Inside the ‘mentally exhausting’ protest shutting down Nebraska’s anti-trans legislation
Megan Hunt, Nebraska’s first openly LGBT+ state senator, “didn’t run for office to do this bull****.”
Ms Hunt, battling a proposed transgender healthcare ban that threatens her own family, refuses to pull her punches. She says she’s over performative politics and the collegial “civility” that permeates legislative debate.
“This is not normal, it’s not serious, it’s not professional, and it’s beneath the dignity of the work that we’re called to do in the legislature as lawmakers,” she tells The Independent.
Ms Hunt is part of a small group of Democratic lawmakers in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan legislature engaged in a remarkable months-long filibuster over the Republican-backed bill, which would outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth in the state. Ms Hunt’s 12-year-old son is trans.
Her colleague Machaela Cavanaugh, who describes the bill as a stepping stone to “genocide”, has been filibustering every single piece of legislation since 23 February on a promise to “burn the session to the ground”.
“You literally don’t know what you’re talking about. You probably don’t even know a trans person,” Ms Hunt told the state legislature in Omaha this March.
“If this bill passes, all your bills are on the chopping block, and the bridge is burned,” she said. “We’re not cool. I’m not doing anything for you, because this is fake. This has nothing to do with real life. This is all of you, playing government, when I gotta go home to my house and live in my house, where I don’t play house.”
Days later, she told lawmakers that they “crossed a line.”
“Don’t say hi to me in the hall, don’t ask me how my weekend was, don’t walk by my desk and ask me anything,” she said. “Don’t send me Christmas cards – take me off the list. … No one in the world holds a grudge like me, and no one in the world cares less about being petty than me. I don’t care. I don’t like you.”
The filibuster has derailed dozens of bills winding their way through the Nebraska legislature, which alternates between a 90-day year and a 60-day year. Only four bills this session have advanced to a final vote, compared to roughly 57 by this point in the last 90-day session.
“It is a historically low number,” Ms Cavanaugh tells The Independent. “We reached 60 days without passing anything. If we had been in a 60-day session [this year], we would have passed nothing.”
The current session will end on 9 June, and if the healthcare ban does not have enough support to be given a final vote, it fails – for now.
Ms Cavanaugh would rather not have to keep filibustering next year, but she’s prepared to do so.
“I’d really like to not have to have this at the top of my to do list every day,” she says. “But it will remain at the top of my to-do list for as long as necessary.”
A movement against anti-trans ‘genocide’ taking over state capitols
Republican-led legislative threats in Nebraska join a nationwide campaign that has seen hundreds of bills aimed at LGBT+ people, particularly at young trans people, filed in nearly every state within the last two years.
GOP lawmakers have filed more than 520 bills considered by the Human Rights Campaign to be harmful to LGBT+ people in 2023 alone. Nearly half specifically target trans and nonbinary people.
At least 15 states have enacted laws or policies banning gender-affirming care for young trans people, and more than a dozen others are considering similar measures. Court injunctions have blocked bans from going into effect in three states.
The US Department of Justice has also intervened in legal challenges to gender-affirming care bans in Alabama and Tennessee.
“The right to consider your health and medically-approved treatment options with your family and doctors is a right that everyone should have, including transgender children, who are especially vulnerable to serious risks of depression, anxiety and suicide,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement on 26 April.
The Justice Department, President Joe Biden’s administration and legal groups supporting LGBT+ and civil rights advocates have argued in lawsuits against several states that such legislation amounts to unconstitutional discrimination, in violation of the 14th Amendment.
“If you identify as the gender that you were assigned at birth, you can receive the exact healthcare that is being banned in this bill. But if you identify as a different gender than at birth, you cannot. And that is clearly targeting this vulnerable population of children,” Ms Cavanaugh tellsThe Independent.
“If you are born a boy and you identify as a boy, and you have breast tissue, you can have breast tissue removed. You can have top surgery, as it’s commonly called. But if you were born a girl and identify as a boy, you cannot have that exact same surgery because of your gender identity,” she ads. “That is discriminatory, and that is a violation of rights.”
Most of the treatments that make up a medical transition are regularly prescribed to cisgender (non-trans) people, often to help them align their bodies with gender expectations. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is used to treat disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), stop unwanted bodily changes in cis boys and girls, and alleviate menopause. Puberty blockers are used to slow down precocious puberty in cis children, while laser hair removal and electrolysis are used to rid cis women of undesired facial hair.
Meanwhile, more than half of all trans youth in the US between the ages of 13 and 17 are at risk of losing access to age-appropriate, medically necessary and potentially life-saving gender-affirming healthcare in their home state, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Not only are the bans inherently discriminatory, their impacts are emotionally and mentally debilitating, according to LGBT+ advocacy groups and major medical organisations. The onslaught of legislation and volatile political debate surrounding the bills have also negatively impacted the mental health of an overwhelming majority of young trans and nonbinary people, according to polling from The Trevor Project and Morning Consult.
A separate survey from The Trevor Project found that 41 per cent of trans and nonbinary youth have seriously considered attempting suicide over the last year.
