50.50: Opinion

Republicans are trying to crush dissent but the public is fighting back

Resistance is growing to the despicable behaviour of Republican lawmakers. That offers hope for the 2024 election

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
3 May 2023, 9.40am

Demonstrators support Montana trans lawmaker Zooey Zephyr after she was banned from the floor of the Montana legislature for speaking out against an anti-transgender bill


William Campbell / Getty Images

If you’re a member of the American LGBTQ community, chances are you at least know someone who was told some variation of “I’d rather have heard you were dead” after coming out as queer to their parents. It seems to be particularly common in conservative Christian communities.

On Thursday 20 April, Montana state representative Kerri Seekins-Crowe, a Republican, expressed essentially the same sentiment during a debate on a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors that represents yet another illustration of the authoritarian GOP’s intentions to control and oppress members of marginalised groups. On Friday, 28 April, Montana governor Greg Gianforte signed the bill into law, even though his queer child, David Gianforte, implored him not to.

During the floor debate, Seekins-Crowe was dismissive of the demonstrated fact that denial of gender-affirming care heightens the risk of suicide for trans youth. She spoke of a period when, she says, her own daughter was suicidal. “Someone once asked me, wouldn’t I just do anything to help save her? And I really had to think. And the answer was no,” she said.

Making her daughter’s mental health crisis about her, the Republican legislator went on: “I was not going to give into her emotional manipulation, because she was incapable of making those decisions and I had to make those decisions for her. I was not going to let her tear apart my family, and I was not going to let her tear apart me.”

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From the context, it’s not exactly clear what “those decisions” might have been. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Seekins-Crowe has no understanding of gender dysphoria, no empathy for transgender individuals, and no interest in learning to treat trans folks like equals.

That same contempt was on display in the Montana House’s Republican majority punishing the first openly transgender person elected to the state legislature, representative Zooey Zephyr, over Zephyr’s perfectly accurate comment that legislators who voted to ban gender-affirming care for minors would have blood on their hands.

When she made her statement, the Republican speaker of the House, Matt Regier, barred Zephyr from further debating the bill. This silencing sparked protests on her behalf, and in what followed, Montana’s Republican lawmakers took a page from the Tennessee GOP’s playbook and eventually banned Zephyr from participating in floor debate for the rest of the legislative session.

In Tennessee, the Republican majority expelled two African American state House members, both Democrats, from the legislature for their participation in a peaceful protest calling for gun control legislation in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting. As in Tennessee, Montana Republicans attempted to portray the peaceful protest at their statehouse as violent and threatening, and Zephyr as uncivil and dangerous.

According to reporting from CNN: “House majority leader Sue Vinton accused [Zephyr] of placing lawmakers and staff at risk of harm for her actions during protests in the chamber on Monday.” Fellow Republican David Bedey called the ostensible “turmoil and instability” an “assault on our representative democracy.” In fact, as in Tennessee, there have been no reports of property damage or threats to elected officials in connection with the protest in Montana.

This stands in sharp contrast to the violent national Republican insurrection of 6 January, with which these state Republican officials are trying to draw a false equivalence while painting themselves as victims as opposed to the bullies they are.

As a case in point, Regier, who called the protests “a dark day for Montana”, said of Zephyr’s treatment: “The Montana House will not be bullied.” Such rhetoric is rich coming from the aggressor directly responsible for silencing Zephyr after she spoke a truth that made him uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the Montana Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing Republican legislators, issued a statement filled with disinformation that both called for the censure of Zephyr and misgendered her. And let’s not forget, of course, that Montana’s Republican governor, Gianforte, is only a nationally known figure because in 2017 he punched a journalist and got caught lying about it.

These patterns represent what has been called the GOP’s “politics of abuse” – that is, authoritarian politics operationalising abusive patterns found in interpersonal relationships on a larger social scale. The tactics include those encapsulated in the acronym DARVO – deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. That’s what the Republican Party does, whether in Tennessee or Montana or Washington DC.

But as the public pushback even in red states indicates, Americans who are paying attention see this despicable behaviour for what it is and want it to stop. In Tennessee, the local governments of the districts that elected expelled representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones appointed both of these men back to their House seats in defiance of Republicans’ efforts to disenfranchise them. The same cannot happen for Zephyr, since she has not been expelled (but has been limited to voting remotely), but the protests on her behalf show real public discontent over her unjust treatment.

Like Kansas, Montana is a state historically known for mixed government – Gianforte is the first Republican governor that state has had in over a decade and a half – and a “live and let live” ethos. If Republicans press their advantage too hard there, voters may eventually punish them – and that’s an eventuality that could play out elsewhere as well.

Kansas surprised many observers when its voters rejected a draconian anti-abortion constitutional amendment, and a new report from the Pew Research Center shows increasing dissatisfaction with the difficulty of accessing abortion in states that have recently passed harsh bans.

All this gives me some cautious optimism about the upcoming 2024 election. While anything can happen between now and then, and full Republican control of the federal government is a real (and terrifying) possibility, I hold out hope that many Americans – even in conservative areas – are opposed to the forceful elimination of difference and silencing of dissent in American public life, and that this attitude will come through at the ballot box, even in a system unfairly stacked in favour of Republicans.

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