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Transgender Rep. Zooey Zephyr condemns Montana drag ban in a passionate speech

Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr
Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr Photo: Screenshot

Weeks into her tenure as Montana’s first elected transgender representative, Zooey Zephyr (D) brought supporters to tears with an impassioned plea against proposed legislation banning drag performance on public property and in the presence of minors.

The vaguely worded bill would be far-reaching in its implications for drag artists as well as trans individuals, with its language defining obscenity and “prurient interests” striking at the very heart of free-speech.

The chamber’s Republicans voted it through anyway.

House Bill 359 would prohibit drag performance at any state-funded venue, and make exposing minors to any form of male or female impersonation a crime punishable by fines and repeal of state-granted privileges, like a liquor or cabaret license.

Teachers, librarians, and school administrators in violation of the law would be subject to permanent revocation of their professional licenses.

In the bill, “drag performance” is defined as “a performance that features topless dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”

According to the bill’s definition, “‘Prurient interest’ means having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”

There is no definition in the bill of what “lustful thoughts” may include, and what could excite them.

With her voice and hands trembling, Zephyr stood up in opposition to the bill and in defense of the LGBTQ+ community and drag performance.

“There’s questions as to why are children coming to them now,” Zephyr said, with Democratic colleagues surrounding her, emotional in their support. “I’ll tell you what happened. We lived. We lived through the AIDS epidemic. We lived through people trying to disallow our marriage. We adopted children, grew up, and now we’re taking some of our children in sharing an art form that’s valuable to our community in a way that is age appropriate to them.”

“That’s what it is. And to answer the sponsor’s question directly, ‘Why should children be there?’ That’s why. Because it matters to us in our community. Because we live.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop while she spoke.

Zephyr charged forward with accusations the bill was not only targeting drag performers, but was also so poorly written that “it could be interpreted as banning trans people specifically.”

Republican Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a co-sponsor of HB 359, repeatedly interrupted Zephyr, declaring the rep’s allusions to trans individuals were out of order. “Mr. Chair, this bill has nothing to do with the transgender community,” claimed Vinton, “and I can do this all day, as well.”

That didn’t stop the freshman representative from getting to the underlying spirit of the legislation.

“We heard testimony from people who conflated drag with being trans, proponents specifically who made that mention, who also accused my community broadly of being pedophiles and groomers, and said in their testimony on this bill…”

Vinton interrupted again.

Finally, Zephyr took time to describe the bill’s negative impact on Pride celebrations, which traditionally include drag performances, and “to remind people again what Pride is. Pride is a celebration of my community’s history. My community surviving the many things that have been thrust upon us, by people who wanted to exterminate us.”

Soon enough, the majority leader interrupted again, before the chair prematurely declared the rep’s time expired.

“So brave. What a strong leader,” wrote one supporter of Zephyr on Twitter. “This moved me to tears. Bless her,” posted another commenter.

Jinkx Monsoon/Reddit

The Montana legislation is a copycat of Tennessee’s recently passed drag ban, as well as proposals in 17 other states total, all influenced by Arkansas legislation which was written with the guidance of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ+ legal advocacy group. That Arkansas bill, SB 43, could have made “two trans people going out and singing karaoke” a criminal offense, according to Lambda Legal.

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