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“Courage Is Contagious”: Zooey Zephyr & Justin Jones on the GOP’s Silencing of State Lawmakers

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Tennessee’s Justin Jones and Montana’s Zooey Zephyr, two Democratic state lawmakers who were both punished by their Republican-led legislatures for peaceful protests, say the only way to fight such anti-democratic moves is through broad solidarity. “Courage is contagious,” says Zephyr, who has been barred from the floor of the Montana House of Representatives for opposing anti-trans legislation. She adds that she took heart from the example of Jones and fellow Tennessee lawmaker Justin Pearson, who were both ousted from their seats for leading gun control protests, only to be returned to office by their local communities. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. When you see people stand up, it drives you to stand up similarly,” says Zephyr.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of being silenced, that brings us to bring in Democratic Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr of Missoula, Montana, the first transgender woman ever elected to the Montana Legislature. The Republican-led state Legislature has now banned her from the House floor and also forbid her from speaking there. I’m wondering: Is this the first time the two of you as state legislators are publicly speaking together?

REP. ZOOEY ZEPHYR: I believe we spoke together a couple days ago briefly, but this will be the second time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to know, first, Justin Jones, if you could address state legislator Zooey Zephyr, to talk about what this has meant for you, and your reaction to what happened to her. And is there any move for state legislators around the country to band together, the silenced who refuse to remain silent?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yeah, definitely. Well, Representative Zephyr knows, you know, we talked on the phone the day of this horrible, immoral decision to censure her, and just knows that we stand together. And as I said that night and as I said that day, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. And so we are united, from Tennessee to Montana to Nebraska to Florida, as I was just talking to some lawmakers there, against this trend toward authoritarianism that’s silencing voices who need to be heard. And if you look — you know, if you look at what we represented, it represents the future of our politics. People who are proximate to these issues should have a voice in challenging them, when it comes to the safety of our communities, when it comes to the well-being of our communities, when it comes to what democracy should be in our states.

And so, Representative Zephyr knows that I’m standing with you, that whatever I can do to show up in solidarity, to push back and let them know that we’re not going to be divided, that we see this as a united struggle, that we see this as a struggle in which solidarity, deep solidarity, matters and in which resisting together against these forces of authoritarianism is going to be something that we continue to do nationwide.

And so, thank you for your courage. And I’m just so grateful to see, when you walked out, you had that same feeling of dignity. You walked out with your head held high, because we know that we are on the right side of history. And so, it was just beautiful to see those photos that you were unbowed, that you were pushing forward and that you did not let them shame you, but you saw that the community stands with you, the people of this nation stand with you. And we’ll continue to push forward, unafraid and unbowed, against these forces.

AMY GOODMAN: And, state Representative Zooey Zephyr, if you could respond and talk about the effect it had on you — this is right before you were censured — seeing Justin Pearson and Justin Jones being expelled from the state Legislature? Did you at that point have any sense what was going to happen to you?

REP. ZOOEY ZEPHYR: I didn’t. But I think, you know, what people keep saying is courage is contagious. When you watch people stand up for what is right, to defend their community, when marginalized groups come together and say, as Representative Jones has said, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, when you see people stand up, it drives you to stand up similarly. And that’s also why one of the first groups to come out in support of me was Montana’s American Indian Caucus, who said, “This is an inappropriate, undemocratic attack on Representative Zephyr.” And they know that firsthand, because they’ve experienced that. And the attacks on the Native American community in our state and across our country goes way back before the attacks on trans people that we’re seeing today.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Zooey Zephyr, what has been the response of the people who elected you? I mean, as I was saying around Tennessee, it’s not as if you’re fired from a store that you’re working at. You were elected. And so, you have these other representatives who were saying the city of Missoula cannot have their elected representative speak. What does it mean for them? And when does this banishment end?

REP. ZOOEY ZEPHYR: So, that has been — you know, I’ve seen pride from my community. They have said, “Thank you so much, first and foremost. Thank you for standing up. Thank you for saying the things we elected you to say, to hold the powerful accountable to the harm that they do.” And then I’ve also seen them express frustration when they copy me on their messages to Republican leadership, saying, “You’re taking our voice.” They’re sending that message in emails. They’ve shown up at the Capitol to send that message and say, “You’re taking away our representation, and that’s not democratic.”

