Transgender Nebraska farmer: Small town support “has been quite good”

June 22, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·


Listen To This Story

For a very long time Ashley Swartz kept a low-profile, satisfied with being on her fifth-generation farm land in Saunders County near Wahoo. Swartz is one of the few transgender farmers in America.

Nearly twenty years ago Swartz decided to tell family and neighbors about her gender identification. Long before transgender issues became part of a national discussion, people around Malmo, Nebraska adjusted to referring to their neighbor with feminine pronouns.

More and more, Swartz has been willing to share her story in small groups and a few years ago in a newspaper profile. Now she’s the headliner on a statewide speaking tour focusing on transgender awareness in rural Nebraska.

Now that planting season is over, Swartz had time to sit down and talk with NET News producer Bill Kelly about her journey and why she’s decided to speak more publicly about being transgendered in rural Nebraska.

Swartz in the farmhouse where she was raised near Malmo, Nebraska (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Speaking Tour

Ashley Swartz will be sharing her story and answering questions during the Transgender Voices tour.

Scottsbluff, NE

Monday, June 26th, 6 p.m. MDT

Panhandle Research & Extension Center, 4502 Avenue I

McCook, NE

Tuesday, June 27th, 6:00 p.m. CDT

MPCC, Weeth Theater, 1205 East Third Street

North Platte, NE

Wednesday, June 28th, 6 p.m. CDT

MPCC, McDonald Belton Theater, 601 W. State Farm Road

The Swartz family farm. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Ashley Swartz: I grow corn and soy beans. I work with my brother. My dad is retired. He gets out almost every day. He's the one that started the farm.

Bill Kelly, NET News: How long has the family farm been here?

Swartz: My great great-grandfather moved to this country, moved over by Linwood, Nebraska and started farming. His kids, they ended up two miles down the road, which (was) my great-grandfather, my dad's grandpa.

Kelly: There are people who are born into farming and there are people who are born farmers. Are you a born farmer? Do you really have that connection with the land?

Swartz: If I'd been honest with myself when I was younger, I probably wouldn't have started farming, but I've come to enjoy it and I like it a lot. It's been good to me. I stayed on the farm for my kids. I didn't know if I could get a job or if I did get a job if I could keep it if they found out about my past.

Kelly: When did you recognize that there was this division within you with what you were projecting as a boy versus what you felt inside?

Swartz: Well my first recollection was when I was three. I remember we were playing house and they needed a husband, and the father figure because we were playing getting married. And of course I played that role because that was what I was supposed to do. But, deep inside I related to being the other. I related to being the wife and the mom and other women. Didn't want to admit it. (I didn’t want to be) made fun of so I watched the boys very carefully and I learned to become that. In a lot of ways, I must have been okay because I became part of the group (but) I never really understood it or connected with it. I wanted to badly but it just wasn't to be.

I remember one time going to a wedding when I was like seven years old. And, everybody coming up to me, "Oh, you're so handsome in your cute little suit." And, I remember feeling like, "Well why aren't I pretty?" And, then I'd beat myself up for thinking that. I'd go, it means the same thing as a compliment but it doesn't mean the same thing. One was more masculine and one was more feminine. One matched me and the other did not.

When Ashley Swartz was born her name was Kevin. While still identifying as a boy, he had an uneasy relationship with his own sexuality. It was an era where few people understood the concept of being transgendered. Certainly Kevin and his family had no knowledge of anyone who publicly fit the description in Saunders County. He was raised Roman Catholic and educated at Bishop Neumann Catholic High School. When talking about herself prior to 1996, Ashley rarely uses the name she lived with for over three decades.

Kelly: Tell me about Kevin.

Swartz:: That person was someone that did not want to be different; that tried really, really hard to fit in and didn't want to; always wanted to be liked and loved by everybody (with) this deep faith. I always wanted to please God. As the old self, I thought I was more evil and of the devil. I kind of started walking away from God. Because if there was no God then there was no devil. I had to pretend and be something I was not. It just started to destroy the soul I think. My soul was dying.

Kelly: You could very much tell that you were female at that point or did you recognize it?

Swartz: I did actually. I didn't want it. I would judge myself for it. And, I would be harsh against myself for that and call myself sick and disgusting. There's this constant battle inside of me all the time going “what's right, what's wrong?"

The very core of my being said this is right and the external part that I learned was saying this is right. Kind of like the earth's crust when you have an earthquake. The pressure kept building. I think it was when I had my children that I really came to a (breaking) point.

