Rep. SJ Howell said they needed to check the status of a child care bill before they could sit down to talk.
“Otherwise, I’ll be thinking about it the whole time,” the Missoula Democrat said.
Howell, a transgender non-binary Missoula Democrat who goes by they/them pronouns, spoke to the Daily Montanan at the tail end of a whirlwind week, the last of the 2023 legislative session.
Besides the typical end-of-session rush, the Montana Legislature took national center stage after a protest erupted in the House gallery last Monday following the third time Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman who also serves as a Democrat representing Missoula, wasn’t recognized to speak on the floor by House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell.
After Zephyr’s ensuing censure last Wednesday, Howell was the last transgender voice on the House floor.
Howell said Friday they felt deeply unhappy at business as usual.
“We all feel the weight of what has happened, and when we sat on the floor yesterday, our first floor session without Zooey,” Howell said in an interview with the Daily Montanan on Friday. “The biggest thing that I feel is having to participate in a system that has fundamentally broken down.”
Howell said they were still in the Capitol to do their job, “but it is not at all the way I wanted to serve.”
Regier said in a press conference following Zephyr’s censure last week Howell was an example of someone who could articulate their point of view on the floor within the rules decorum. At the rally prior to the protest on Monday, Howell said they refused to be the “good” transgender person, a point they reiterated Friday.
“I’m not speaking on the floor in the way that I do because I want to make sure people are comfortable, I’m speaking from my heart,” Howell said. “The idea that Zooey should just be more like me, I think that the underlying message there is ‘I guess we’d sit for this if you could just make it more comfortable for us.’”
Howell rejected that idea, saying it’s fundamentally undemocratic and un-American.
“If the courage of your conviction is not strong enough to listen to dissent, then don’t bring these bills,” Howell said. “Otherwise, we’re going to stand up, and we’re going to push back, and that’s how our country operates.”
The Legislature pushed out a number of bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community that largely passed on party-line votes in the 2023 session. Republicans held a supermajority and the governor’s office this session and introduced and passed the most bills in recent years.
Howell said they were frustrated that when push came to shove, party loyalty took precedence over shared values and built relationships.
“I don’t think it’s good for Montana,” Howell said. “I don’t think it’s good for the breadth of diversity that we have and constituents across the state who want to be represented not as a party bloc, but by their representative who’s listening to them; who they elected.”
One bill, Senate Bill 458 sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, would define sex in a binary of male and female. The bill has been opposed by medical professionals as not being medically accurate. The ACLU of Montana and the Human Rights Campaign have said it is the most discriminatory bill against the LGBTQ+ community in the country, leaving out intersex and nonbinary people, like Howell, from legal code.
“I think it does a real disservice to Montana,” Howell said.
The bill, which touches more than 40 parts of state law, would impact nonbinary and intersex Montanans from their birth certificates to nearly all the legal documentation in their life requiring a gender marker until their death certificate. A legislative fiscal division analysis found the bill could risk half the state’s budget, $7.5 billion, due to its conflict with federal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Howell said they’ve talked to a number of people on both sides of the aisle but not Glimm on the bill.
“I won’t assume that he’s not interested in my experience, but you know, in fairness, he also doesn’t come to talk to me,” Howell said.
Glimm responded to a request for comment Thursday in a text saying, “Everyone is included in this code.”
He said people are “either male or female, in terms of sex.”
Glimm and other Republicans have largely said that sex is binary but it’s gender that has a spectrum and said Democrats should define gender in legal code. The origin for this bill came after his bill from the 2021 session targeting the ability to amend gender markers on birth certificates temporarily stopped in Yellowstone County District Court.
Sitting in the House Judiciary Committee, Howell said the nationalization of politics was evident.
“I’ve heard a lot of people come into committee and share talking points that aren’t about Montana, they’re not their own personal experiences. They’re not experiences from Montana. They’re their national talking points,” Howell said.
Howell said it’s not a good way to craft policy.
“But it is effective in pushing a scary narrative that legislators have to contend with,” they said.
