Trans fiancees Zooey Zephyr & Erin Reed discuss their love amid anti-LGBTQ hate

Erin Reed and Zooey Zephyr at the White House 2023 Pride event, transgender
Erin Reed and Zooey Zephyr at the White House 2023 Pride event Photo: Erin Reed and Zooey Zephyr

Zooey Zephyr, Montana’s first out transgender state legislator, and her fiancée, muckraking journalist Erin Reed, both faced tough challenges over this past year.

State Republicans kicked Zephyr out of the House chamber after she boldly spoke out against their transphobic legislation, and Reed has been covering the unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills and hate speech nationwide.

We spoke with the recently engaged couple about how they first started dating, how they support one another during the hard parts of their work, what’s coming up next in Montana, and how the LGBTQ+ community can fight back against the right.

LGBTQ Nation: How long had y’all been talking before you became romantically involved?

Zephyr: A few months…

And what sorts of things did you find y’all had in common, apart from politics?

Zephyr: From the litany of interests… D&D [the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons], music, the nerdy things that we both love, sour foods, and all of that, and then just like, I don’t know — you fall in love with the kindness of a person.

Reed: Yeah, I shared my D&D map with her that was kind of cool. We nerded out over books, over TV shows… There was a lot there.

I have got to know: What are your D&D characters like?

Reed: Just to preface this, I am a forever DM [dungeon master, someone who organizes and creates games for other players], so I rarely actually play D&D as a player. But whenever I do play, usually a pirate-themed half-elf wizard that is like on the ocean. I don’t know. That’s like my vibe.

Zephyr: I’ve also been a forever DM and also have not been able to play much since I started campaigning. But I was able to (play as a) guest in her campaign, and I played a fighter with great axe who had two levels in wizardry, so she had a portent and could read the future, and that was really fun.

Right on. What else can you tell us about your courtship?

Zephyr: We spent time just asking questions back and forth to one another about the sort of quiet places in our hearts and falling in love with every answer.

Reed: We’ve very quickly found that our music interests align very closely also. Very early on in our relationship, we shared playlists that we would make for one another. And so we were constantly introducing each other to new bands, which was really neat.

Zephyr: We’d spend every night falling asleep with one another on video calls and wake up next to one another and say good morning, goodbye, and then scamper off to our days and do it all again in the evening. We also would watch shows together. We would play some games together, play card games online together. And then we also spend a little bit of time in VR [virtual reality] chat.

Reed: We actually did a few VR chat dates where she had an Oculus and I had an Oculus, and we would just sit down and watch a show in VR chat together. You can kind of see each other in a strange sort of way. It was its own unique dating environment.

Zephyr: The first show we sat down and really watched together was Over the Garden Wall, which is an animated sort of American folk tale kind of thing…. Then I brought her out [to Montana] for Thanksgiving, to come actually spend our first holiday together. And since then it’s been back and forth every month basically.

Reed: I knew the moment that I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with her that I was just like, “Whoa, this is it. This is it permanently. This is it right here.”

Do you live together now or is it still long-distance?

Zephyr: So the legislative session ended [on May 2], and then she flew up and I proposed. Then we both went to New York for an award show [the GLAAD Media Awards]. And then I went back to Helena and I cleaned out my legislative place and drove across the country to visit family and politicians. And we [did] Pride Month shenanigans all over the country. But… then we will make the call of whether or not she’s gonna come join me or if we’ll maintain two homes.

Reed: We’re still working on the specifics on that. But no matter what though, we’re going to spend as much time with each other as humanly possible and that will involve many plane trips regardless.

Now that we’ve talked a little about what y’all have in common and the ways that you’ve bonded, in what ways are y’all different?

Reed: Okay, what is this food item that I eat that you don’t eat? Mushrooms. I love mushrooms on my pizza and she does not.

Zephyr: You don’t like shrimp and I love shrimp.

Reed: I hate shrimp. I do. I do keep it a little bit cooler in the house than she does but not much, not much, like one degree.

Zephyr: And also, when I think of differences, I am more predisposed to like cooking. And she’s more predisposed to clean. I’m a little more of a gremlin.

Reed: We do have so much in common, and our differences complement each other. Like, she’s working on the legislative side of things, I work in the press side of things, working in journalism. I’m writing stories and I work a lot with like companies helping them analyze their policies. Our focuses complement each other in such great ways to where we’re both sort of attacking some of the same issues from just different perspectives and directions.

Zephyr: We talked about this earlier, but you’re able to see the thread across all the anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, and how they connect together. And I feel like the work I do… in the legislature, we had 1,700 bills in Montana. I get to see the way in which these attacks — not just against LGBTQ people, but whether it’s children, whether it’s abortion, whether it’s our judicial system — the way those attacks are threaded together in the other direction just within my state. So I get that breadth of policy and she gets the sort of depth across the states and what it looks like, the same issue, and I think that gives us a good scope to talk about this stuff.

I find with my own partner, I encourage a lot of self-care. Like, “Did you take your vitamins today?”

Reed: That’s me! That’s me! I encourage all the self-care. I make her go to the doctor, take her medicine. I make you do all the things.