Legislative attacks against affirming healthcare dovetails with a history of right-wing campaigns “using religion to justify discrimination and marginalization, whether that’s against racial minorities or women, or the LGBTQ community,” Ms Hunt tells The Independent.
“It’s always about finding another scapegoat. And who could be a better scapegoat than children,” she says.
Republican lawmakers in Nebraska have threatened to censure Ms Cavanaugh for describing anti-trans bills as the first steps to genocide.
“We’ve had classification, we’ve had symbolisation, we’ve had discrimination. We’re in this era of dehumanisation, and of extermination even,” Ms Cavanaugh told The Independent, referring to the “Ten Stages of Genocide” coined by anti-genocide activist Gregory Stanton, which culminate with “persecution”, “extermination”, and “denial”.
“I would say that the going after gender-affirming care is probably more in the extermination category than anything else, because it is specifically targeting a population’s ability to exist as itself,” MsCavanaugh added. “If you are blocking the ability to have healthcare that allows you to live as a gender other than that assigned at birth when you’re transgender, you are exterminating ‘transgender’ from existence. The healthcare is essential and integral to living a life. And so without … healthcare, you’re not allowing the existence, in my belief.”
The claim echoes arguments made by some trans rights activists, who say that the rhetoric of anti-trans politicians has become increasingly “eliminationist”, aiming for the complete removal of openly trans people from public life.
Eliminating access to healthcare is “one piece of it,” added Ms Cavanaugh, pointing to dozens of bills across the US aimed at blocking trans people from using bathrooms or playing in team sports consistent with their gender.
“You eliminate the healthcare and that’s one piece of it,” she says. “You eliminate the ability for someone to dress and identify and use a restroom, that’s another piece of it. It’s attacking at every level.”
‘An unforgivable breach of collegiality’ in Nebraska
Nebraska has a population of fewer than 2 million people. It has a unicameral legislature, with all members elected as “senators.” It’s also nonpartisan – none of the members are officially recognised by political party affiliation.
It is also the smallest legislature in the country, with only 49 members, “so all of us are really able to get to know each other personally,” Ms Hunt told The Independent.
All of her colleagues have met her child, she says. Many of them have babysat for Ms Hunt or traveled with her family for legislative work.
“Many of you have known him for years,” she said in remarks to lawmakers in March. “Many of you have helped me take care of him … And this bill, colleagues, is such an affront to me, personally, and would violate my rights to parent my child in Nebraska. And I just want to tell you that. I want to stop letting that go unsaid, actually.”
Her viral remarks to lawmakers have dropped the facade of performative “civility” in legislative debates across the country, underscoring that the legislative assault is not only an attack against her own family but also a threat to human rights, coming from members of a small body of lawmakers that she has known for years.
“For this kind of personal attack to come from my colleagues who I work with, who know me well, is really kind of an unforgivable breach of collegiality,” she tells The Independent.
“And I want them to understand that this isn’t a road that we’re going to be going down,” she says.
Last month, Ms Hunt was the subject of a complaint to Nebraska’s Accountability and Disclosure Commission filed by a right-wing activist lawyer, who alleged that, because her son is trans, her opposition to the legislation targeting his healthcare is a conflict of interest.
The move was condemned by lawmakers from both parties.
“It’s harassment, pure and simple,” Ms Cavanaugh tells The Independent. “We all have conflicts to some degree on most things. I mean, I send my children to public school, and I vote on a budget. By that logic, I should be filing a conflict of interest on voting for the budget because my kids go to public school.”
Ms Hunt invited lawmakers to try to punish her for speaking out, “but when we’re talking about human rights, we’re talking about trans rights. That’s not a partisan issue. It’s not a political issue,” she tells The Independent.
“It’s about standing up in the face of blatant discrimination against an entire group of people,” she says. “And there’s only one right answer, which is to not legislate hate against other people.”
The filibuster involves ‘a lot of math and a lot of talking’
Ms Cavanaugh’s filibustering joins a long tradition in American politics: talking a bill to death by running out the clock or forcing lawmakers to withdraw legislation altogether.
In Nebraska’s legislature, each bill typically receives three rounds of debate, with a set number of hours reserved for each round, before lawmakers hold a vote.
Ms Cavanaugh has filed dozens of motions and amendments to dominate the debate for hours at a time.
“It’s a lot of motions, a lot of amendments, and a lot of math. And a lot of talking,” she says.
One bill, which would have banned almost all abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy – when many people don’t yet know they are pregnant – was blocked completely, after opponents failed to reach the two-thirds vote necessary to override a filibuster.
All other bills, Ms Cavanaugh says, have had enough support to eventually move forward past her blockade. But her goal is to make everything take as long as it possibly can, eating up the remaining days of the 90-day session to prevent the anti-trans bill from reaching the floor for a vote.
Legislators can override a filibuster with a two-thirds majority vote, and nearly every piece of legislation has been able to move forward. But Ms Cavanuagh’s filibuster is about making everything take as long as it possibly can, and eating up the remaining days of the 90-day session to prevent the anti-trans bill from reaching the floor for a vote.
