Melissa Harris-Perry: [music] This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
"Tonight, I asked Erin to marry me. "This is the news Zooey Zephyr wants all of us to know. She pinned a tweet of the announcement at the top of her profile, along with some photos of the emotional moment. Zephyr's tweet continues, "A year ago, I told Erin I was looking for a love that felt like home. I found that and so much more. I found my future, my family, and my forever."
Now, typically, a marriage proposal tweet from a first-term state representative in Montana would not make national headlines, but Zooey Zephyr has probably gotten use to making headlines these days.
Zooey Zephyr: If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture, and this body should be ashamed. If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there's an indication when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The first openly trans representative in the history of the Montana legislature, Zooey Zephyr, spoke out against legislation that banned gender-affirming healthcare in her state. In response to her criticism, Republican lawmakers voted to censure her, denying her the right to speak for the remainder of the legislative session and arguing that she had broken decorum.
Zooey Zephyr: When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zephyr filed a lawsuit to challenge the move, but a Montana district judge denied her reinstatement. Ironically, the action didn't marginalize the voice of Zooey Zephyr. It amplified it, meaning an even bigger platform to announce the happy news of her engagement. Now, we spoke with Zooey last week before she popped the question and she told us about the legislation that started all of this Montana State Senate Bill 99. Just a note, there is a mention of suicide and suicidality in this conversation.
Zooey Zephyr: Senate Bill 99 is a bill that bans gender-affirming care for trans youth. What that means at this very start, what that looks like, gender-affirming care, is something as simple as social transitioning, cutting your hair short, growing it long, dressing in different clothes, going by a different name or pronoun.
Then it also as it goes along, it begins to ban other forms of care such as puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy, which is the care that I'm on. It's important to pause at this moment and say that this is care that is done slowly and carefully with the child, their parent, therapists, endocrinologists, and their doctors in accordance with every major medical association's best practices.
This bill, Senate Bill 99, bans that care, bans care approved by every major medical association, puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and for older teens up to including things like top surgery, a mastectomy, a procedure that is performed rarely on trans teens, but sometimes and notably this bill bans it for trans teens, but does not ban mastectomies or breast augmentations for cisgender teens.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask this, Representative. Are there any other pediatric medical procedures perhaps for the care of childhood cancers or perhaps for juvenile diabetes, type-1 diabetes? Are there any other pediatric medical procedures or treatments that are banned explicitly in the State of Montana?
Zooey Zephyr: Not that I am aware of. That is such an important point to bring up, that when we look at the type of care that people need access to to live, to live lives full of joy, full of meaning, we trust our medical associations. We trust our patients, their parents, and doctors to make those medical decisions.
Then even in Montana, we have a constitutional right to privacy and it has been established that includes privacy in our health care. The government should not be in that doctor's office. In this one instance, the government has said, except for trans people. Those people we're going to target and inject ourselves into their health care decisions.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This current wave, and we're maybe even in the third or fourth wave of anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ bills across American state legislatures, I want you to help our audience to understand for a bit because I always feel like there's just a little bit of a default to the federal government.
There's a sense that like, oh state reps must be about like a House of Representatives member, have big staffs, plenty of resources, get paid a decent salary. Can you just help us to understand a little bit about what it means to be a member of the Montana State Legislature? Are you paid a lot? Do you have a big staff?
Zooey Zephyr: No. I think that's a misconception. I can't speak for other states, but here in Montana, I do not have staff. I have people who can work on my campaigns and do work on my campaigns that I hire with campaign funds, but by and large, it's me. When you email my legislator email, you're emailing me directly. I'm the one who goes through it. The last few weeks when it's been incredibly busy, I'm the one who's struggling to keep up with it.
In terms of pay, this session we came in and the rate for a legislator was- hourly rate came out to be about $12 an hour is what we were making. We voted to raise that pay this session and rightly called out that if we want a representative democracy, our wages as a legislature can't be that low or we exclude people who are in their '20s who have working jobs, who don't have the ability to just say, "I'm retired and I can live off of my retirement and do this legislating thing on the side."
It's a common misconception about the control or the size of state legislatures. These places are important, because we are in many ways the front line of the fight for democracy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm asking that, Representative Zephyr, because to see so many similar brutalizing bills appear in all of these under-resourced, underpaid part-time state legislatures that don't have big staff suggests to me that there's a coordinated effort to bring these bills to consideration. Because presumably if you have to answer all your constituent emails and do all of the things you do on your regular day job and all of that, no matter what your ideology, there's just only so much time you have for the legislative efforts in terms of writing new things. It's hard for me to believe everyone across the country came up with the same idea about banning gender-affirming care for minors all at the same time.