Zephyr: I’m very busy. I’ve gotta go do things.

I also find myself, sometimes, I lack the sort of emotional intelligence or empathy that my partner does. And so I really depend on him for that to help me navigate my own feelings and with others.

Zephyr: What would happen is I laser-focus in on a task, like, I need to prep all my Pride month speeches. I need to make sure that that’s ready, and I’m going to memorize my speeches, even the 10-minute ones, like we’re going to have that down. And that type of work. I feel like gets me so narrowly focused, that suddenly, it’s like, ‘Hey, did you actually order contacts (lenses) again, because you’re out of contacts.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot to do that. It would be great if I could see.’ So she helps pull me out of that.

And then for [her], you’re doing all these things every day and I help pull the little things out for you: little cleaning here, helping with our kiddo up upstairs, taking the dog outside, like, the little stuff. We’ve worked so well together.

Now, I have to know: Who popped the question? How did the engagement happen?

Zephyr: It was me. I popped the question at queer prom. There are some beautiful photos of me down on one knee. After [the legislative] session had ended, we had talked about getting engaged this summer, maybe in July. But my ring came in a couple days before the session ended. There’s this [May 1] photo of four women on the bench looking at me while I’m standing. The ring came in that day. And I stood all day, and then I went straight to car and drove to the UPS store to pick it up. And as I had it in my hand, I thought ‘I can’t wait. I can’t wait until…’

Reed: And I scheduled a trip to go and support her (after she was banned from the Montana House chamber) because after seeing all that stuff, I’m like, ‘I gotta be up there.’ So I took my son with me and we stayed with her and that’s when we went to queer prom, which was wonderful.

Can you tell me a little bit about your engagement rings?

Reed: We both have peridots (a green gemstone) because we both have August birthdays.

Zephyr: We custom-made them from two separate jewelers. We each kind of talked about what we wanted. And mine is very similar. The peridots on mine are offset because I liked them to be offset. I liked a little simpler design on the ring and she liked the frill.

Considering that y’all have been widely covered in media as a queer power couple, how is that impacting you?

Reed: I think both of us are used to giving a ton of interviews and doing this often and so I don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of pressure or anything. We’re happy to share our lives with other people and share our happiness. I think that right now, seeing queer joy is so important for the community at large that, if our life can make other people happier, then great, that’s wonderful. I love being able to talk about all the wonderful things that I share with her, and and if that makes other people happy, then that means that we’re doing something really good for people.

Zephyr: Yeah, there’s a necessity for queer joy to be at the center of things right now. It can be easy, there’s this inclination to see the bills that are coming and know what they’re taking away, what they’re trying to take away. And it’s important to say, “Hey, the thing you can’t take away is that I love myself deeply and I love my partner”… And that that joy and that love, if we center that, that’s the most important thing. And so I’ll never shy away from showing that. Why would I want to back away from that in the slightest?

How do you help support and affirm each other during the more challenging parts of your work?

Reed: As her partner, I got to witness, obviously, some very hard times — such hard times that they made national news. And whenever I saw her having to go through that, like my number one concern was just like, ‘I need to be there for her. I need to talk to her. I need to be on a screen with her, if not in person.’ And I think giving her that ability to feel completely free, to let loose and like talk — even if it’s not about what she was going through, and we spent plenty of time just, like, pushing that to the side and enjoying her-and-I time together watching really cute movies or being there to support her and talk to her.

Zephyr: For me, what was really important is I needed an anchor point to come home to. Whether that was going to sleep with her on a call or having her there in person, it felt like I was going to sort of touch the reset button at the end of the night. I could calm down and say, ‘Okay, I’m here with her, and everything’s gonna be okay.’ And that was incredibly important and waking up that way sort of always puts you in the right mood to start today.

And then the other thing that was really, for me, incredibly important, is I am someone who has to talk through what I’m thinking…. When I’m struggling with ideas, I need to talk them out. And so having her there for that was great. And then, for [Erin], I feel like I’m trying to just take things off the plate and then also sort of pull you out to the peace and the joy that we can. “Hey, here’s a little activity that we can do that’s relaxing and soothing.”

Reed: For me, I’ve been covering this for a few years now and this year has been an exceptionally hard year to cover all the anti-trans legislation. And it never stops for me. The legislatures all adjourn at different times. And so I’m still covering [different ones]. There are bills that are horrific being proposed there, that are being heard. And to know that I’ve got her, right now here, or that I’ve got her to turn to whenever things get hard, it definitely gives me a little bit of comfort. And like (speaking to Zephyr), right now, knowing you’re not in the legislature right now, you’re not going through that, which is hard in itself, I’m glad to have her here right now. It’s really nice.

I told her that I like chai tea, and we get it from Starbucks all the time. So what did she do? She’s like, “I’m gonna figure out how to make Starbucks chai tea latte and make it even better and better.”

Zephyr: Starbucks ain’t got nothing on me.

Zooey, what’s next for you in the legislative chamber?

Zephyr: The motion that was made to censure me was through the end of session, so when the speaker gaveled the end of the session in, I actually walked in [the chamber] right after that happened and said goodbye to my colleagues, those who had done some great work during the session for their work, and I talked to some Republican colleagues about work I was hoping to do over the interim as well. And so those conversations happened, and now we go into the interim phase, where I’ll be on an interim committee.

