Nebraska’s fight over transgender care turns personal, snarls lawmaking
March 31, 2023 Updated Sat., April 1, 2023 at 6:58 p.m.
State Sen. Kathleen Kauth (R-Neb.), who sponsored a bill banning gender-affirming health treatment for minors, confers with colleagues in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, on March 21, 2023. Kauth said she became interested in transgender issues after the Biden administration demanded in May of 2022 that schools receiving free and reduced-cost meals from the federal government abide by a nondiscrimination policy that covers gender identity and sexual orientation. (Barrett Emke/The New York Times) (BARRETT EMKE)
LINCOLN, Neb. – Ash Homan, a 12-year-old from Omaha, spoke confidently as he urged Nebraska lawmakers not to ban transition-related care for transgender minors.
“People introducing and passing these laws underestimate how much a child knows about their own body and about their own brain,” Ash, a transgender boy, testified during a hearing early this year that kicked off a vitriolic fight that has all but paralyzed legislative work in Nebraska during the past month.
The three-minute testimony might have been a blip in the battles roiling state politics as lawmakers across the country quarrel over scores of bills that would restrict the rights of LGBTQ people but for one fact: His mother, Sen. Megan Hunt, is one of the 17 Democrats in Nebraska’s 49-member unicameral Legislature.
The story of one lawmaker’s family became a central, if largely unspoken, reason that Democrats in the state have gone to war in a bid to block the bill, which seeks to criminalize medical care for people younger than 19. The bill would outlaw puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgeries.
Since late February, a handful of Democrats have sought to force Republicans to shelve the bill, filibustering and using other procedural tactics to bring state legislative business nearly to a halt. Progress on many other topics, such as gun laws and voter restrictions, has slowed to a crawl in recent days. Talks on the biennial Nebraska budget have also been gummed up.
“We’ve never seen something like this,” said Brandon Metzler, the clerk of the Nebraska Legislature, a nominally nonpartisan chamber where lawmakers pride themselves on civility. “We’ve never had a session that hinged on a single piece of legislation.”
Similar proposals are stirring up legislatures around the country. Since April 2021, when Arkansas became the first state to outlaw transition-related medical treatment for minors, at least 11 other states have passed bills or policies seeking to prohibit this care.
Just this week, Republican lawmakers in Kentucky pushed through a law that forces doctors treating transgender minors to discontinue care. It followed bans that lawmakers in Tennessee, Iowa, Georgia and South Dakota passed in recent weeks.
The debate over medical care for transgender minors is perhaps the most contentious strand of an escalating fight over the rights of LGBTQ people. Republicans are also seeking to criminalize drag performances in front of minors, restrict transgender students from accessing public restrooms and joining sports teams aligned with their gender identities, and ban school books some conservatives deem inappropriate.
Republicans characterize these measures as necessary to protect children, often alluding to conspiracy theories that liberals are grooming children to embrace same-sex attraction and gender fluidity.
Democrats say they see that rhetoric and the flood of legislation as a malicious effort to stoke the fears and prejudices of voters.
The battle in Nebraska began when Sen. Kathleen Kauth, a Republican first-term lawmaker from Omaha, introduced the Let Them Grow Act in January.
Kauth said she became interested in transgender issues after the Biden administration demanded in May that schools receiving free and reduced-cost meals from the federal government abide by a nondiscrimination policy that covers gender identity and sexual orientation.
That meant that such schools had to allow transgender students to participate in sports programs and use restrooms that match their gender identity.
Several attorneys general, including Nebraska’s, jointly sued the federal government, calling the condition a form of federal overreach.
“I’m the mom of three boys,” Kauth said in an interview. “I know how mortified they would be if during puberty there was a girl in the locker room.”
Kauth said that as she learned about transition-related care for minors, she became distressed. Medical professionals, she said she came to believe, were performing irreversible procedures on children who were not old enough to provide medical consent.
“Kids change their minds 16 different times a day,” she said. “Especially teenagers who are dealing with going through puberty.”
Gov. Jim Pillen of Nebraska, a Republican, threw his support behind the bill.
“There is a reason why kids in Nebraska must be 18 to get a tattoo or 21 to drink alcohol and buy tobacco products,” he said in a statement. “We enact laws like this because we understand that kids lack the judgment necessary to make certain kinds of decisions.”
There is a debate among medical professionals about which children should be getting these treatments and at what age. But leading medical groups in the United States, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say this care should be available to minors and oppose legislative bans.
By late February, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, an Omaha Democrat elected alongside Hunt in 2018, began filibustering during nearly every legislative session, aiming to pressure Republicans into shelving the bill.
Although Cavanaugh didn’t say it publicly when the filibuster began, the personal stakes for Hunt, who is a close friend, and her son were a central reason she went to extraordinary lengths.