Zooey Zephyr: Yes, we are seeing a coordinated effort from far-right organizations in the country who are pitching these kinds of bills. It's why the language matches so similarly to other bills. It's why the openings of representatives who are pushing these anti-trans bills sound eerily similar to the openings of legislators in other areas. It's why the same handful of "de-transitioners" are flying around the country to speak on these bills.
I think we saw that at the beginning because it's important to remember that these anti-trans bills began initially with a failed attempt at bathroom bans. Then their second attempt to find a way in was in sports bans. Their goal was never to simply pass a sports ban. The goal was, as stated in one of the conservative conventions this year, the goal was the elimination of trans people from public life entirely.
We have seen that escalation of legislation over the past few years. We have seen it go and now we're seeing these healthcare bans beginning to take root. We're seeing healthcare bans not just for youth, but in Missouri, adult healthcare bans.
In Florida, bills that make it so that a trans child could be taken away from their parents, and Florida just passed a bathroom ban. That makes it incredibly difficult to be a trans person in public. We're seeing not only coordinated efforts from far-right groups in the country to pass anti-trans legislation, but we're seeing an escalation of those attacks with an ultimate goal of removing trans people from public life entirely. That is why trans people and our allies are standing in our communities and standing in our legislatures and bringing attention to the urgency of the situation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of banning trans people from public life, this is essentially what happened to you in the context of being censored. Can you tell our listeners a bit about what happened?
Zooey Zephyr: Yes. As Senate Bill 99 was heard for the final time on the House floor, I rose up to speak on the bill and to tell my colleagues the real harm that this bill was going to bring. We know statistics that say trans youth who receive gender-affirming care have a 73% reduction in suicidality. We know that. We've talked about that in that legislature. I've also had personal experiences, I have lost friends to suicide this year. I have heard from people attacked on the side of the road in my state.
There was a trans teen in my state who attempted to take her life while watching one of those hearings, and another trans teen in the hospital when the ER doctor asked, "What's going on? Why was there a suicide attempt?" The trans teen said, "My state doesn't want me."
I arose to hold the legislative body accountable and say, "These bills are going to get my community killed." How I told them that was I said, "If you vote for this bill, the next time you bow your heads in prayer, I hope you see the blood on your hands." In doing so, I was not being hyperbolic. I was speaking to real harm that comes when a legislature passes these kinds of bills that target a community and the health care that community needs to live happy and fulfilling lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick break right here. More with Zooey Zephyr right after this. We're back with Montana State Representative, Zooey Zephyr. What I appreciate about your willingness to stand and speak to the harm in that moment is suggest to me a belief in deliberative democracy, that whatever you know about counting the votes and whether or not a thing is going to pass that presumably you're sent to the legislature in part to speak and to make public, for the record, these experiences. It also even, from my watching of it, my reading of your intentions is about saying, "Look, maybe you don't know, maybe you conservative legislator have only been lobbied on one side of this so let me expand your understanding of what this human experience is and what this legislative action could mean," which feels to me is necessary in our democracy for us to do. The response of your Republican colleagues was what?
Zooey Zephyr: You point out exactly right that we have a representative democracy. There are 11,000 Montanans who sent me to the Capitol to be their voice, not just to vote yes or no on certain things, but to be part of the speech and debate of critical issues impacting our state including human rights, including housing, including health care, and including protecting our judicial branch. When I rose in this instance, the Republican supermajority and particularly the speaker, took issue with what I said and chose to- rather than take the vote and say, "We got the bill passed to move on," chose to refuse to acknowledge me for the remainder of the legislative session, refused to grant me the ability to represent my community on any debate, on any bill going forward. In doing so, he took away their right to representation, that it was an attack on the very first principles of our country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you curse?
Zooey Zephyr: No, I didn't curse. I didn't yell. I stated clearly and precisely the harm that these bills bring.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you throw anything?
Zooey Zephyr: No. Only thing I did was show my heart and say exactly what these bills do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The 11,000 people who sent you to the house to represent them, are they all 11,000 trans folks?
Zooey Zephyr: No. They are from a community who have a ton of concerns. They are a community that has trans folks in it. Those trans folks are part of the community. Those trans folks didn't just send me there to represent them on trans rights either. They sent me there to represent them on an array of issues including housing. My district is 50% renters. When rental bills came forward, I was not allowed to speak on them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a pathway for addressing this? Within the context of how the Montana State legislature works, your constituents, some of whom are trans folks, some of whom aren't, folks who are trans folks have a whole variety of issues, folks who are not trans folks also care about these issues. Your voice has remained unheard on all of these issues. Do you have a pathway for rectifying the lost minutes, moments, hours, days, weeks of representing your constituents' interests?
