BILLINGS — In a conservative state like Montana, being a member of the LGBTQ community can be challenging. But this week's events at the state capital surrounding Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-Missoula) and Senate Bill 99 have made things even more tense.
"I have to say the climate in Montana is pretty rough right now. But there is a lot of support out there for just the LGBTQ community in general. And it’s very nice to see the community just come together in that,” said Bailey Desper, a Billings transgender woman and activist, on Saturday.
Desper has lived in Billings her whole life and said Montana has always been less-receptive than other states when it comes to the LGBTQ community.
“There’s a lot of things that involve hate crime, vandalism, and stuff of that sort. And for somebody to come forward and just kind of share their story, it puts them in the public image that creates that fear for them in general," Desper said. "That's because there have been instances where people have been murdered and their cars have been vandalized and so forth. It’s there."
But this week's controversy in Helena with Zephyr was shocking to Desper. She explained she traveled to Helena on Monday for a rally to show her support for Zephyr.
"I was present for Zooey in the capital on Monday. Just to be able to be there and support was amazing, but the fear that came out of being in the gallery when the riot team showed up was, I guess something that you can’t really explain,” Desper said. “It was that fear that was kind of like, woah, this is happening. And, what’s going on? I’m just here to support a voice."
Desper states Zephyr's election made history as she was Montana's first openly transgender lawmaker. But now, she has been banned from speaking on the House floor, prompting outrage within the LGBTQ community.
“It’s upsetting because she represents not just the people that elected her in her own area, but she represents people all over Montana. And to take that away is devastating,” Desper said. “It causes a lot of depression, anxiety, and just in general it’s a loss of hope."
Following the events at the capital, Governor Greg Gianforte (R) signed SB 99 into law on Friday, banning certain forms of gender-affirming care for minors in Montana.
"I don’t feel that’s really fair for the people that are underage. I think that they do have a choice. And if their parents are willing to give them that choice and respect them and love them for who they are, they should be allowed to be able to receive that piece of the surgery and the whole process,” Desper said.
Republicans that supported the bill say it's necessary to protect children from making life-altering decisions.
The bill, which goes into effect Oct. 1, bans hormone treatments, such as puberty blockers or hormone boosters, and surgeries for people under the age of 18 seeking to medically transition to a gender identity different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
“The long-term impact is, if we can’t, when it comes down to it, receive the care that we need, there’s that risk of suicide. There’s that risk of self-harm and things to cope with it in life that are not healthy. And that’s what she meant by the blood is on your hands," Desper said. "I can testify that I’ve tried to attempt to take my own life in the past. It’s a battle."
Desper explained when she came out to her family, they did not take the news well.
“I was disowned by my own family for coming out and being true to myself," Desper said. "My family basically flat out told me, 'Because you killed our image of a perfect family and you destroyed our bloodline, you don’t exist to us anymore.' And that is very hurtful to come from your own family."
But Desper persevered and now works to help others that might be facing similar struggles. She states a strong community backing her helped her through her battle.
“I was able to get past that by the mindset that the community is there to support you and try to help you along in this process," Desper said. "For what’s happening right now in the Montana legislation, to basically put a barrier between that, it causes those issues to intensify. Especially for minors.”
406 Pride in Billings works to provide resources and a community for LGBTQ members. One of the board members, Marcus Frye, states that a sense of community can help in even the darkest of times.
"A lot of (this week's events have) been somewhat demoralizing for folks here. But a lot of it has also shown incredible solidarity with other folks. We’ve had just incredible amounts of support. People reaching out, both that we know and don’t know," Frye said on Friday. "406 Pride is here for all of the members of our community in Billings. We have a resource center that you can come to and be yourself. We’ve got games, we’ve got an art corner, we’ve got lots of stuff to do. You have community."
Frye explained 406 Pride's stance on this week in Helena, specifically Zephyr's comment to those in support of SB 99. Zephyr stated she hoped those in favor will "see the blood on their hands".
“The comment that Zooey made that got people on this whole crusade against her, is just a factual comment about the result that this legislation will have on transgender children. It is just a fact that that is an accurate depiction of what will happen to them,” Frye said. “The silencing of her that has happened is something that we at 406 Pride find incredibly troubling. We support all of the members of our community. That is what we have had to do historically and in the present day. So when one person comes for someone in our community, we stand behind them.”
Like Desper, Frye was in Helena on Monday showing his support for Zephyr.
"I went to the rally before the legislative session. I saw a huge outpouring of support for Representative Zephyr," Frye said. "That’s what our community does. That’s what we have historically always done, is stand up for each other."
Standing up for each other—and making their presence known.
"Community is out there. There are lots of us out here," Frye said. "Queer people have always lived in Montana and we will continue to always live here in Montana.”
To learn more about 406 Pride, click here.
To learn more about SB 99, click here.
To learn more about Zephyr's ban, click here.
“I would love to be able to see Zooey speak again. That’s my main thing right now," Bailey Desper said. "Leave us alone. There are more important things to worry about."