Transmissions: Silenced

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday May 3, 2023
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Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr. Illustration: Christine Smith
Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr. Illustration: Christine Smith

At the Montana Statehouse in Helena, history is being made.

Like so many others, the Treasure State has been caught up in the anti-trans frenzy that the right has whipped up in the United States.

Of note is Montana's Senate Bill 99, which will largely end gender-affirming care for trans youth in the state. The bill, which was signed by Republican Governor Greg Gianforte April 28, goes so far as to disallow state employees who work with minors — educators, child care workers, and any others — from even bringing up the existence of such care. Republicans dominate the Montana Legislature, so passing such a bill wasn't difficult. Gianforte signed the bill over the objections of his nonbinary child, as the Montana Free Press reported.

On the other side of the aisle, however, is Montana's first openly transgender representative, Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat who represents the 100th District of Montana that includes Missoula. Zephyr, speaking in the statehouse on April 18, went on the offensive against SB 99, reminding lawmakers of the prayers used to open the House of Representatives' workday.

Said Zephyr, "I hope the next time there's an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands."

In response, the GOP-dominated House voted to prevent Zephyr from participating in debate. Even as she stayed on the House floor, she was not called upon to speak.

In response, hundreds of Montanans took to the gallery just days later, chanting "Let Her Speak!" as the House once again shunned Zephyr. This, too, led to further rebuke, as the gallery was cleared, seven protesters were arrested, and Zephyr was barred from the House floor. As a further punishment, Republicans removed her from all her committees.

Zephyr's office is now on a bench outside the chamber.

Much like when Tennessee Democratic state Representatives Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled from their positions in that state's House for taking on gun violence, Zephyr's stand has brought her far more prominence than she may have ever had before. (Pearson and Jones were quickly reinstated by their respective county commissions and returned to the Legislature.)

More than this, in a year where hundreds of anti-transgender laws have steamrolled their way through state governments, Zephyr's stand has brought the issue of anti-transgender rights back to the forefront of national discourse, and given us someone who — even as her state's GOP has sought to silence her — has ended up with a far larger microphone than the one she held aloft on the House floor.

With this in mind, I want to offer some food for thought for those of us who are trans, who are drag performers, and, yes, those who are LGBTQ people overall and facing the myriad attacks lobbed at us this year.

For many years I've heard homophobes and transphobes talk about how we're "cramming our ideas down their throat." Certainly, many have seemingly accused Zephyr of similar things in the last couple of weeks.

Yet, I'd be hard pressed to think of a time when we actually have done this.

I'd also say that the majority of such "shoving" of it was not done by trans people.

At best, it's brands trying to market their products — see, for example, the current kerfuffle over Bud Light working with trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney leading to a mass right-wing freak out — though I think the reaction from the right has brought more attention, and by extension, more "cramming" than was ever expected nor intended.

More than this, some right-wing bigots know that pushing all this serves their main purpose — it's the same point behind every bill in these statehouses, too, and the goal of anyone who is out there fighting against trans rights: they want to see us gone by any means necessary, and they never want to hear of us again.

If they can keep us small, and keep us complicit in our own silence, they can continue to oppress. In short, the smaller they make us, the smaller they can make us.

We often note, in trans circles, that we just want to be left alone. We're just not interested in making half the stink we're accused of. It tends to be our counter to the "stop shoving it" comments.

I get it and I feel the same. I really just want to be left alone. Unfortunately, I don't think this ends up serving us well.

In the 1970s, "gay rights" faced similar hurdles. The reaction to the Stonewall Rebellion and related actions led to a much quieter attempt to gain rights. Queer elements (kink, trans, and even bisexuality) were purged or hidden within the movement. The rallying cry was that we should be seen as "just like" straight society.

The result of this, I would argue, was not a lot of movement forward. Not a lot of breakthroughs. The push may have been to show how we were "just like them," but we also ended up being meek and subservient to "them." We only were allowed to succeed when they let us.

This wouldn't start to change until ACT UP and other groups were visible and active and angry during the AIDS crisis. Those who pushed buttons made change. Today, it is Zephyr and the people of her district who are showing us all how to do it once again.

Zephyr could have stayed silent and not made the comments she did. She could have apologized, or taken the rebuke and resigned.

She did not, and instead has stood up for her constituents and for the community most affected by SB 99. She, like all of us, was not ready to be silenced.

For that, we should all be thankful.

Gwen Smith applauds Representative Zephyr, and hopes this is the start of a very long career for her. You'll find her at

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