“I am trying to force my colleagues to decide what is important this legislative session,” Ms Cavanaugh tells The Independent. “And so far they are deciding that it’s more important to pass an anti-gender-affirming care bill than it is to pass their own bills. And so I’m not going to let them pass their own bills easily, unless they want to stop this hateful legislation.”
Lawmakers supporting the bill against gender-affirming care could drop it at any point and bring the session back into regular business. They have refused.
A proposal like this one never would have survived a first round of votes in previous years, “because people would have seen how destructive it was going to be to the session,” Ms Cavanaugh says.
“And they’d say, ‘I’m not going to vote for this, because this isn’t what we should be focusing on, and I want to focus on my bills and my priorities.’ But this legislature has been taking a different approach,” she adds. “The fact that my colleagues – and there is a Democrat who has voted for this bill, twice – continue not to vote against it says to me that they think this is more important than doing what they were sent here to do. Everybody says that they ran on taxes, and none of them are prioritising that over this.”
Ms Cavanaugh – a mother of three children, aged nine, seven and four years old, with a husband who also works full time – has received an outpouring of support from her family members, staff and legislative colleagues and a community and constituents who “have been showing up for me and for my kids,” she says.
“It is a lot of work, but also building a community, and I’m very grateful for that,” she says.
And, of course, physically blocking legislation for hours every week is “f******* hard.”
“Standing and talking for hours on end about whatever at that moment is really mentally exhausting,” she said.
She has tried to stay on topic for as much of her filibustering as she can, “but sometimes that gets hard, because I’ll be talking for eight hours,” she said.
At one point, over debate about lawmakers’ annual $12,000 salary, she started talking about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, how she cooked broccoli with spaghetti and meat sauce for her children and whether that could be something one could afford with SNAP assistance.
“Then,” she tells The Independent, “I started talking about how my mom always made broccoli with spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner growing up because she saw it in the movie Moonstruck, and then I started talking about the movie Moonstruck.
“It’s just kind of a journey, an odyssey, into my mind,” she says. “A stream of consciousness? I also have an ongoing conversation with myself on the microphone about the Oxford comma.”
The protests inside state capitols to support democracy
The Nebraska filibuster joins several other high-profile actions in state capitols across the country against other antidemocratic efforts, including the removal of two young Black lawmakers from Tennessee’s House after they joined protests demanding more stringent gun control measures.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana also sued the state and its House of Representatives after Republican lawmakers voted to kick state Rep Zooey Zephyr out of the House chambers for the rest of the session.
Ms Zephyr, the first openly trans elected official in the state, faced sanction from GOP lawmakers after she criticised a bill banning gender-affirming care, which sparked protests inside the capitol.
“I think there is absolutely a movement nationally, and it’s against hate in general, but it’s also against just these far-right culture war bull**** policies that no American and no Nebraskan actually cares about,” Ms Hunt tells The Independent.
“These are not the priorities of even conservative Nebraskans,” she says. “We want to talk about the economy, taxes, child welfare, our justice system, education funding – like, we want to talk about things that are good governance, things that make government boring, frankly.”
Polls suggest that public opinion about trans rights is complex and mixed. In a recent Fox News survey, 57 per cent of respondents said that “families with transgender children being targets of political attacks” is a “major problem” in the US, with 26 per cent calling it a “minor problem”.
Roughly similar numbers agreed that “female transgender athletes competing in women’s sports” was also a problem. However, only 1 per cent of people suggested “wokeness / transgender issues” when asked to name the most important issue facing the country.
Nebraska Sen John Fredrickson was elected into office in November 2022 and is the first openly gay man to serve in Nebraska’s state legislature.
“If you would have told me six months ago or whatever that this is what my first year in the body would have looked like, I would have never believed you,” he tells The Independent.
“It’s been tough, to be honest with you,” he says. “I mean, there are definitely days where it’s hard to show up in that chamber., Bbut, the queer community, we’re survivors, we are resilient, we’re strong. … I think the most important thing that I can do, the most important thing my colleagues can do, the most important thing the community can do, is to keep our heads up, keep our chins up, keep showing up.”
Ms Cavanaugh, Ms Hunt and Mr Fredrickson have launched the Don’t Legislate Hate political action committee, a nonpartisan campaign to support opposition to legislation targeting LGBT+ people in statehouses across the US.
“Any time a person in a position of power sees an attack happening on a minority population or vulnerable population, it is their responsibility to stand up,” Ms Cavanaugh tells The Independent.
“It’s not something that you should have to put a lot of effort into thinking about; it’s your job. It’s my job. And so that’s part of the reason that I do it.
“But I also do it because – I care,” she says. “I care about the fact that a specific population within that community is being targeted. And I think I have a responsibility to make sure that trans people and specifically trans kids know that they matter, know that they’re loved, know that they are worth fighting for, and know that I’m going to fight for them.”
If you are based in the US and seek LGBT+ affirming mental health support, resources are available from Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860) and the LGBT Hotline (888-843-4564), as well as The Trevor Project (866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678).
If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the US, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.