Kelly: And you had nobody to talk to about this?

Swartz: I chose not to talk anybody because I figured I was evil. I (was) afraid I'd might get spanked or put into some asylum or something.

Kelly: What was the tipping point?

Swartz: It was probably my marriage. (At my wedding) I remember we had some time after pictures and I was thinking, "This is so wrong, what am I doing?" We'll go to counseling. We'll figure it out. This has to be the right thing. This is where we're going to find happiness and it didn't happen. I think that's what got me going to counseling.

Kelly: The marriage ends and you're kind of at the end of your rope.

Swartz: I was told that I would not see my kids if I transitioned. I figured I'd have to go give up everything I've ever known. Basically, the farm, my family because I knew this would be hard. I mean it was hard for me. How could it not be hard for other people?

That's when I finally just said “Okay God, I have no idea what I'm doing. Just take me and do with me as you will.” And it felt like something showed up in my life and met me where I was at and continues to walk with me today.

Kelly: How did that feel?

Swartz: Peace. I felt like dancing. I felt like a joy. There was no judgment or condemn, condemnation like I thought there would be, at least within my relationship with God. I realized if I want my kids to find that type of peace, to be true with themselves, how am I supposed to teach them that if I'm not that myself?

Kelly: There was a time when you decided that you were going to leave the house and you were going to go into town and it was going to be Ashley.

Swartz: It was April in 1995. There was a transgender support group in Omaha. I went as my old self. The next month I said I'm going back as me. This is who I am, so I had to prepare. I went and bought my clothes and I found somebody that was a Mary Kay representative that helped me with my makeup. At the April meeting I went back as myself and nobody recognized me from the previous month.

Kelly: Did that feel good?

Swartz: That did feel good. My friend I went with she goes, "Whoa, what's your name going to be?" I don't know. I keep going back and forth. When I got to the door they (say), "And who are you?"

"I'm Ashley." And that's how my name came.

Kelly: There is going out in that safe space. There is taking that next step into Malmo or Wahoo. Did you come up with a plan as to how to best go about that?

Swartz: Before I really made any for sure decisions, I started telling some of my closest friends. I felt like they needed to hear it from me face to face, out of respect for our friendship. As time progressed, I let other people know (because) I also knew that the word would probably get around a lot easier.

I'd made the decision, late 1995 that I was going to start living full time in January of ‘96. I remember taking my first step into the local little bar grill down here and getting a pop. (The owner says “can I help you?” He didn't realize who I was at first, and then he looked at me and said "You know I don't want you coming back in here like this." I said, “okay that's fine,” and I never have been back in there that way.

Kelly: Were you prepared for that reaction?

Swartz: Maybe. I kind of figured I'd get more of that even as I started, you know going to the bank and different places like that. But, most people are quite respectful.

You know in these little farm communities everybody knows everybody. And, the people you do business with (are) your bankers. I have to go and talk to these people and the people I rented land from and so on. After talking with everybody, they didn't know what to think of it. Like my one banker said, “This is not California. We don't know anything about this but, if you continue doing business the way you are doing business then it's not a big deal.” So, they continued doing business with me.

My son was enrolled in a Catholic grade school at the time. I knew the principal. I knew the teacher. I sat down and told them what was going on. “Can (you) keep an eye on him?” They said sure we'll keep an eye on him. I talked to a couple of the parents (of) my son's friends (and said) please don't hold this against him and they said, "Oh, no we wouldn't do that." So, this community has been quite good.

Kelly: A lot of your folks adapted pretty quickly.

Swartz: They did. Yeah. Sometimes in social events they still struggle a little bit. They're afraid of what others might say.

Kelly: Okay. Is it easier for you to get past that now?

Swartz: Yeah, it is. I think the biggest thing for me is, if God can meet me where I'm at and each one of us, why should I not be able try and meet people where they're at? We're all in different places at different times. But it also depends on making an effort too.

Even when I got kicked out of that one church. It was a very difficult thing for me but a very healing thing for me. I had been attending a church in Omaha. Been there three years before they found out. When they found out they either wanted me to transition back or leave.

Kelly: They wanted you to transition back?

Swartz: Yeah. Cause they felt otherwise I still had the call of the devil in my life, is what I was told at that time by this pastor.

Transgender Voices

Recently Ashley Swartz appeared in one of a series of videos produced by the American Civil Liberties Union, Nebraska Chapter.

