Hours after seven people were arrested Monday for their protests of Montana House Republicans’ silencing of a transgender lawmaker, those who had been arrested joined Rep. Zooey Zephyr for a late dinner, where they discussed what would come next. The group, along with fellow activists, pushed two high-top tables together at the Windbag Saloon & Grill in Helena.
Zephyr – the 34-year-old Democrat from Missoula who last year became the first openly transgender woman elected to Montana’s legislature – told them she thought Republicans who had prohibited her from speaking on the floor for three consecutive session days might next attempt to censure or expel her, said two attendees who heard her comments.
Such a move, those activists said, would backfire, and draw more national attention and scrutiny to what they described as an avalanche of bills targeting transgender rights.
“I hope they know – I think we’ve made it radically clear – that Rep. Zephyr is exactly what we want legislators to be like in Montana,” said Hannah Pate, one of the protesters who was arrested.
On Tuesday night, state House Speaker Matt Regier issued a notice indicating Republicans would consider “disciplinary action,” just as Zephyr has predicted.
The notice, which was added to the House’s agenda late Tuesday night, said the chamber will gather Wednesday afternoon to consider whether Zephyr’s actions during the protests Monday “violated the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, integrity, or decorum of the House of Representatives, and if so, whether to impose disciplinary consequences for those actions.”
Zephyr posted the notice on Twitter, saying: “I have been informed that during tomorrow’s floor session there will be a motion to either censure or expel me.”
The situation now unfolding in Montana is the latest example of a Republican-dominated state legislature restricting who can be heard – and what can be said – about policy debates that minority Democrats in the state view as matters of life and death.
It comes weeks after Tennessee’s House expelled two Democrats who led demonstrations arguing for gun control on the chamber floor. Both Democrats have since returned to the House after local officials chose them to fill the vacancies created by their expulsions.
Montana, like Tennessee, is a deep-red state. Republicans control all levers of state government and hold every statewide elected office except the seat of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who is up for reelection next year. Last year, the GOP won a supermajority in both the state House and Senate, effectively leaving minority Democrats powerless.
Zephyr, activists and Democrats are now waiting to see what the GOP-led House’s next moves will be as the state’s once-every-other-year legislative session enters its final days.
“If Republicans were to escalate things, I think we’d see a Tennessee situation. Yesterday’s situation would only feel like an appetizer compared to what we’d see if Rep. Zephyr were expelled,” said Paul Kim, one of the seven protesters arrested Monday and charged with criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor.
Republicans who hold a supermajority in Montana’s legislature were regrouping Tuesday, Regier canceling the scheduled floor session.
In a brief statement to statehouse reporters, after which he took no questions, Regier calling Monday a “dark day” but blamed Zephyr and journalists, complaining that “the entire story was not told.”
“Currently all representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules,” he said. “The choice not to follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr.”
Zephyr, in response, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that “we’re seeing a very undemocratic application of what it means to have decorum,” adding: “I will say I rise in support of my community and my constituents every time I speak.”
Regier did not address Montana House Republicans’ next steps, including whether he would continue to prohibit Zephyr from being recognized to speak or whether he would seek to censure or expel her from the House.
The dust-up started last week, when Zephyr criticized a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors in comments that nodded to studies that have consistently shown alarming rates of suicides among transgender teens.
“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.
She added on “AC360” Tuesday evening that “if you rob people of the medical care they need to live joyful and fulfilling lives, if you don’t allow them to have access to that, you’re putting them in a position where they’re going to be in dire straits.”
Regier has since refused to recognize Zephyr to speak on other bills, and Republicans have voted in support of the speaker’s decision.
The state House erupted Monday when Zephyr was again shut down when she attempted to address unrelated legislation. A crowd of pro-Zephyr protesters interrupted House proceedings, chanting, “Let her speak!”
Video of the House floor shows that as the chanting continued, the state House speaker is heard asking the sergeant of arms to clear out the guests in the gallery.
The audio of the livestream of the session later cuts off and is replaced with music, with Zephyr seen in the video with an arm raised, holding up a microphone, looking in the direction of the protesters that were in the gallery. During that time, some protesters are seen being escorted out by law enforcement.
As the upstairs gallery is cleared of protesters and observers, the speaker is heard in the video saying that the House will come back to order.
“Today – when the Speaker continued to not recognize me as a duly elected official – my constituents & community protested on behalf of their democratic right to be heard. I raised my mic and stood in solidarity with them. I am devoted to those who rise in defense of democracy,” Zephyr said in a tweet Monday.
Zephyr added, “When my constituents and community members witnessed my microphone being disabled, they courageously came forward to defend their democratic right to be heard - and some were arrested in the process. I stood by them in solidarity and will continue to do so.”
Meanwhile, conservative members of the Montana Freedom Caucus have pushed for more retaliation against Zephyr.
In a tweet last week, the group misgendered Zephyr, saying: “Our Caucus is calling for the immediate censure of transgender Rep. Zooey Zephyr after his threatening and deeply concerning comments on the House floor earlier today.”
The Montana Freedom Caucus declined CNN’s request for an interview with one of its members Tuesday. In a new statement, the group called for “immediate disciplinary action” against Zephyr.
The group faulted Zephyr for “standing in the middle of the floor encouraging an insurrection after all members were told to move to the sides and clear the House gallery to remain in a safe location.”
Quinn Leighton, the director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, said Republicans have targeted transgender rights and abortion rights since winning a supermajority in last year’s midterm elections.
Leighton said opponents of those GOP-led efforts have asked Montana legislative committees to tone down rhetoric attacking LGBTQ people, characterizing them as “groomers” and “pedophiles,” but Republican committee chairs have not done so.
“People are watching the hearings online and then self-harming, or people are victims of violent crime as a result,” they said.
Shawn Reagor, director of equality at the Montana Human Rights Network, said the protests Monday were a response to “what has been happening all legislative session.”
He said majority Republicans have demonstrated a “sheer lack of care or respect or acknowledgement of not just LGBTQ people who have been sharing their voices or concerns about these bills, but also to Montanans as a whole.”
“And then not only have those voices been silenced, but when people are able to actually clear the hurdles and navigate in a way to make their voices heard, they are being completely ignored,” he said. “We’re seeing that through the passage of more and incredibly harmful anti-trans bills than ever before.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story’s headline incorrectly said Zephyr had been censured. She only has been threatened with censure.
CNN’s Jack Forrest contributed to this report.