HELENA — The Montana Legislature advanced some heavily debated bills on issues of sex and gender this week, but the bills have seen significant changes at the hands of lawmakers – and, in one case, at the request of the governor.
Proposals like Senate Bill 99, which would prohibit gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth, have drawn heated debate throughout the legislative session, and that continued Tuesday on the House floor.
The House endorsed Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed amendments to the bill, 66-34, with almost all Republicans in favor and all Democrats in opposition.
SB 99, sponsored by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, would ban hormone treatments or surgeries for someone under 18 seeking to medically transition to a gender identity different from the sex they were assigned at birth. It would threaten health care providers who do provide those treatments with a yearlong suspension of their authority to practice, along with potential legal liability.
In a letter Monday, Gianforte called for revising SB 99’s definitions of “male” and “female,” changing the language to include minors with conditions like a “disorder of sex development,” and clarifying prohibitions on public resources for medical or social transitioning.
In the letter, Gianforte said, “Montanans who struggle with their gender identity deserve love, compassion, and respect.” However, he strongly criticized the idea of performing gender transition procedures on minors, calling them “permanent, invasive, life-altering medical and surgical procedures.”
“We do know that youth are struggling right now, and we do know that there is help out there for them,” said Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, who carried SB 99 on the House floor. “However, help does not come out in the form of medically transitioning our youth, because that is permanent.”
Democrats said Gianforte’s proposed changes only reinforced discrimination against transgender youth.
“The governor's amendments make clear that we are very specifically targeting a very small set of Montana kids without regard for the specific contexts of those kids’ needs, the specific rights of those kids’ parents and the specific advice of those kids’ doctors,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula.
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, a transgender woman, said having access to this type of care could be lifesaving for trans youth.
“If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty, when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture,” she said. “And this body should be ashamed.”
Zephyr went on to say those who supported SB 99 would have “blood on your hands.”
Zephyr’s remarks drew a quick reaction from a number of Republican lawmakers, who stood up to protest.
“That is entirely inappropriate, disrespectful and uncalled for,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings. “We can debate matters civilly and with respect for each other.”
The Senate gave preliminary approval to Gianforte’s amendments late on Monday on a 31-19 vote. SB 99 will go back to the governor’s desk with the changes if it passes final votes in each chamber.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate passed House Bill 359 in a 49-1 vote. As originally written, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, would have banned those under 18 from attending drag shows. However, during a debate on the Senate floor Monday, lawmakers added an extensive amendment that removed all specific references to drag performances and instead prohibited all “adult-oriented performances” in front of minors or in libraries, schools and other public property.
Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, proposed the amendment, which he had also tried to add in committee. He said he liked the idea behind the bill, but had “heartburn” about the language as written and wanted to make it stronger. He argued, without the amendment, “even the most conservative judge will strike it down for unconstitutionality.”
“The reason I brought this amendment today is to make sure that we get this across the aisle, we get this in front of the governor, he signs it, it goes to court, and it can be defended by the AG's office,” Friedel said.
Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, who carried the bill on the floor, opposed the amendment, saying it would “derail” the bill.
“The other thing this amendment does is it allows all these under ‘art,’” he said. “So it really just completely guts the bill.”
HB 359 will now go back to the House. If members accept the Senate’s changes, the bill will go to Gianforte’s desk. If they reject the changes, a conference committee will have to try to iron out the differences.
The House Judiciary Committee also voted Thursday to advance Senate Bill 458, a bill that would codify definitions of biological sex – male and female – into Montana law. The committee added an amendment that would bring the definitions in that bill exactly in line with Gianforte’s proposed language for SB 99.