Swartz spoke to small gatherings at colleges and churches over the years. Recently requests to hear her story have begun to fill her calendar. She was included in a video series featuring transgendered Nebraskans and may be featured in a documentary. (See sidebar) In June she will tour western Nebraska to raise awareness about rural gay, lesbian and transgendered Nebraskans.

Kelly: You've had a choice between staying on the farm, doing your thing, vising with your kids, and just living actual life. Increasingly you're being very public. Why is that? What is that important to you.

Swartz: It's a great question. It's interesting because that is exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to go live my life and not be involved in any of this. It was 1997 and I first had somebody want me to come and speak someplace. I didn't know if I wanted to do that. Then I saw a couple of young kids playing one day. And I just smiled and seeing these young innocent children playing and having fun. And, then this fear came upon me and goes, oh please God, no, don't let them go through what I had to go through.

Kelly: You strike me as a very reluctant role model right now.

Swartz: I am. I am. Because I'm selfish at heart. But the thing that keeps me thinking about it is all these people who are hurting.

Kelly: You're going on this tour, west-central, west Nebraska. There must be some misconceptions you would like people to set aside just by your being in the room.

Swartz: It kind of goes back to when I first heard our representatives in Congress and Senate say, "Oh we don't have any trans-people in my district." That's when it made me say, okay I have got to go visit them now, because you do have them. This pretending or having this sense of ignorance.

The transgender community, or even the gay community, has been de-humanized and demonized so much that we're not seen as people. But we are. We are all people. I don't care what you believe. I'm still going to love you. I'm still going to support you. I'm still going to be your neighbor and I'm going to love my neighbor as myself. I'm not a big scary thing. I'm not a demon. I am a human.

Kelly: The perception of the trans community is most people have seen the celebrities who are out there now. There are actors and actresses who are transsexual. There's no identification in rural America with anyone who's transsexual.

Swartz: I don't know that I've ever felt like I was an anomaly. I mean, 20 years ago I didn't know of anyone else around that was like this. Even within actors or actresses or well-known people. It just wasn't really out there. Usually what you saw or heard from it was using negative stereotyping that might have been in the news, which was usually very negative stuff. I didn't want to be that type of person.

Transgender Farmers

Ashley Swartz has spoken to other transgendered people in agriculture, but she knows it's a rare thing.

In a (by no means exhaustive) search of the internet we were only able to find three people who were full or part-time farmers.

Kelly: Is there a unique voice you bring? Both living in rural America and being a farmer.

Swartz: A lot of people said they liked that I brought it down more to a human understanding. That was one of my things when I first started this. We're all people and we all have different issues. We're just wanting to raise our kids. We're just wanting to get through this life the best we know how. To be good people. Be good members of society and community and all those things.

It's really interesting to be walking through the students and hearing them say, "Ah, she's just a regular person." I guess that point is coming across.

Kelly: Are there special challenges as a trans person in farming?

Swartz: I think the biggest thing for me was becoming a woman because women are second-class citizens a little bit and not expected to be seen in the farming community a bit as running a farm. Maybe as housewives.

Kelly: So, it's not even the transition part. It's the gender part.

Swartz: You know if I'm with a guy and some are talking about equipment, they're always going to talk to the guy and that's where they will go. And you know what, I don't really care to be honest with you. Some ways it's a way of saying okay, that's just part of being a woman. Should it be, maybe not. But, at least I'm being seen for who I am.

Today Swartz lives in the same home where she was raised as a boy. She’s visited regularly by her daughter, newly-graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her son and granddaughter.

Kelly: Are you glad you stayed here and stayed at this house?

Swartz: Yes, I am. I am indeed. It's my home. It has been my home. No matter what the community thinks of me, I still love this community and value this community. It's helped me through a lot. I've learned a lot. A lot of the biggest parts of who I am that people like about me, I got it from this very community. That caring, that generosity and that type of stuff. I got a lot of that from this community.

Kelly: There might have been an assumption that part of leaving Kevin behind would have meant leaving this house behind. But, you're here.

Swartz: Yes. It was a hard transition because it was so related to the other person. It's hard to divide and break that apart. At the same time, I always wanted my kids to know that they had a home and they had a place. I really like the community and family ties that are here. Our biological family connection. I always wanted my kids to have that.

My daughter when (talking) to people said the farm has always been there for us. We always know there's a place for us. As my son's gotten older, he sees the value in it as well. He would love to have his daughter raised out here because my granddaughter loves it out here. Loves being out in the country. Every time I see her, "Can we go to the farm?" I guess it's always been their safe spot for them.