When the wheels touched down in Missoula on November 8th, Zooey Zephyr was the last to disembark. It was election night and Zephyr learned that she had won her home district 100 race.
The people sitting next to her told her they were supporters and soon-to-be voters. On the way off the plane, Zephyr turned back after a stewardess congratulated her.
“I will be the first trans woman to hold office in Montana,” she told her.
The flight attendant, mother of a trans son, said Zephyr gave her hope. She told Zephyr how hard she fought for her son and how scary the world was at times.
“We hugged, we cried,” Zephyr said.
In a viral tweet thread, Rep. Zephyr, a Democrat, said the exchange exemplifies “why we will win the fight for trans rights.”
“Because we’re not a concept to debate,” Zephyr tweeted. “We are your family, your neighbors, your colleagues and more. & if you think you don’t know us, rest assured – even 30,000′ in the sky – you are never far from someone who cares.”
When I got off the plane last night, a stewardess asked me why I was so upset. I told her I had won my election and was the first trans woman to be elected in Montana.
She immediately burst into tears. “My son is trans,” she said, and started telling me about all the joys/fears… [1/3] pic.twitter.com/viHfMdWD3A
— Representative-Elect Zooey Zephyr (@ZoAndBehold) November 9, 2022
Zephyr is not alone. Missoula sends two trans representatives to the Legislature in January, with trans nonbinary Representative SJ Howell elected winning as a Democrat in House District 95.
Trans issues have been hot topics in Helena, but Zephyr will look at the legislation through other lenses as well. She’s a granddaughter to farmers, she grew up in Billings, and she’s a Missoula renter who’s seen housing problems first-hand.
“To move 30 days in advance if we are in a housing shortage? It gets people out on the streets,” she said, adding that there must be both short- and long-term solutions.
“My desire to get into the legislature was to be in a place where my voice could make a difference,” she said. “Once I’m in the legislature, she’s trying to figure out where you fit in the conversation with everyone else who’s — theoretically — trying to do the same.”
Zephyr said since announcing her win and posting about the exchange with the flight attendant, she’s received hundreds of messages, from other parents of trans children to LGBTQ+ people in other states looking for advice on how to lead themselves.
After testifying during the 2021 session against laws affecting trans people, like the restrictions on trans women in sports, which were signed into law and later found unconstitutional, Zephyr said she believes she can make a difference.
She said she consulted with another Missoula Democrat, Senator Bryce Bennett, before making the decision to run.
“The fight seems to be taking place in the state parliament, is that a space where I can do good?” She remembered asking. “He said they’ll talk about you, but as soon as you enter the room, they need to talk to you.”
After winning her elementary school in June, Bennett was tweeted out of his pride in their campaign.
“For the first time in 133 years of statehood, young people confronting their gender identity will look to their legislature and see someone who knows their history, their struggles and the bright opportunities ahead,” Bennett said in a tweet thread . “There’s no way to describe how powerful this is.”
Zephyr will join a minority and precede a conservative supermajority.
A bill banning gender-affirming surgery on minors, which was first proposed in the 2021 legislature but died in the process, is already back on the agenda for the 2023 session, with a draft motion tabled by Senator Keith Regier, R-Kalispell became. Regier is the father of House Speaker Designate Matt Regier, R-Kalispell.
Speaking about medical privacy at a recent post-election forum at Montana State University, Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said medical privacy for families of trans children will likely continue to be an issue in the Legislature.
“For families dealing with trans children, who should make that decision? Is it the families and their medical providers? Or does the legislature decide which medical procedures are recognized etc.?” said Sands. “I think the parties will rush to different sides of these issues because they’re still contentious in the culture.”
Sands was Montana’s first openly gay congressman.
Zephyr said in healthcare-related discussions that the considerations of leading healthcare authorities are heavily weighted.
“So, in this one instance, stepping in and going against the leading medical standard is not healthy, safe, or wise,” Zephyr said.
At local and statewide races across the country, Zephyr said anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has backfired, and she hopes it sends a message to Republican leaders in the state and beyond.
“I believe with all my heart that there will be apprehension in the legislature on the right from people who don’t know me and may not have met a trans person or certainly have spent a significant amount of time as we have in the legislature together,” she said. “You’ll find that I’m part of the community just like you.”
I believe I can be successful there, and part of that is sharing humanity and nuance with people who may have never met, or been unaware of, a trans person.”
Trans people have participated in the legislative process in the past, but there have been no trans people who have served as elected representatives in the legislature.
“Now there will be,” she said. “And I’m humbled that I get to be.”