Anti-democratic efforts to silence trans lawmakers and allies echo the right-wing media playbook
Since March, two trans legislators have been censured and one LGBTQ senator with a trans son has reportedly been investigated for a conflict of interest
Two trans legislators censured. An allied legislator under investigation for having a trans son. As more queer people and allies are elected to public office in an effort to challenge the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ legislation, the architects of the onslaught are escalating an anti-democratic campaign perpetuated by right-wing media.
Since the 2022 election, right-wing media have attempted to discredit protests against anti-LGBTQ efforts by calling them “insurrections.” They’ve signaled that the existence of trans people in any space is intolerable, launching a boycott movement against Bud Light for sending Dylan Mulvaney a commemorative beer can with her face on it. And they’ve pushed violent rhetoric to demand that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
Conservative lawmakers beholden to these pundits and their audiences are not content simply to tolerate and outvote transgender elected officials and allies, but are now looking to silence them.
In March, Oklahoma Republicans censured state Rep. Mauree Turner, who is nonbinary, after accusing them of “harboring a fugitive” when they let someone protesting anti-trans legislation stay in their office rather than speak to police. In April, Montana Republicans censured trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr for passionately criticizing anti-trans legislation, and just after that, Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt announced she was facing a conflict of interest investigation for filibustering anti-trans legislation while having a trans child.
The transparently partisan endeavors to disenfranchise queer representatives occurred in tandem with the expulsion of two Black legislators in Tennessee for protesting gun violence with their constituents, though that move was thwarted when other local leaders sent them back.
These petty attempts at punitive action serve as part of a greater anti-democratic trend among conservative lawmakers and supported by right-wing media, which have argued that election results with which they disagree are illegitimate, endorsed voter suppression efforts, and attacked voters who oppose them.
In April, one of Montana's first transgender state representatives, Zooey Zephyr, was censured following her statement that members of the legislature would have “blood on your hands” if they passed a bill banning gender-affirming care for youth.
Immediately following her testimony, the far-right Montana Freedom Caucus called for Zephyr’s censure, misgendering her in a statement that accused her of using “inappropriate and uncalled-for language.” The caucus also attempted to link her speech to the Covenant school shooting, a tactic frequently employed by right-wing media to disparage the entire trans community.
By contrast, inflammatory rhetoric from anti-trans lawmakers in Montana and around the country has gone unchecked. One Montana legislator compared parents pursuing gender-affirming care for their kids to people requesting assisted suicide, while another suggested she would rather her child die by suicide than get gender-affirming care.
In the days after her testimony on the House floor, Zephyr was denied multiple opportunities to speak, spurring protests that led to several arrests. On April 25, Zephyr announced that the House would move to “censure or expel” her the following day. The House censured Zephyr in a 68-32 party line vote, banning her from the House floor, anteroom, and gallery until the end of the session. Zephyr may now represent her 11,000 constituents only by voting remotely, with no opportunity for debate.
With Zephyr silenced, so too are the people she represents. Montana Republicans effectively defied the will of thousands of voters who duly elected her over the GOP candidate by a more than 60-point margin, which carries a similar tune as the election denial efforts of right-wing media: when they are unsatisfied with the people’s choice, they go out of their way to cast doubt on or even encourage an override of election results.
Had Zephyr been expelled from the legislature, as the state representatives in Tennessee were weeks ago, she too could have been reinstated by her county commission. Missoula County commissioners and the city’s mayor had already voiced their support for Zephyr, and they did so again following her censure.
Hundreds also rallied in Zephyr’s home turf of Missoula to champion her: the Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign, the American Constitution Society, the Helena, Montana, city commission, two-thirds of Colorado’s general assembly, and Virginia trans lawmaker Danica Roem are among the chorus of voices condemning her censure.
Receiving less attention was the censure of Mauree Turner, a nonbinary state representative from Oklahoma who served on the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, the Rules Committee, and two appropriations subcommittees.
In March, Turner was reprimanded for sheltering an individual in their office who was protesting a slate of anti-trans bills and was wanted for police questioning. According to Turner, “This person’s spouse was just arrested. They came to my office to process. That’s what happened.” They said it was “the same thing that happens all the time” and explained that constituents regularly visit their office to decompress and “find refuge.”
In an 81-19 party line vote, the Democratic lawmaker was formally stripped of their committee assignments, to be returned only if Turner issues a written apology. To that they said, “I think an apology for loving the people of Oklahoma is something that I cannot do.”
As with Zephyr’s constituents, the nearly 39,000 people Turner represents have been denied influence in committee even after they received nearly 80% of the vote, and the already limited influence of Democrats in the Oklahoma legislature has been further neutered — even while “two Republicans maintain leadership positions in the House despite facing felony charges.”
After the censure, Turner said both the Oklahoma statehouse and the state itself have become unsafe: “When I walk into the chamber and there's a gaggle of troopers talking about me, I think about how Republicans have use every resource in their *power to make this place unsafe to Trans Oklahomans,” they tweeted. “To Us. To Me.”
They stressed this further in an interview with Politico, saying “I would be doing the folks of Oklahoma a disservice if I said ‘please stay’ if the state is trying to detransition you or trying to kill you.”
Though Turner’s tribulation has drawn less publicity than Zephyr’s, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Black Justice Coalition, GLAAD, and numerous other organizations condemned their censure.
Just after the Montana state legislature censured Zephyr, state Sen. Megan Hunt of Nebraska announced that the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission had taken up a conflict of interest investigation against her for her efforts against anti-trans legislation, namely the state’s ban on gender-affirming care for youth. Hunt has gained national attention for her assistance with state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh in filibustering Nebraska's unicameral legislature for weeks on end to halt anti-trans bills.
On March 23, Omaha-based attorney David Begley filed a complaint that alleged Hunt, who has a 12-year-old trans son, stood to benefit financially from the bill’s defeat. Begley previously served as a campaign correspondent for a right-wing blog. In February, he testified against gender-affirming care before the Nebraska legislature, and in April he wrote a blog post for American Thinker expressing contempt for Cavanaugh and Hunt’s filibuster.
His argument is based on Hunt’s statements that she has attempted to get Medicaid coverage for her son’s gender-affirming care, with Begley claiming Hunt has “a slightly more than average chance” of attaining that coverage via lawsuit if the bill fails. Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services explicitly excludes gender-affirming care from Medicaid coverage.
State Sen. Wendy DeBoer pointed out Begley’s flawed logic to Nebraska Public Media, saying that being a taxpayer or part of a family prompts the same sort of vested interest in any tax- or family-related legislation.
Several other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have condemned the investigation as “frivolous” or as an attempt to intimidate Hunt. She has said that she will take the investigation to court if necessary.
Attacks on trans lawmakers and allies are a convergence of right-wing media’s regressive campaign against democracy
These anti-democratic moves by Republican-controlled state legislatures are happening in concert with a right-wing media echo chamber that seeks to erode election integrity while launching a new wave of attacks against trans people, all stemming from a desperate effort to find a new bigoted selling point in the post-Obergefell era.
When the 2022 midterms delivered a glaring defeat on that front, right-wing media decided to double down by intensifying their violent, anti-trans rhetoric. At the same time, the conservative lawmakers that right-wing media and activists conspire with flooded the nation with a record-setting deluge of anti-trans legislation. But as anti-LGBTQ bills continue to draw protests and failure as voters reject the onslaught of hate from the right, the anti-trans movement will have to find new ways to game the system in its demand that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
Zephyr noted in her last speech before her censure that “if you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, all you are doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” highlighting how the anti-trans movement is employing this new anti-democratic tactic.