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Challenge to LGBTQ rights expected in 2023 Montana legislature

Posted at 11:15 AM, Dec 19, 2022

BILLINGS — Several bills impacting the LGBTQ community are expected to appear at the Montana legislature this session.

Bills that seek to ban information about sex and sexuality, limit gender-affirming healthcare, and prohibit kids from seeing drag shows, are just a few LGBTQ rights issues Montana lawmakers plan to address this session.

The Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana produces drag shows to fund nonprofit groups and scholarships for LGBTQ youth.

One member of the group, drag queen 'Anita,' says the number of shows she performs in annually has soared in the past few years. Anita asked for her identity to be concealed due to concerns for safety.

“Depending on how distracted I get it can take me an hour and a half to three hours to get ready, just, kind of depending on everything going on, if I’m chit-chattin’ or just power painting as I call it,” she said.

She says she fell in love with make-up and performance.

“I found that it's kind of rewarding to get the face on and get everything going, and it just like, it's time and you’re excited to get to the show and perform for everyone,” Anita said.

She says drag shows create a safe space for LGBTQ youth and generate funds to produce more shows and pay for scholarships.

“The need to be fundraising, for providing support to LGBTQ youth, to support trans people, to be providing a safe space on top of a creative space for them, but a safe space for the audience,” she said.

Drag shows are booming in popularity. There were just a few shows a year in Bozeman three years ago, and now Anita says the Imperial Court produces 30 to 50 shows per year.

Visibility for trans people in the state took a step forward in this midterm election. Two out LGBTQ people were elected by Missoula voters to the Montana House of Representatives.

“When I think about what my election means, yes, there’s the historic, having a trans woman in the legislature for the first time. But personally, it's a reminder that I’m embraced by my community,” said newly elected Zooey Zephyr (D-Missoula).

She says it will be valuable to have trans people at the legislature and she will serve alongside Missoula representative SJ Howell, who is non-binary. Both are serving in their first session, in part to be a part of conversations about LGBTQ rights in Montana.

“We know the effect these bills have, whether they pass or not. When these bills come forward, they harm my community. They put fear into kids, when their healthcare may be taken away, when a young trans kid wants to play sports with their friends. It’s hard on the community,” Zephyr said.

A contentious 2021 legislative session saw a bill seeking to block transgender women from playing collegiate athletes blocked by the Supreme Court in a September ruling.

This, among a slate of bills related to LGBTQ people in Montana.

“Last session, in '21, we saw a bunch of bills go, be proposed, and some of them were stopped. But we also saw a couple pass by one vote, and I remember thinking, I could change that heart. Maybe if they knew a trans person, and talked to me,” Zephyr said.

This session, lawmakers anticipate returning to discussions about how LGBTQ people are recognized and received in society.

Re-elected Columbia Falls representative Braxton Mitchell is working on a bill that will prohibit kids from attending drag shows. He says he became concerned after hearing about a drag queen reading hour event at ZooMontana in Billings that drew protests this summer.

“My biggest thing is, children aren’t allowed to be at strip clubs, they’re not allowed to be at any sexually-oriented business. You’re seeing now in more recent years, a lot of these drag performances or shows, whatever you want to call them, are turning into a very sexual event and I don’t think that’s something that children should be around,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell, a Republican, is 22 and says he’s noticed the increasing trend of drag queens making appearances in schools compared to when he was growing up in Montana’s school system.

“As a 22-year-old kid, I never saw any of this stuff going on five, six, seven, eight years ago. And now, you have the attorney general of Michigan saying every school in America should have a drag performer. It's not something that any kid should be around, and that’s the big basis of this legislation,” Mitchell said.

Although the language isn’t finalized yet, the bill would seek to regulate events at publicly funded facilities, like schools and libraries.

Other draft legislation proposed for the session includes efforts to modify access to information about sex and sexuality, and changes to parental rights around LGBTQ minors.

Montana Human Rights Network Policy staffer Shawn Reagor says their group is monitoring incoming bills.

“For example, many of the bill drafts that we are seeing are actually censorship type bill drafts that would specifically remove and censor different pieces of education or curriculum, or even what books are available in the library,” Reagor said.

Similar legislation made its rounds through state legislatures across the country in 2021 and 2022. A new national report by the nonprofit research group PEN America has found books were banned 2,532 times in public schools across the U.S. in the past two years. Forty-one percent of those banned included LGBTQ themes, protagonists, or prominent secondary characters.

“On top of all of that, we have another bill draft around preventing some folks from being able to access medical care,” he said.

Similar legislation in Oklahoma and Texas this year sought to stop minors from receiving hormone blockers, a prescribed treatment for gender dysphoria or gender-diverse youth, according to the Mayo Clinic.

On Dec. 15, LGBTQ suicide prevention group The Trevor Project published suicide risk data about every U.S. state.

Data showed 55% of LGBTQ youth in Montana seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 13% attempted suicide.

Fifty percent were physically threatened or harmed based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTQ youth in Montana also reported whether recent politics negatively impacted their well-being:

11% said ‘Never.’

47% said ‘Sometimes.’

42% said ‘A lot.

The Montana legislature kicks off on Jan. 3.

Anita says the Montana queer community is tight-knit, and she plans to continue supporting drag shows in Montana.

The Trevor Project offers 24/7 crisis support for LGBTQ youth. You can chat, call, or text them anytime at this link.