“They’re trying to legislate away the parental rights of one of our colleagues,” Cavanaugh said. “To me, that is unbelievably disrespectful and cruel.”
Hunt – who is bisexual and Nebraska’s first openly queer state legislator – said she had initially opted to keep her family’s story out of the public debate. Focusing on it, she feared, might weaken her negotiating hand and possibly play into conservative tropes about queer adults grooming children.
For weeks, Cavanaugh took full advantage of Nebraska’s permissive filibuster rules, which allow any lawmaker to slow legislative business by talking for hours. Cavanaugh has railed against the bill but also spoke at length about random topics, from the plots of movies to her favorite Girl Scout cookies.
The strategy has exasperated Republican colleagues, who have called the Democrats leading the filibuster undemocratic and unreasonable.
As bills on transgender medical care were sailing through in some states, national groups that advocate transgender rights said they were buoyed by Nebraska’s efforts.
“There has long been a sense in trans advocacy that we are a priority for our enemies and an afterthought for our friends,” said Gillian Branstetter, a strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union who is transgender.
Supporters of banning transition care for minors have often portrayed transgender teenagers as distressed and malleable. They have highlighted examples of transgender people who have come to regret medical procedures they underwent at a young age. There’s little harm, they argue, in forcing young people to put off transition care until they’re adults.
Alx Montgomery, a 17-year-old transgender high school student in Lincoln, vehemently disagrees.
When he began transitioning socially from female to male at 11, Alx said he faced scorn and taunts from peers and relatives, which led to a suicide attempt when he was 12.
Alx said he legally changed his name last year and began testosterone therapy after years of therapy and careful consideration. He credited those steps with significantly improving his mood and outlook. In recent weeks, Alx said he had grown fearful that Republicans may soon force him to leave the state or forgo medical care he deems essential.
“They’ll never understand how it feels to look at yourself in the mirror after being on hormones for a few months and you finally start seeing changes,” he said, referring to lawmakers backing the bills. “Suddenly, you’re smiling at your appearance instead of hiding away.”
Ash, Hunt’s son, described coming to terms with his gender identity gradually. From an early age, the sound of his former name and female pronouns chafed, he said. Early in the pandemic, Ash said he began asking people to address him using they/them pronouns, but that didn’t feel quite right. When he began middle school in fall 2021, he asked a teacher to call him Ash and began using masculine pronouns.
Most everyone in his life has been supportive. He said that the only invalidating messages he had heard have come from some of his mother’s colleagues.
“It’s pretty much been other lawmakers,” he said. “People at school have been very nice. My friends are very nice. My mother’s friends have been very accepting, too.”
Before Ash transitioned, Hunt said her child was often depressed, but in recent years, he has flourished. He’s popular in school, has a busy social life and recently started a club for fellow students who are aspiring authors, Hunt said.
“It was like the clouds parted,” she said. “He’s having a great childhood, and he wasn’t before.”
After discussions with doctors, the family decided to seek a prescription for puberty blockers last year. Puberty blockers delay bodily changes like the development of breasts.
Hunt – a small-business owner who earns $12,000 a year in her role as a lawmaker – said she was rejected for coverage of the puberty blocker prescription by Medicaid, which provides her health insurance, and by Ash’s father’s private health insurance. Paying out of pocket would cost thousands of dollars a month, which is out of reach for the family.
“I have every privilege a person could have in Nebraska, and I was not able to access puberty blockers for my kid,” she said.
Last week, Sen. John Arch, the speaker of Nebraska’s Legislature, scheduled a three-day debate on the transgender health care bill, hoping it would end the filibuster. Cavanaugh and her allies started the week feeling hopeful that they would persuade enough colleagues to block the bill, but it soon became clear that the bill’s supporters were likely to prevail. Hunt took to the microphone to address what she called “the elephant in the room.” If the bill advanced, she angrily told colleagues, she would join Cavanaugh’s filibuster.
“This bill harms me in an unforgivable way,” she said. “This is a line you don’t cross.”
Last week, as a preliminary vote neared, tension on the floor was palpable. Several Democrats wept. Republicans won 33 votes they needed to get the bill past the first of three rounds of debate needed for legislation to reach the governor’s desk.
In recent days, Democrats have continued to filibuster and to use procedural rules, saying they hope Republicans will eventually drop the issue in order to get to the rest of the session’s stack of proposals on other matters. For now, there is no end in sight.
Sen. Ben Hansen, a Republican who supports the bill, said the transgender debate has emerged as one of the top five issues constituents contact him about. Still, he said he has grown worried about how divisive and personal the fight has become.
“It’s like tribalism, and that’s my biggest concern,” he said. “It’s like two boxers in a ring, and they’re going farther and farther into their corners.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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