Zooey Zephyr: There were over 100 bills as we wrapped up the last week of the legislative session. There were over 100 bills including big housing policy, including LGBTQ bills, including the state's budget, entire budget, that 11,000 Montanans lacked representation in the debate process on those bills. Now the legislature has adjourned, the censure has ceased and so next session, I will be allowed to speak, my understanding is, but that representation was lost.
What I am seeking to do is look at how rules, going forward, can be addressed to make sure that doesn't happen again. Is there any legal recourse for the 11,000 constituents who lost their voice over 100 pieces of legislation? Ultimately, if recourse cannot be found in the legislature or in the courts, it's up to us as a community to come together and find recourse in the ballot box.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Representative, why did you run for office in the first place?
Zooey Zephyr: I went to testify in 2021 on a handful of bills, including the first where I testified being the trans sports ban, as I mentioned, those being the very impetus of a lot of the anti-trans laws that were hearing. I testified against it as a former high-level athlete myself. It was like talking to a room of people who did not want to listen.
Then I watched bill after bill passed by a few votes and I thought, "We will never be able to move the needle if we don't have representation in that room."
I went to my senator at the time, Senator Bryce Bennett, who was the first openly gay man elected to the Montana legislature. I asked him, I said, "I want to find the room that my voice can do the most good in. Is that the legislator? Is that the right place to be? Should I be doing that? Should I be at an org? Should I be at local level?" He said, "I believe that room is the room. That is the right room to be in."
I said, "Okay, then I will steal my heart, I will let this fire burn within me, and I will go talk to my community." I did, and it turns out my community had the same cares and same concerns that I had, and our conversations, we were in resonance with one another. I was grateful to be sent to represent them in the people's house.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you were talking about what your inbox must look like these days, I'm sure a fair bit of it is folks like us bothering you, "Hey, will, you come on and talk to us in the press?" I'm sure there's a lot of love in there from all kinds of folks, from trans folks, from families, from allies.
I've been public long enough to know that a lot of it must be pretty ugly. I'm wondering, as you talked about stealing your heart and undoubtedly now stealing your spine, how you're feeling right now. Are you at all regretting that decision to be that voice in that room?
Zooey Zephyr: When you stand up for your community, when you stand up for democracy itself, when you're on a moral and just path, when you're on the right side of history, it is easy to steal yourself. It is easy to stand tall. I do not have regrets for defending my community. I do not have regrets for standing by my community when they protested. I don't regret standing for democracy. How could I be in a legislature if I were not willing to stand for democracy? I will say to the messages, again, it is an overwhelming amount of support. It is just in public, in my legislative email, in social media, again and again and again, I hear people who are grateful sometimes specifically for my defense of the trans community.
By and large, what people are saying is, thank you for standing for democracy. Thank you for representing your community, even if I disagree with them, even if I wouldn't support X, Y, or Z Bill. Thank you for representing your community and it's not right that someone tried to trample on democracy to get to silence opposition to their bills.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A very last question. I am moved and heartbroken by the idea of a young person attempting to take their own life in part because their state does not want them. On the off chance that instead of watching hate, they happen to be listening in this moment, what do you have to say to the trans young person, whether they're living in Montana or anywhere else, maybe riding in the back of their parents' car right now, which is where all young people hear public radio for the first time? [laughter] What do you have to say to them about who wants them and the value of their lives?
Zooey Zephyr: First and foremost, I hope you see a glimpse of the fact that people are fighting for you. I hope you see a glimpse of what our community can be when people stand up. I hope you understand that when we say trans people are loved, trans people belong, they're not hollow words. We are here in the rooms. Trans people like me are in those rooms fighting for you. Trans people have been in this country before this country had the name it has, and we'll be here long after the bills targeting us have fallen to the dustbin of history.
We will work together in our communities to make sure that we defend trans people. We will win in our communities because our communities broadly will support us. We will win in the courts, and someday we will win in the legislature. Until all of these bills stop coming, my ask is that you look in the mirror and love yourself as the trans person you are, be proud of who you are, and know we're fighting for you, and know we will win in the end. Until then, stand tall and stay alive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zooey Zephyr, represents Montana's 100th House District. Representative Zephyr, thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Zooey Zephyr: Thank you so much for having me. Take care.
[00:23:10] [END OF AUDIO]
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