Howell said they hope in coming months and years legislators will listen to Montanans to what’s right. But “I guess time will tell.”
Howell serves alongside Zephyr in the House Judiciary Committee.
“It helps to have a shared experience, have somebody else there,” Howell said. “And at the same time, we’re very different people and we often sit down and have a conversation about something and have really different perspectives to share and learn from one another.”
Howell said it’s not fun being in that room some days, even though it’s a job they signed up for, and especially after the debate over decorum held in the House.
“I will just say that I do not feel that people came in with respecting me and my experience at the top of their list. I don’t think that we, as a committee, asked proponents to hold themselves to that standard,” Howell said. “It rankles at the end of the day when we’re told that the same won’t be true when we speak on the floor.”
Howell said it was hard but not impossible to deliver for constituents and on their campaign promises as part of the super minority. They pointed to the Best Beginnings Scholarship Program, House Bill 648, which they co-sponsored, as an example of a bill that would represent a historic investment in the state’s part in childcare for low income families.
Howell brought the bill first, but it was tabled in committee in February.
“After that bill was tabled, we sat down and crafted another one that Rep. Buckley is carrying that represents a more collaborative approach that still incorporates a lot of the elements that were in my bill,” Howell said of Best Beginnings. “It’s gonna make a big difference for working families and I’m really proud of that.”
The bill passed the Senate on third reading 28-22 on Friday and is headed for the governor’s desk.
Howell said they were also proud of a bill they introduced that would require businesses provide accrued earned paid sick days for employees, even though it too died, because it was the first time the legislative body debated the topic.
“The folks who keep our state running deserve the chance to stay home when they’re sick,” they said. “I’m excited to keep working on it.”
Howell is not new to the Capitol, working for a decade’s worth of sessions as an advocate with Montana Women Vote. They said that experience helped them get a sense of the process in the building, but said it’s been fun being on the other side as a legislator.
“I think that one of the things that I really have found that is different is that when you do committee work, as a legislator, you really focus much more in depth on a set of issues along with a smaller group of colleagues,” Howell said.
Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, who worked with Howell on the House Judiciary Committee as vice chairperson, said in an interview Thursday she knew Howell previously from their advocacy work and said, like House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, coming in with that background gives them a leg up from the start of the session. She said advocates come in with an understanding of how things work, policy history, and come in with existing relationships with legislators.
“That committee always has an incredibly heavy lift, and I think this session was the heaviest of all,” Bishop said. “And so to have them as just an anchor– a caucus member ready to go that can be relied on, that was comfortable addressing things that had an area of expertise that I leaned on often, was just a gift to me, and I think a gift to their district and a gift to the legislature as a whole.”
Bishop said Howell had one of the strongest voices on the floor, with the ability to craft a narrative and argument that everyone in the room could understand and relate to.
“That’s powerful, no matter who you are,” Bishop said. “But I think that’s especially powerful when you’re representing a community that people are still trying to get to know and understand.”
Howell said they receive messages of support from constituents and said they got an email that morning from a parent of a nonbinary child who said it meant a lot to be able to see a nonbinary person living a public life and in public service.
Howell said growing up in Billings, they didn’t have nonbinary role models.
“I certainly didn’t see the life that I sort of wanted to imagine for myself reflected back,” Howell said. “And I think that’s really important. It’s not just for queer and trans kids, but for everybody– to see their future and role models in the state.”
Bishop said the possibilities for Howell’s political future are up to them to decide, but Bishop sees them in leadership.
“I certainly am looking forward to Howell being able to step into more leadership in the next sessions,” Bishop said. “You don’t have to be in leadership to have a strong voice on the floor. But I think that it carries a different weight when you do.”
Howell said as a student of organizing, they recognize Zephyr’s censure and the anti-LGBTQ legislation as a response to progress being made.
“I’m hopeful that all of the people who are shocked and outraged and moved to action because of what has happened here will continue to speak up and act in their values over the next few years,” Howell said. “And we’ll start to see a shift both in representation in the Capitol and the important policy work that we’re able to do.”