And going forward, I showed up yesterday ready to do the work as best I can, and I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that the people who elected me, the 11,000 Montanans who elected me, have representation in the People’s House.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you, Justin Jones, about the anti-trans laws being passed in the Tennessee Legislature. The Biden administration has filed suit against Tennessee’s ban on life-saving care for transgender youth. Can you talk about that and the position you took?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yeah. I mean, all session we’ve been challenging the slate of hate. Tennessee has had 27 anti-LGBTQ laws this session, more than any other state, being pushed in our Legislature, laws to ban drag shows, to attack trans youth’s healthcare, to challenge equality in marriage. I mean, it’s just been this very hateful agenda that we saw. And we’ve resisted it at every step, even before we were expelled. You know, myself, Representative Pearson and Representative Johnson were some of the most vocal voices challenging this anti-LGBTQ agenda. And so, you know, we’re glad that the federal government is intervening and is challenging that law that will harm our youth and which, we shared on the House floor, this is harmful to the youth of Tennessee, and it’s a very dangerous policy for these lawmakers to try and be doctors, as they often try and do. And so, we have challenged it, and we know that this challenge of attacking the LGBTQ community, of attacking people of color, of attacking immigrants is really an attack on democracy, is really an attack on our future and the futures that we represent.

And so, we are, again, once again, fighting together, united in the struggle against those who would try and scapegoat members of our community, against those who would try and use members of our community as punching bags to distract from their failures, from the — you know, to distract from their failures at the fact that in states like ours, you know, one in five children live in poverty. The majority of people are struggling to get by, because they’re waging a culture war instead of waging a war on poverty, instead of waging a war to protect our communities from this wave of environmental injustice that is plaguing our communities and of corporate attacks that are really denigrating our people, who have to struggle between getting groceries or paying for their prescriptions. I mean, this is what we’re dealing with, is really an attempt to divide and conquer. And we will not bow — we will not cooperate with that. We will not accept that, because we know that — what are the real issues in our community. And that’s not — an issue that they’re making, manufacturing, to distract from their failures, is not the issues that we should be focused on.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Representative Jones, in your state, in Tennessee, the Grammy-winning rapper and singer Lizzo recently invited dozens of drag performers on stage during a Knoxville concert, protesting Republicans’ efforts to ban public drag performances in the state. Your governor, Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee, signed the measure into law last February, but it was blocked by a federal judge the following month who argued it was too vaguely written. Were you there?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: I was not at the concert, but I was on the House floor fighting that bill when it came before that. And I said, actually, three weeks before the mass shooting happened at Covenant — on the House floor, I said, “Why are we focusing on drag shows with this false narrative that they’re a danger to our youth? The real danger to our youth, the number one cause of death in our youth that we should be focused on, are mass shootings, is gun violence.” And I said this before the shooting even occurred, because we knew that — we knew what the threat to our youth was. We know what it is. And they tried to make drag shows an issue, which has never been an issue. The lawmakers who presented this bill were just simply trying to instigate hate against a community, the LGBTQ community.

And so, we’re grateful for artists like Lizzo who’ve come to our state. But we live in a state where we pass more lawsuits than laws, to be quite honest, Amy. And so we knew that this was unconstitutional. We said it in committee and on the House floor. And a lot of the laws we’re seeing are going to continue to be challenged, hopefully, in the courts to overturn this arrogance of a supermajority that passes laws targeting vulnerable communities and marginalized communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Zooey Zephyr, we’re going to end with you. You know, I remember 10 years ago, or maybe it was a little more or a little less, where every state was passing — putting referenda or measures, on Election Day or before, against same-sex marriage. And the point of that was they couldn’t get people out, enough people, to vote for conservative candidates, but that would rev people up to go to the polls, and then they would vote for the conservative candidates. Well, that was a movement at the time, and it completely failed. Conservatives, as well as progressives and liberals, that was just — that’s not their issue anymore. And so now you have this issue of drag shows or trans laws. And I’m wondering if you could end by talking about what this means in your community to be used in this way.

REP. ZOOEY ZEPHYR: I think you hit that perfectly. You know, when we see attacks on LGBTQ people, whether that was back in the '90s or today, it's trying to drum up fear, stoke, and other a community. But the fact is, trans people, we live in our communities, we are known in our communities, and we are loved broadly in our communities, which is why this effort ultimately is going to fail, because when they’re attacking trans people, they’re not just attacking us, they are attacking our loved ones who care about us, our co-workers, our community members who care about us. And in the same way that other marginalized groups are rising up and saying this isn’t acceptable, that’s what we’re seeing with our communities, coming up and saying, “No, you can’t do this to trans people. We love them. We care about them.” And it’s ultimately why even though we’re seeing these attacks in the legislatures — and they’re going to fail in the courts — they’ve already lost in our communities, because we’re loved.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr, the first transgender woman ever elected to the Montana Legislature. She has been banned by the Republican-led Legislature from the House floor, forbidding her from speaking. I want to thank you for being with us from Helena — you represent Missoula — and Justin Jones, Democratic Tennessee state representative of Nashville, recently reinstated after the Republican supermajority, heavily gerrymandered House of Representatives voted to expel him and his colleague, Justin Pearson. They were reinstated by their own communities until there’s a special election. Thank you both for being with us.

Coming up, we look at President Biden’s plan to send U.S. nuclear-armed submarines to South Korea. Stay with us.

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