MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Zooey Zephyr and Erin Reed walk hand in hand at a Pride parade in the college town of Missoula, Montana, wearing smiles as sunny as the day is rainy. Adoring fans cheer them along the route.
Reed stops and raises a small Pride flag. Zephyr cups her hands together in a heart over her chest in appreciation. Zephyr, a transgender state lawmaker, later gives a speech to hundreds attending the event. Tears well in people’s eyes as they speak with the couple afterward.
Sage Scarborough hugs a book and grins after getting Zephyr’s autograph.
“I feel like it makes us as a generation feel represented when we have people like her in power and up there giving very inspirational, motivational words of wisdom,” says Scarborough, 20.
Zephyr and Reed, both 34, have emerged as a vanguard, a power couple spreading hope to fellow transgender people amid a year in which hundreds of bills were proposed or passed that restrict their rights in health care and other realms. Their appearances at Pride events this month throughout the country replicate scenes like the one in Missoula.
Largely unknown just a few months ago, the two women now rate among the most prominent figures in the world of LGBTQ+ advocacy. They’ve appeared at dozens of events, including the GLAAD Media Awards in New York City in May. People lined up to meet them after speaking in Florida, Ohio and Los Angeles, and even recognized them during their recent trip to Glacier National Park. Documentary film crews follow them around. They recently rubbed elbows at a bar in the nation’s capital with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, during Pride festivities.
Zephyr, a Democrat, surged into the spotlight this spring when she was silenced by her Republican colleagues in the Montana Legislature after she refused to apologize for saying some lawmakers would have blood on their hands for supporting a ban on gender-affirming health care for trans youths.
Reed watched it all unfold from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where she has cemented herself as one of the nation’s leading independent researchers monitoring the torrent of anti-LGBTQ+ bills.
Now, the recently engaged couple make a formidable duo, using their platform to push back against legislation and inspire their community to continue fighting.
“The question I’ve been asked a thousand, thousand times is, ‘Are you OK? How are you holding up?’” Zephyr said at Missoula Pride in June. “I can say honestly with all my heart, I have a lightness in the work and a joy and hope that I have not felt in a long time.”
Zephyr adds that she has “seen the response in individuals coming up to me in the quiet corners of the Capitol, saying, ‘We see you, we know what’s happening, this isn’t right, we have to stay quiet, but this isn’t right.’”
Zephyr plans to run for reelection to the Montana House and says she is “willing to explore” the possibility of holding other public offices in the future. Some supporters have pitched her running for Congress to represent western Montana, and while she hasn’t ruled it out, Zephyr says, her immediate focus is finding “rooms that my voice can do good in.”
Zephyr appeared on “The View,” visited the White House and was featured at the Pride Night for the Seattle Sounders in the past month. Reed circulates a policy newsletter and has amassed a following of more than 400,000 on TikTok, where she posts videos about legislation and encourages other trans people to testify in legislatures.
“It’s like having trans guardian angels,” Cam Ogden, a 23-year-old trans woman, says.
Ogden, a college student in Columbus, Ohio, did not intend to become an activist when she started sitting in on committee meetings at the state legislature in 2021 to learn about the bills affecting her life.
Reed first spotted Ogden on the legislature’s live feed, rolling her eyes in the back of the room as lawmakers spread falsehoods about gender-affirming care. The two connected on social media and became fast friends.
But when a legislator outed Ogden as transgender at a public meeting after a closed-door conversation, Reed and Zephyr jumped in as mentors as Ogden navigated her leap into activism — and the harassment that came with it.
“My intention wasn’t to be super public when I started doing this stuff, and then I got kind of dragged in,” Ogden says. “That’s where Zooey and Erin ended up being like life preservers. They do that for a lot of people.”
Reed says, “People come up to us and say, ‘Thank you, you really helped me understand.’ Or, ‘Thank you, you really helped me explain things to my mom.’ And sometimes the mom will be there and will agree and nod.”
Zephyr says they’ve been told their advocacy gives people the courage to be themselves or come out to family.
Their romantic relationship has augmented their political activism from the start.
They met online in 2022 while organizing a response to a move by Texas to investigate parents of transgender youths, and trans advocacy remains a focal point in their lives. They started dating long distance between Montana and Maryland, often falling asleep and waking up while still on a video chat.
“I remember thinking that she was really cute and that I really liked her. And so, like, I brushed my hair behind my ear and I thought I was really slick and sly,” Reed recalls.
But Zephyr says she caught on and thought, “Oh, that’s cutesy, like, ‘I like you’ cutesy.”
Reed now shares what she learns about national legislative trends with Zephyr to help frame her understanding of Montana bills. And Zephyr says that because she works across issues, she can easily identify how language used to advance anti-LGBTQ+ legislation mirrors that on abortion restrictions, intelligence she then shares with Reed.
“My god, we click so well professionally and personally,” Reed says.
Their path to public advocacy hasn’t been easy. Both women have experienced swatting attempts on their homes in Missoula and Gaithersburg and have endured more frequent harassment as their platforms have grown.
But they have held each other up through those hard times, with a shared understanding of the unique challenges they face at the intersection of politics and personal identity. The negativity that their opponents cast on them is now overshadowed by overwhelming support, Reed says: “Our joy is our resistance.”
Reed, Zephyr says, was a vital source of support when she was silenced and then banned from the Montana House floor toward the end of the legislative session.
“Every photo you’ve seen of my head held high, every press conference where I say I feel light in the work, I wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t coming home at the end of the night to someone who supported me and helped me so deeply,” Zephyr says.
During a trip Reed made to Montana in May after the legislative session concluded, the couple got engaged at a “queer prom” in Missoula, surrounded by their biggest supporters. Zephyr, who proposed on one knee, felt compelled by everything she had just endured.
“I felt very strongly coming out of that, I was like, ‘I need to spend my life with her,’” Zephyr says. “And it felt like I was planting a flag of love.”
Their living arrangements are to be determined; Reed has a 7-year-old son. They’ll make wedding plans after Pride Month ends. And they don’t plan to elope, Zephyr says.
It’ll be “a nice, big, queer wedding,” Reed says. “It’s going to be wonderful.”
Costley reported from Washington, D.C., and Schoenbaum from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Drew Costley, Hannah Schoenbaum And Amy Beth Hanson, The Associated Press