There are just 226 openly LGBT elected officials in state legislatures across the country and only nine of them are transgender. These lawmakers have been on the frontlines of receiving nationwide attacks on transgender people and their existence. As we come together to celebrate Pride this month, the story of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker in Montana, speaks to the direct link between a strong, vibrant democracy and our ability to continue making progress to protect and safeguard our country’s LGBT community.
Just months ago, Rep. Zephyr, was silenced by her colleagues and accused of “encouraging an insurrection” for criticizing laws specifically targeting Zephyr and her community earlier this spring.
As Montana lawmakers debated legislation that would bar transgender youth from seeking gender affirming care (care that is supported by every major medical association), Rep. Zephyr, who is just one of five LGBT people in the Montana legislature and the only transgender person, noted that transgender youth have higher rates of suicidal ideation than their peers and suffer higher rates of mental health issues, and that this bill would make those things worse. In very pointed terms, Rep. Zephyr said that lawmakers supporting the ban will have “blood on their hands.”
She understands first-hand the harm this bill would cause, and lawmakers should want to hear from people like her who can speak to their own lived experiences. But instead, her Republican colleagues became outraged that Rep. Zephyr had the temerity to criticize legislation debating her right to exist, and moved to censure her. Later in the session as debate continued, opponents of the legislation filled the House gallery to protest. Rep. Zephyr lifted up her microphone so their reactions could be heard.
The Chamber’s leaders retaliated, and lawmakers voted along party lines to remove Zephyr from the Chamber for the rest of the session and block her from speaking on remaining legislation. A group of Republican lawmakers described Zephyr’s conduct, which peacefully and temporarily disrupted the legislative proceedings as “encouraging an insurrection.”
In an outrageous abuse of the Chamber’s ethics rules aimed at chilling the speech of someone they disagreed with, the Republican party tried to manufacture a “both sides” cover for their embrace of the violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Deploying these false claims of “insurrection” is a disingenuous and anti-democratic tactic that has been used in several states this year to silence dissent from marginalized communities.
It’s a similar argument to what Republicans in Tennessee used when they expelled two Black lawmakers for protesting the Chamber’s unwillingness to seriously address the issue of gun violence after a mass shooting in a Nashville elementary school. Republican lawmakers accused their colleagues’ peaceful protest as “doing an insurrection in the State Capitol” and exploited the Chamber’s rules to try to silence lawmakers they disagreed with on policy (while ignoring any number of other indiscretions made by other lawmakers). Earlier this year, conservative commentators also referred to civil disobedience in Oklahoma opposing another bill attacking gender affirming care for trans youth as an “insurrection.”
What happened on January 6th cannot be compared to the protests like those we have seen recently in Montana, Tennessee, or Oklahoma. On January 6, 2021, a mob—incited by the former president tried to violently overthrow our democratic system of government. Five law enforcement officers that defended the Capitol that day have died and more than 100 others were injured in the attack. The Department of Justice has charged more than 1,000 people with crimes related to their actions and many will spend time in prison for their actions.
In fact, courts have explicitly rejected this exact argument, and understand there is a difference between protected First Amendment activity and an insurrection. Last year, CREW successfully removed a New Mexico elected official under the 14th Amendment’s Disqualification Clause that bars insurrectionists who previously swore an oath to defend the Constitution from holding office. County Commissioner Couy Griffin promoted violence and recruited supporters to come to Washington, to overturn the election through force. In the court decision affirming his removal from office, a judge specifically said there is a difference between protected First Amendment activity and the violent attempt to force Congress to stop the election certification process on January 6th.
It’s not a stretch to believe that state lawmakers insulated by gerrymandered districts, who have spent years finding new ways to make it harder to vote with little to no electoral accountability, may chafe at being told their deeply unpopular policies are wrong and will make lives harder for their constituents. But simply speaking out against policy—no matter how loud or disrespectful your opponents find it—is not an insurrection and it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise.
Rep. Zephyr serves as an example of the best of our public servants, while the insurrectionists who disrupted the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in American history represent the true threat to our democracy. Real insurrectionists are now running for office to oversee voting systems, some are currently serving in Congress and state legislatures, and election administration. They will attempt to do legally what insurrectionists failed to do illegally on January 6th. The leader of the insurrection, Donald Trump, wants to serve as president of the United States again. They’re prepared to try another potential coup in 2024, and that’s much more dangerous to the future of our country than a lawmaker holding a microphone up in the air.
Our system of government is strengthened by lawmakers speaking honestly about the impact of legislation on the diverse communities they represent. The true danger to democracy and the rule of law is those who seek to overturn our free and fair elections simply because they disagree with the results. That’s why CREW brought its challenge in New Mexico and have pledged to enforce Donald Trump’s disqualification as well. We must hold actual insurrectionists accountable for their actions, and reject partisan false equivalencies aimed at silencing the voices of historically marginalized communities, to prevent future attacks like the one on January 6th.
This Pride month, we must remember that protecting our democracy and protecting the rights of LGBT people are one and the same.
Adam Smith is the Vice President for Democracy Initiatives at CREW. Nadine Bridges is the executive director of One Colorado, the state’s leading advocacy organization dedicated to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Coloradans and their families.