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Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s town feels divide from rest of Montana

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The sun rises beyond Mount Sentinel and downtown Missoula, Mont., Tuesday, April 25, 2023. It was little surprise that Missoula, a college town where pride flags are a common sight, sent Zooey Zephyr to the state legislature. Zephyr, the first openly transgender legislator in Montana's history, was barred last week from speaking on the floor of the legislature by the Republican majority.
The sun rises beyond Mount Sentinel and downtown Missoula, Mont., Tuesday, April 25, 2023. It was little surprise that Missoula, a college town where pride flags are a common sight, sent Zooey Zephyr to the state legislature. Zephyr, the first openly transgender legislator in Montana's history, was barred last week from speaking on the floor of the legislature by the Republican majority. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino) Photo Gallery

MISSOULA, Montana  — In the college town of Missoula, pride flags are as common a sight as the peaks of Montana’s Rattlesnake Mountains. Even a downtown crosswalk is rainbow-colored.

Often described as a blue island in a vast red state, Missoula sent the first openly transgender legislator in Montana history to the state capital. Its voters, fully aware that they are vastly outnumbered by conservatives statewide, were still shocked at what happened next.

Their new representative, Zooey Zephyr, was barred last week from speaking on the floor of the Legislature by the Republican majority, which accused her of violating decorum by telling them they had “blood on your hands” for approving a bill barring gender-affirming care for minors. Later Wednesday, Republicans voted to bar Zephyr from the House floor for the remainder of the legislative session, scheduled to end early next month.

Zephyr was elected with 80% of the vote in November in her heavily liberal district, which runs through the oddly-aligned section of central Missoula known as the Slant Streets and stretches to the doorstep of the University of Montana, the 7,000-student school that has long fueled the town’s liberal sensibility. Nestled in a narrow valley at the northwestern edge of the state, Missoula is proud of its funky, countercultural style. This week, the hot ticket was the International Wildlife Film Festival, featuring a parade in which people dressed in animal costumes and marched through downtown.

Zephyr’s constituents were both shocked and reminded of the growing distance between them and the rest of their state.

“When she first ran I thought, ‘They’re going to do something to limit her power,’” said Erin Flint, 28, a native who plans to enroll in the university to earn a graduate degree in art education. But she didn’t expect a step as dramatic as gagging the new lawmaker.

Montana has long leaned to the right, but with more of a libertarian bent than a zest for culture wars. That allowed Democrats to win the governorship regularly over the decades, and occasionally to win control of one or more houses of the Legislature.

Andy Nelson grew up in a town of 750 in eastern Montana, and only felt comfortable coming out as gay in his senior year of college at the University in Missoula, when he volunteered at The Center, a local LGBTQ+ community group where he is now executive director. He remembered long discussions about whether such a group was still necessary after same-sex marriage was legalized nationally in 2015. But that all changed in 2016, with the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Trump handily won the state that year and in 2020. Republicans now hold both congressional seats and all statewide offices, although one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats is held by Democrat Jon Tester, a top GOP target in 2024. Last year, as Zephyr was elected in her Missoula district of about 11,000 residents, Republicans rode a surge in popular support to win a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature.

Zeke Cork, 62, one of The Center’s board members, recalled the 1970s as a great time to come out in Missoula, though he acknowledged he still was aware he had to follow certain rules to be safe. A railroad dispatcher, Cork has lived all over the United States but came back to Montana in 2015. He felt safe enough to transition fully two years ago.

But today, Cork said, the state’s “live and let live” sensibility seems to be ebbing. Conservative protesters, often armed, disrupt pride events. “Now, you don’t know who’s going to be the one who unloads on you and your community.”

Cork has been traveling up to the Capitol in Helena to speak against the legislation affecting transgender people since it was first introduced. After Zephyr was silenced, he joined dozens of others from Missoula at the Capitol this week, where they began crying, “Let her speak!” after she was gagged yet again. Seven demonstrators were arrested.

“We would much rather be living quiet lives, out of the spotlight, living under the radar, living our best lives,” Cork said. “I don’t want to be having this battle.”

But, Cork added, the community has no choice. “She speaks for me, and I sent her to that house,” said Cork, who lives in Zephyr’s district. “We’re fighting for democracy right now.”

Legislative Republicans contend they’re the ones preserving democracy by following their chamber’s rules and gagging Zephyr for maligning her colleagues, then carrying on even in the face of loud protests. “We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena,” several said in a statement Monday evening, after activists — including dozens from Missoula — jeered them from the House gallery.

In the minds of many other Montanans, it’s Missoula that has changed, not them.

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“Missoula used to be a wonderful place,” said Ken Sayler, 64, who grew up in the town when its primary industry was sawmills. Those all closed, and the town began to look a lot more like the university, driving him in disgust to a remote house in the mountains, where he manufactures boat parts.

“If you’re transgender, I don’t care,” Sayler said, but he had little sympathy for Zephyr. “She stepped out of bounds.”

Sayler was drinking a beer in a bar about 20 miles south of Missoula, where plenty of patrons jeered the idea of a transgender lawmaker. The bar sits in a small town in the district of state Sen. Theresa Manzella, the chair of a group of conservative state lawmakers called the Montana Freedom Caucus who pushed for the measure silencing Zephyr with a statement that intentionally misgendered her.

Jim McConnell, a 69-year-old machinist, was dubious of the idea of someone like Zephyr serving in the statehouse. But he didn’t like the idea of muzzling her.

“They have a right to speak,” said Jim McConnell. “But in Montana, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Experts say intense cultural battles are out of character for Montana politics. “This is a conservative, libertarian state, as opposed to a conservative, authoritarian one,” said Paul Pope, a political scientist at Montana State University in Billings, noting that that a far less liberal town’s zoo received an influx of support after conservative activists attacked its drag story hour recently. “Even if they have some short-term success here,” he added of the GOP, “long term, this is going to hurt them.”

But for now, the fight appears likely to escalate as the Legislature considers further action against Zephyr. Many in Missoula say she shouldn’t back down.

“I’m proud of her and the work she’s been doing in the House, and we cannot let the Republicans in the House silence our voices,” said Ignatius Fitzgerald, a freshman at the university who grew up in the district.

“There’s a saying that Missoula is a great place to live, and we’re only 20 miles from Montana,” Fitzgerald added. “It feels even more so as time has gone on.”

Even some who disagreed politically with Zephyr said they didn’t think the the Legislature should silence her. “Even if I don’t agree with her policies, I feel she has the right to speak,” Addie Glidewell, a 19-year-old journalism student who supports banning gender-affirming care for minors, said of Zephyr. “I don’t believe she should be shut down.”

Danny Wainwright, a 56-year-old middle school teacher in Zephyr’s district, said he doesn’t always back aggressive protests or bombastic political rhetoric. But he felt Zephyr’s actions were appropriate.

“When you’re the minority and Republicans have a supermajority, you’ve got to be heard somehow, that’s your job,” Wainwright said