Montana trans, two spirit and non-binary activists fight anti-trans legislation

Their advocacy network is striving for a more equitable state while building power across issue lines.

 

Grand Marshal Steven-Bear Twoteeth at the 2019 Big Sky Pride parade in Helena, Montana. There were over 6,000 people at the parade — the largest turnout in Big Sky Pride’s history. “My community has always had my back,” Twoteeth said.
Courtesy of Steven-Bear Twoteeth

Two years ago, on a January evening, Steven-Bear Twoteeth sat on the floor of a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Helena, Montana’s state capital. Surrounded by fellow advocates, he prepared for the state’s upcoming legislative session. “We were like, ‘How do you pass a bill?’ Or, ‘What does HB” — house bill — “mean?’ ” he remembers. When he arrived at the Capitol, he testified before a committee, speaking on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women while wondering how vulnerable and personal his words should be.

Twoteeth is a queer and two spirit man of the Ojibwe, Cree, Blackfeet and Pend d’Oreille tribes. He’s part of the broad coalition of transgender and two spirit Montanans who are opposing two bills in the Montana Legislature this session — House Bill 112, which mandates that women’s sports teams in public schools accept only athletes who were assigned female at birth, and House Bill 113, which denies trans teens access to gender-affirming health care. These bills aren’t unique to Montana: They’re popping up across the country, from Mississippi to Utah. But in this increasingly conservative and mostly rural state, they’ve galvanized a response from a diverse cohort of activists and organizers — people like Twoteeth, who are lobbying for trans, two spirit and Indigenous rights.  

In the last few decades, informal support networks for trans and two spirit Montanans have been growing here. In 2017, the state’s first trans-specific policy group formed in response to a bill that would have prevented transgender people from using public bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. The Free and Fair Coalition, which continues to fight anti-trans legislation in Montana, comprises approximately a dozen organizations, including the Montana Human Rights Network, the Indigenous Organizers Collective and TransVisible Montana. Those groups amplify the voices of trans and two spirit Montanans, who are becoming increasingly visible and outspoken. “(The lack of visibility) was just about who was paying attention,” Mija, a two spirit advocate and educator who works with TransVisible MT and the Indigenous Organizers Collective, said.

Though activists have been forced to adapt during the pandemic, community-building remains an essential aspect. Mija helps the trans activist community, which spans urban and rural spaces and a spectrum of racial and age groups, stay informed and connected. In previous years, organizers drove witnesses from rural parts of the state to Helena, and hosted in-person lobbyist trainings and support groups.

“It’s hard to hear community pain. Those fears are valid. They are fears I’ve thought about myself.”

Now, organizers and advocates like Paxton McCausland host virtual decompression sessions after long days at the Capitol, where organizers and community members discuss the day’s legislation. Building emotional support networks is inextricable from policy work, McCausland, who works with Montana Gender Alliance and TransVisible Montana, said. “To be able to gather with people who are fighting the same fight as I am — who are actively interested in the work that I do and are willing to help — is really uplifting.” Still, he added, “it’s hard to hear community pain. Those fears are valid. They are fears I’ve thought about myself.”

SJ Howell, executive director of Montana Women Vote, testifies at a Montana House Judiciary Committee. “There are trans folks and their families and the people who love them in all parts of the state, and that it's really important to hear those voices.”
MPAN video screenshot

McCausland’s decompression sessions welcome parents of trans kids, health-care professionals, Indigenous rights activists, women’s rights activists, social workers and other organizers whose work is not necessarily trans-focused. That’s because organizers like McCausland, Twoteeth and Mija have united activists across issue lines; their activism is intersectional — meaning that it’s not limited to one aspect of an individual’s identity but considers the interconnected ways in which people experience gender, race or socioeconomic status. “The trans bills are important,” Twoteeth said. “But the missing and murdered Indigenous women bills are most important to me. When people ignore those, it feels like they’re ignoring LGBTQ+ Indigenous people, because we are the most vulnerable in the state.” 

In late February, as the snowpack in southwestern Montana began to thaw, Twoteeth donned his best tie and climbed the steps of the Capitol nearly every day. He used to take long breaks after testifying in order to emotionally recover. Now, he has a better game plan and greater confidence, though heavy days still take a toll. “My work has grown by making me respect myself, and wanting Montanans who are just like me, who are queer, who are Indigenous, (to) be comfortable walking into a state Capitol,” Twoteeth said. 

Despite the uphill fight in Montana — HB 112 passed through the House, and HB 113 died but was reintroduced under a different bill name — activists and advocates are building power and standing firm in both their vulnerabilities and their approach. “I grew up knowing I couldn’t talk about my own personal experiences, because there’s so much shame,” Twoteeth said. “Now, I take a lot of the things that I was raised to be shameful of and I'm proud of them. I never wanted to tell anyone I was queer, and here I am at the Capitol in my rose tie.” 

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News.  Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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