsie Otter, 7, and son Charlie Wolf, 5.

Why did Jess go on jury duty? ›

Jess eagerly reports to jury duty, until she discovers she may be up for a work promotion. Meanwhile, Nick reaches his limit with Cece's messiness in the loft. Jess eagerly reports to jury duty, until she discovers she may be up for a work promotion. Meanwhile, Nick reaches his limit with Cece's messiness in the loft.

Is there a transgender on the politician? ›

Actor Theo Germaine, 28, is best known for playing James Sullivan, the high school student turned shrewd political campaign advisor, in Ryan Murphy's hit Netflix show, The Politician. Despite being a trans male role, the plot doesn't revolve around the character's gender, which is refreshing to see on screen.

Who is the Democratic leader of Montana? ›

The party as of 2021 is chaired by Robyn Driscoll.
Montana Democratic Party
ChairpersonRobyn Driscoll
Senate Minority LeaderJill Cohenour
House Minority LeaderKim Abbott
HeadquartersHelena, Montana
10 more rows

Who is the Republican rep for Montana? ›

Montana Congressional Delegation
U. S. RepresentativeU. S. Representative
Matt Rosendale Republican Washington, DC Office 1037 Longworth House Office Building Washington, DC 20515 202-225-3211 E-MailRyan Zinke Republican Washington, DC Office 512 Cannon House Office Building Washington, DC 20515-2601 202-225-5628 E-Mail
1 more row

Who is the first transgender anchor? ›

Padmini Prakash was commended by Rose Venkatesan, who was India's first transgender talk show hostess, in Ippadikku Rose on Star Vijay TV. In fact, Rose was the one who recommended Padmini for the job at Lotus News.

Who are the most famous transgender? ›

NameBirth and death yearsNotable as
Leyna Bloom1990fashion model, dancer, and activist
Alejandra Bogue1965film, television and stage actress
Justin Vivian Bond1963singer-songwriter, performance artist
Chaz Bono1969actor, singer and activist
92 more rows

Who is the first transgender TV news anchor? ›

In 2018, Malik made history by becoming the first transgender person to become a news anchor in the Islamic Republic. She was employed by Pakistan-based Kohenoor News but revealed in several interviews that it was not an easy road to land the feat. "Like other trans people, I did not get any support from my family.

Who was the first woman to vote legally? ›

The first independent country to introduce women's suffrage was arguably Sweden. In Sweden, conditional women's suffrage was in effect during the Age of Liberty (1718–1772). In 1756, Lydia Taft became the first legal woman voter in colonial America.

Who was the first woman elected in Montana? ›

Four years before ratification of the 19th Amendment secured American women's constitutional right to vote, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin was sworn in as a representative for Montana on April 2, 1917. She served a second term in the House of Representatives in 1941.

Who was the first woman in Congress Montana? ›

No history of American representative government could properly be written without a major reference to Representative Jeannette Rankin. The Montana Republican carries the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. That singular event occurred in 1916.

Did Zooey and Jake get along? ›

6 Tensions Between Zooey & Jake

While the chemistry between Jess and Nick was undeniable, Jake and Zooey apparently didn't get along so well in real life. According to Cheat Sheet, they secretly couldn't stand each other!

How long was Zooey off of New Girl? ›

The show remained in production after wrapping season four in order to get a jump on season 5 ahead of Deschanel's maternity leave. Deschanel was absent in 6 episodes of the fifth season. The onscreen reason for her absence was that her character was sequestered for jury duty.

How did Zooey Zephyr get elected to Congress? ›

Zephyr (Democratic Party) ran for election to the Montana House of Representatives to represent District 100. She won in the general election on November 8, 2022.

Was New Girl made for Zooey? ›

Movie actress and singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel was in the process of developing an HBO show when she read the New Girl pilot script and responded to the material. The character of Jess was not specifically written for Deschanel, but the producers found it a great match and needed little fine-tuning.

Are Cece and Schmidt married in real life? ›

Max Greenfield & Hannah Simone

The unlikely duo that was New Girl's Cece and Schmidt not only got married, but also welcomed two kids together — on TV. Speaking to PEOPLE in 2016, Max Greenfield and Hannah Simone shared their personal excitement about their characters' nuptials in the two-part season 5 finale.

Why did Netflix remove New Girl? ›

Why is 'New Girl' no longer on Netflix? "New Girl" was produced by 20th Century Fox for the Fox Channel. The studio, now called 20th Century Studios, is owned by Disney, which owns a stake in Hulu. Many other Fox shows have left Netflix.

Why was Jess gone from New Girl? ›

But such was the case for Jess Day (Zooey Deschanel) on New Girl Season 5. Her absence was explained by the fact that Jess had to serve on a jury for a high-profile case. However, the real reason for Jess's strange multi-episode absence was Zooey's real-life pregnancy.

Is Montana a red state? ›

Montana has been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, having voted for only two Democrats since 1952. Interestingly, prior to 1952, the state had voted gone Democratic five times in a row – four times for Franklin Roosevelt and then for Harry Truman.

When did Michele Bachmann leave Congress? ›

On May 29, 2013, Bachmann announced that she would not seek reelection to her Congressional seat in 2014. In a June 2013 Fox News interview, she said she was "not going silent" and would remain involved in politics. She did not rule out a future run for office, or even the White House.

How many House members does Montana have? ›

Montanans elect all 100 members every 2 years. There are 16 House committees, which meet on varying schedules to hear public comment on proposed legislation.

Who almost booked the role of Jess on New Girl? ›

New Girl: Amanda Bynes Almost Played Jess

At some point during pre-production of New Girl, Amanda Bynes was considered for the role of Jess Day.

Are Nick and Schmidt friends in real life? ›

Apparently, Max (Schmidt) and Jake (Nick) are really good friends in real life and they dress like each other. 9. Jake Johnson was considered too fat for FOX.

Who auditioned for Schmidt on New Girl? ›

Who's That Guy? Long before he headed to Silicon Valley, T.J. Miller auditioned to play Schmidt (Max Greenfield). Deschanel, who had worked with Miller in 2011's Our Idiot Brother, recalls the actor putting his own spin on the "douchebag jar" contributor when he read a scene from the pilot.


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