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After record election year, some LGBTQ lawmakers face a new challenge: GOP majorities

Zooey Zephyr, state Rep.-elect for the 100th district of the Montana House of Representatives, is the first openly trans woman to be elected in the state legislature. Zephyr poses for a portrait at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C., on Dec. 2, 2022.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Zooey Zephyr, state Rep.-elect for the 100th district of the Montana House of Representatives, is the first openly trans woman to be elected in the state legislature. Zephyr poses for a portrait at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C., on Dec. 2, 2022.

HELENA, Mont. – Zooey Zephyr is familiar with the ornate halls of the Montana state Capitol. She was here during the 2021 legislative session, testifying in opposition to bills targeted at trans-Montanans, like a ban on trans women and girls from participating in women's sports.

"The image of 'quote' trans women ruining the integrity of women's sports paints a false picture of life as a trans woman," she said in the House Judiciary Committee. "It incorrectly claims that we have a competitive advantage. And it misses why trans people transition in the first place – which is to lead a happier life," Zephyr added.

Then, this year, 34-year-old Zephyr became the first openly trans woman elected to the Montana legislature. Now, Rep.-elect Zephyr from Missoula, along with a record-number winning LGBTQ state legislative candidates across the country, will file into state capitols in January when many of their colleagues will likely propose anti-LGBTQ bills again.

A reason to run

"Watching bills pass through the legislature by one vote, I cried and I thought to myself, 'I bet I could change one heart, I bet I could change one mind. We need representation in that room. I'm going to try to get in there,' " Zephyr said in an interview while attending legislator orientation in Helena recently.

In January, she'll be joined by Rep.-elect SJ Howell, Montana's first trans nonbinary legislator elected to office.

While that's a win for Democrats, the same Montana GOP majority that passed the trans sports ban because of what they have said is fairness in competition – and another law that restricts how trans-Montanans can update their gender on birth certificates – secured even more seats in November ahead of the 2023 legislative session.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte's administration recently cracked down harder on birth certificate amendments after the newly enacted law restricting the process was challenged in court. The state health department halted all birth certificate amendments, saying there's a difference between biological sex and gender and that gender shouldn't decide what's placed on vital records. A judge required officials to reverse the rule while the lawsuit plays out.

This issue was top of mind for voter Christine Holmes in rural Deer Lodge, Mont. on Election Day.

"[The] governor passed that you can't have your gender changed on your birth certificate and I believe you should if you are who you think you are and know who you are," Holmes said, adding that she doesn't have much hope things will change.

Zooey Zephyr, 34, state Rep.-elect for the 100th district of the Montana House of Representatives, walks hand-in-hand with her girlfriend, Erin Reed, 34, at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C., on Dec. 2, 2022.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Zooey Zephyr, 34, state Rep.-elect for the 100th district of the Montana House of Representatives, walks hand-in-hand with her girlfriend, Erin Reed, 34, at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C., on Dec. 2, 2022.

Facing a Republican majority

Lawmakers have begun drafting legislation to bring next session, and a few Republicans have already requested proposals restricting health care for trans minors, prohibiting minors from attending drag shows, codifying in law the definitions of male and female and amending the state Constitution to define gender.

Zephyr is realistic about the challenges she'll face in pushing back against legislation she says is harmful to the state's LGBTQ community, but she is optimistic.

"Representation is not a guarantee that you can stop harmful legislation from going through, but it is the best defense we have against bills that hurt vulnerable communities."

She points to her election as proof that there is support for LGBTQ representation, underlined by the historic year LGBTQ candidates had in state legislatures across the country with 196 elected to office, according to the Victory Fund, a non-partisan political action committee that supports LGBTQ candidates running for office.

Zephyr says a top issue her constituents want her to prioritize is legislation to boost access to affordable housing. She plans to work across the aisle on that and other issues, and says she'll be able to find shared goals with Republicans, even those who disagree with her.

"It is the day in, day out, conversations with people. The humanizing effect of working with someone, and working with someone who over the course of the legislative session will get to know that I have a nuanced life and that I have genuine beliefs and so do they," Zephyr said.

Montana Democrats have found allies in moderate Republicans before, some who voted against the anti-trans rights bills last session. That also gives Zephyr hope.

She'll start work in legislation and bridge-building in earnest when she's sworn into Montana's 68th legislative session on Jan. 2.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

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Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.