And then, I also do what legislators should be doing after a session, which is turning back to my community and saying, “Hey, here’s what happened. Here’s what we worked on. Is there more that you want to see? Here’s the stuff that we tried and didn’t go through, what got smacked down. How do we approach this next session? What should we be working on? And what does the next couple of years look like for our state?”

What sorts of things are you hearing from your constituents?

Zephyr: Housing. It’s still housing. There was a handful of good stuff done around zoning regulations, allowing duplexes in places that are zoned for single-family housing. There was some general regulatory reform done that I think is going to be lit generally. But the problem is… there’s not a lot done for our renters in the state of Montana and 40% of our population rents. There’s not a lot done for first-time homebuyers… The average income in Montana and Missoula is around $50,000, a little less. I believe the average home price was about $575,000. That’s not workable. And so how do we make sure that we’re building enough units, that we are building the types of units that can make people who are making the leap into home ownership accessible for them and to me? I did not see that and I did not see the renter protections to the extent that they’re needed in the state.

Erin, some of your recent coverage has highlighted the right wing’s willingness to use violence to scare LGBTQ+-affirming allies, businesses, hospitals, educators, pride organizers, and basically everyone into no longer supporting our community. Do you think this strategy has a chance of winning out or can we present a strong unified response to this sort of threat?

Reed: So this isn’t the first time that LGBTQ community has faced violence in order to push us to the margins or to harm us. This strain has a long history in the United States government and in the United States history in general. Look at the Stonewall era, we look at pre-Stonewall era with drag bans and gay clubs being targeted. You look at the ACT UP era with the AIDS crisis and how people had to yell for their rights and how people were targeted that as well. And even in the ’90s and early 2000s. And so, yes, there is an increasing willingness to use violence and there is an increasing willingness to make violent threats by major right-wing figures and pundits that want to see us eradicated from public life, but I don’t think that they will that we as a community are going to be willing participants in that, and we have a long history of resisting successfully the attempts to push us to the margins and to eliminate us entirely.

Yes, it’s going to be hard. We’re gonna have a hard few years. And I think that 2024 is going to be even harder than this year because it will be a presidential election where we are focused on even more. But I also think that the story of American history, whenever it comes to LGBTQ rights, is that they can’t eliminate us. If they succeeded at erasing every last one of us, we would still be here because we would be reborn, like, we are part of what it means to be human. And ultimately, I think that eventually people understand that.

And I do see that with trans people in particular right now — with this current wave of anti-trans and anti-queer legislation — more and more people are getting to know us and getting to know who we are as people, and that’s how you change things. You saw with the gay rights movement in the early 2000s, if asked the question, “Do you believe in gay marriage?” 70% of people would answer no and 30% would answer Yes. And within 10 to 15 years, that number completely flipped where 70% said yes, 30% said no. And the reason why that happened is because you started to see people that you know, come out: you saw your sons, your daughters, your cousins, your co-workers, your best friends, would come out as gay. It’s a whole lot harder to hate on somebody who you know and who you love than it is to hate on the ephemeral gays or the ephemeral trans people.

I’m seeing evidence of that even in my home state of Louisiana, which is where I was born. I’m seeing, in schools, and seeing young trans girls in schools get nominated the homecoming court. There are changes that are happening, and I think that you know, in part of the reason why you are seeing this turn towards violent rhetoric is because they recognize that people are accepting us, they recognize that politically, attacking us is unpopular, as much as they’re doing in their red state governments. And so yeah, I think that they see the writing on the wall that we’re here to stay and that we’re not going anywhere. I truly think that we are going to come out strong and we’re going to, you know, stake a claim that we belong here as well.

I can’t tell you how rejuvenating it is to hear that sort of outlook and optimism because, especially on my end, journalists tend to hear a lot of doom and gloom. Zooey, what would you like to see moving forward in terms of what our community’s coordinated response against these attacks might look like?

Zephyr: I think the work always starts at the community level. Look at the way, like, there are activists on the ground in Montana, there are activists on the ground in Ohio, there are activists on the ground in Louisiana, who came together and help make sure that the data was understood from the study that in Louisiana that was referenced by a Republican and used as a reason to turn down a gender-affirming care ban. So that work always starts at the local community level, and who are your organizers, in your communities, in your states, who are doing that work?

As you get up to higher and higher policy levels, you know, when you’re working at the government, when you’re working at federal government, or at NGOs (non-governmental organizations) across the country, it becomes important to make sure that the voices you’re trying to help have a seat at the table. When you are the Biden administration and you are drafting a Title IX policy, are you turning to the trans legislators across the country?

There’s a reason 14 of the 16 trans legislators wrote Biden and said, “The Title IX policy you drafted, you got it wrong. We understand your intention, but you got it wrong. This potentially opened up a path to discrimination.” Who was being referenced there? Were there trans people at the table? Because we need to make sure that’s true for every intersection. We need to make sure that, if you’re crafting policy, the people most impacted need to have not just an opinion, but a voice in that policy.

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