This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — Supporters of a bill to restrict what gender-affirming care minors could receive in the state advanced Thursday by a vote of 30-17 in the Nebraska Legislature.
Thursday topped off three days of debate that included passionate pleas, conflicting medical studies and a historic minority statement regarding Legislative Bill 574, the “Let Them Grow Act” proposed by Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha.
The proposal would prohibit procedures of procedures such as puberty blockers, hormone therapies and genital or non-genital surgeries until the age of 19. It would also bar providers from making referrals for such care.
A procedural motion to end debate, “cloture,” passed 33-16 — the minimum votes required. All Republican senators in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, along with Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, a Democrat, voted in favor.
The 30-17 vote to advance LB 574 (which required 25 votes) included three defections: Sens. Tom Brandt of Plymouth and Jana Hughes of Seward voted present, while Sen. Christy Armendariz of Omaha voted against the bill.
Two of three defectors look to amendment
Armendariz told the Examiner that enough debate had progressed, so she voted for cloture. She added that she’s not an “early voter” and votes when she presses her button or when her name is called, so it’s too soon to say how she will vote in the future.
“I believe these are good parents trying to do the best for their kids, and I don’t want to encroach on their rights,” Armendariz said.
Hughes said her votes are an effort to “be consistent” and move things along. She voted in a similar fashion on LB 753, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s proposal to provide some form of public funds to private schools.
Hughes said she supports an amendment to LB 574 to narrow the bill’s focus to just surgeries. Hughes said surgeries are her “hard line,” and without the amendment, she is leaning against the bill.
“I came here to do property tax [relief] and broadband,” Hughes said in explaining how difficult this vote was.
Brandt said he supports the bill if the amendment is adopted, and he said he voted for cloture to get there.
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and others, however, have pledged to block consideration of any amendments.
“If you vote for this, you vote for this,” she said Tuesday. “You vote for LB 574 in its purest, evil form.”
LB 575, another proposal by Kauth that would affect trans youths, involving bathrooms and sporting teams, remains in the Education Committee. Five of the eight committee members signed on to that legislation.
Filibusters will return
Opponents have stated LB 574 would be an infringement of parental rights, but supporters said there are already restrictions on minors. These include laws that bar minors from accessing such things as guns, certain tattoos, R-rated movies or pornography.
Supporters this week also said discrepancies in studies involving gender-affirming care encourage caution in allowing such procedures.
During Thursday’s debate, no supporters spoke except Kauth, who had the floor for just over a minute.
That’s because 10 senators used 15 procedural motions, which allowed them to take up to 10 minutes each, for a total of more than two hours, which used up the remaining time for debate. Each senator would speak for 10 minutes and then withdrew the motion for debate to move on.
“I’m taking back this conversation, and it starts now,” State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said.
Machaela Cavanaugh, along with Sens. Danielle Conrad, John Fredrickson, Megan Hunt, Jen Day, Carol Blood, Lynne Walz, John Cavanaugh, George Dungan and Tony Vargas, spoke Thursday. Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln also spoke in response to a question from Conrad.
Day and Hunt pledged to join the endless filibusters initially started by Machaela Cavanaugh on Feb. 23 to jam up the process and “burn the session to the ground.”
Opponents would need to persuade one senator to vote against cloture during the second round of debate, which will be scheduled by Sen. John Arch of La Vista, speaker of the Legislature.
“This shouldn’t be the hill to die on,” Conrad said on the floor. “If one single thing that’s said in debate today or at any time causes you a scintilla of hesitation, you have to be ‘present not voting’ or vote no.”
Mental health crisis
Day and Fredrickson read into the record an email from Kindred Psychology, a counseling psychology practice in Lincoln.
The email states that since Tuesday’s debate, crisis calls were being received from transgender and gender diverse adolescents. Some youths have contacted their therapists in crisis or disclosed in sessions they are “acutely suicidal.”
“Envision the pain of these fellow human beings and please hear me – voting for LB574 will result in the deaths of transgender and gender diverse adolescents, likely before the end of the school year,” the email states. “I cannot keep them all safe – I need your partnership. Please help me keep them safe.”
Day said she often thinks of her two children, who are 14 and 10, when reading emails such as the one from Kindred Psychology.
“I look into their eyes every day when I go home, and I see how hard it is just to be a person in 2023,” Day said. “How hard it is to be a kid, let alone having your very existence being debated by adults on TV.”
‘Heads up, chins up’
Final pleas from Day, Fredrickson and Walz brought senators to tears, as did Hunt’s speech Wednesday describing how LB 574 would harm her family.
A couple of years ago, Walz’s son returned home after serving in Afghanistan, and she said he had severe depression in part due to his service. This became life-threatening a couple of times, Walz said.
Walz said it was heartbreaking to “stand by and watch him spiral out of control.”
But, later, she said, she heard a voice in her head from God telling her to listen to and love her son and that God would take care of him.
“That was the first time in my life that I ever truly fell on my knees and completely gave God control,” Walz said.
As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, Walz said, she empathized with parents who face issues that no one in the Legislature is being asked to fix.
“This is way beyond my capacity. This is way beyond my control, and it’s not a decision that I should make. It is not my job,” Walz said. “My job is to listen. My job is to care and love and serve, just as I had to do with my son. I don’t think this is our job, colleagues.”
Fredrickson cited 2019 statistics from the Trevor Project that LGBTQ youths who have one accepting adult in their lives were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.
Fredrickson said he couldn’t help but think of his mother, who accepted him for being gay. She died in 2022, he told his colleagues.
“Regardless of what happens today, heads up, chins up,” Fredrickson said, addressing LGBTQ Nebraskans. “We’re survivors. Me standing in this room is proof of that.”
Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel contributed to this report.