HELENA — More than a year after the Montana State Legislature passed a string of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, two Democratic Party candidates are on track to become the first openly transgender public office holders in the state’s history.
After last week’s primary, Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman, became the Democratic candidate for Montana House District 100 in Missoula. Nonbinary Democratic candidate SJ Howell is the Democratic candidate for House District 95.
Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan said both candidates knocked countless doors and won their races because they ran strong campaigns. "I have no doubt that come November, they are going to make history," Hogan said. "Because of their work, Howell and Zephyr will be the first openly-transgender legislators serving in Montana, but they will not be the last."
Both Zephyr and Howell said the 2021 Legislative session influenced their decisions to run.
“I looked at bills like SB 280, the birth certificate bill, which passed the senate by one vote,” Zephyr said. “And I looked at that and I thought, I could be the difference, I know I could change a heart, I could change a mind.”
Senate Bill 280 was signed into law in April 2021 and required transgender Montanans to show proof they’d undergone surgery and get a court order before the state would swap their birth certificate sex or gender marker. Two transgender Montanan’s challenged the of the law and a judge ordered the health department to stop enforcing it until the case was settled. The 2021 law was a shift away from a more simplified process established by the Bullock administration in 2017.
In 2018, Zephyr changed the sex on her birth certificate. Zephyr called it a joyous moment in her transition.
At the end of May, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued a temporary emergency rule eliminating any path for transgender Montanans to change either the sex or gender on their birth certificates.
“To see DPHHS ignore the injunction and pass the emergency ruling,” Zephyr said. “It felt like a needless cruelty when other states are already slapping down these kinds of attempts.”
At least three states – Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia – prevent transgender people from changing the female or male designation on their birth certificates, according to Lambda Legal. Those laws are under litigation. Courts struck down similar laws in three other states – Idaho, Kansas and Ohio.
Howell is nonbinary. They do not subscribe to either gender marker. Montana does not have a nonbinary option for birth certificates.
“So yes my ultimate hope and vision for Montana is that we get a lot closer to providing opportunities for all trans folks,” Howell said. “Including nonbinary folks to have not just the documentation but the access to the ability to live a meaningful life. And I think that part of what we can do toward that vision is just addressing the backward situation that we’re in now.”
A study by Out Leadership, a global network for LGBTQ+ business leaders and companies, showed Montana saw the largest decrease in its annual LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index for 2022. Montana’s score was driven down by legislation passed in the last session.
“Anti-trans policies are designed to make it harder to transition, make it less safe to have transitioned both socially and through government documents and the goal is twofold,” Zephyr said. “The goal is to eliminate trans people to put them into a place where they just go into the closet... and it’s to make folks who aren’t comfortable with trans people feel like they don’t have to see us or acknowledge us or include us in society.”
Both Howell and Zephyr said if they win their races in November they won’t be single issue candidates. They want to represent the breadth of issues affecting Montanans. But when LGBTQ+ issues do arise, both said they hoped their presence will center the conversation on the people who will be affected by anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
“It matters to have people in the room,” Zephyr said. “Representation doesn’t just matter theoretically it makes the difference.”
A public hearing on the state health department’s rule preventing changes to sex and gender markers on transgender birth certificates is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday, June 30.