With limitations on gender-affirming care now law, here's how a PAC is fighting back

June 2, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Senator Megan Hunt during debate Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Megan Hunt during debate Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Nebraska lawmakers voted in May to restrict gender-affirming care for minors after a contentious battle that sparked national media attention, heated debates and a weeks-long filibuster from Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh that slowed the floor to a crawl.

The legislation at the heart of it all is LB574, known as the “Let Them Grow Act.” It includes regulation of puberty blockers for minors, a ban on gender-affirming surgeries for people under the age of 19 and gives the sole responsibility of this regulation to the state’s chief medical officer.

Timothy Tesmer, MD said that while the law states it would rest “on the shoulders of the chief medical officer,” final rules and regulations would be evidence-based and reasonable. Tesmer said the terms that are decided upon will go into effect sometime after Oct. 1.

And in a last minute addition to LB574, an amendment to ban abortions after 12-weeks was attached and passed. But the new law is currently being challenged in court, with a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, arguing that the new law violates the single-subject rule of the Nebraska State Constitution.

In a written statement, ACLU of Nebraska's interim executive director Mindy Rush Chipman said, “Although both components of LB 574 took away Nebraskans’ freedoms, ultimately we are talking about two entirely unrelated subjects: gender-related care for trans youth and abortion access,” Chipman said.

While other state legislatures have been debating the gender-affirming care issue for years, it’s a new one for Nebraska. LB574 was proposed by Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, who was appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts on June 7, 2022, to fill the seat of former senator Rich Pahls who died two months earlier.

To fight overwhelming legislative support of the measure, Sens. Megan Hunt and John Fredrickson of Omaha joined Cavanaugh to launch a new political action committee called Don’t Legislate Hate. It promises to support Nebraskan and out-of-state candidates who are running for state office and are fighting anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation, according to their website.

“Nebraska isn't alone in its passing of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation,” Hunt said. “There are 20 states that have passed bills prohibiting gender-affirming care. I know that our team is going to continue to raise money to help elect legislators who aren't afraid to fight back against these types of discriminatory and regressive bills.”

Sen. Megan Hunt poses in her office. (Lauryn Higgins / Midwest Newsroom)

Gender-affirming care includes nonsurgical treatments like mental health care, puberty blockers, hormone therapy and reproductive counseling, as well as surgical options. These courses of treatment can last for years. Many are incremental that may only begin with the approval of parents or guardians and healthcare providers.

In all cases, gender-affirming surgeries are only performed after multiple discussions with both mental health providers and physicians to determine if surgery is the appropriate course of action, with the general recommendation for gender-affirming surgeries to be done after age 18.

There is a debate among medical professionals about which children should be getting these treatments and at what age, but the Nebraska Medical Association is among those opposed to LB574, and most major medical organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, consider this care medically necessary for those who qualify.

For Nebraskan Marcus Pennell, a trans man, LB574 is personal.

“I wanted to believe we would stay out of it, but my hopes were not met,” Pennell, ,19, said. “It makes me very nervous for my future and question whether or not I will be able to live here whether I want to or not, as this kind of legislation continues to be proposed.”

Marcus Pennell poses for a portrait. (Joshua Foo / Midwest Newsroom)

As in Nebraska, legislation that would prohibit trans children and young adults from seeking gender-affirming care has been proposed in seven state legislatures this year alone, with 20 states currently banning care.

“It's really sad, obviously, a pretty big human rights violation,” Pennell said. “I think a lot of that rhetoric can lead to misinformation. And I can't help but wonder if some of the politicians behind these laws really know the medical information and statistics that support the fact that gender-affirming care saves lives, as well as communities where LGBTQ+ youth feel safe and welcome.”

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation reports that 30.5% of the nation’s transgender youth live in states that have passed bans on gender-affirming care, and 13.6% of transgender youth are at risk of losing access to gender-affirming care.

As of May 31, the ACLU was tracking 491 bills that target LGBTQ rights, across the United States. They include access to healthcare, participating in school sports and other activities, and banning lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade.

'Don't legislate hate' PAC

Hunt said the PAC – the first of its kind in Nebraska – is more important than ever following the passing of LB574. She said the PAC has received hundreds of donations – from people as close to home in western Nebraska to supporters in New York, Los Angeles and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

“We know that these bans on health care are not popular with Nebraskans,” Hunt said. “Just like they aren't popular with Americans. And people are voicing that with their money and their donations to our PAC.”

Hunt could not say exactly how much money the Don’t Legislate Hate PAC has raised, but said donations have ranged from $5 to $500. The PAC is currently not teaming up with similar groups in other states, but Hunt said she, Fredrickson and Cavanaugh, are committed to backing lawmakers who stand up against these types of bills wherever they are.

“We'll use the platform we've created to show the LGBTQ community that they are not alone,” Hunt said. “That there are politicians with the courage and the stamina and the heart to stand up for them. Thirty-three senators voted for this bill, but 33 individuals don't represent the will of the people.”

Hunt said the PAC is not going to play a role in any pending lawsuits, but its team does support the rights of citizens and advocates to use any legal means necessary to stop discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

'This year feels different'

Supporters of banning transition care often portray transgender teenagers as depressed or misguided, highlighting examples of transgender people who have come to regret medical procedures they underwent at a young age.

Proponents also argue there’s little harm in forcing young people to put off transition care until they’re adults. Gov. Jim Pillen (R) indicated his approval following the signing of LB574.

“Today is a historic day in the State of Nebraska,” he said in a statement. “It is a day where we are standing up and protecting our kids so that they can have a better and brighter future. LB574 is the most significant win for social conservatives in a generation, and is part of what has been a historic legislative session with senators voting for policies that protect our kids, cut taxes, grow agriculture, and defend our Nebraska values.”

Despite intense opposition from Democrats and LGBTQ advocates, lawmakers who support LB574 have argued this legislation only affects a small number of Nebraskans, making the level of outrage and response unwarranted. The Williams Institute estimates that at least 5,600 transgender people live in Nebraska.

Lincoln PFLAG courtesy photo

Pat Tetreault is secretary of Lincoln’s PFLAG chapter, an organization dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for LGBTQ people and their families called the assertion a shocking argument from individuals who take an oath to support the constitution.

“They are basically saying that it is okay to violate the rights of some people because there aren’t that many of them,” she said. “The majority should not have the right to take away the rights of minorities.”

Tetreault, along with those who oppose LB574, feel that more inclusivity is on the horizon for the Nebraska LGBTQ community, and believe the Don’t Legislate Hate PAC is an excellent way to spread that message beyond state lines.

Invoking a well-known slogan, Tetreault said:

“Right now the state motto is ‘Nebraska, it’s not for everyone but honestly, it should be.’”

With the “Let Them Grow Act” signed into law, Hunt said it remains to be seen whether she and allies are going to filibuster during the next legislative session. Regardless, she said, they will work hard to make sure that their votes are heard just as loudly in the next election.

Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature in the country. Proponents of this system argue that it makes for a more simple and efficient decision-making process that allows all senators to have a fuller and fairer hearing of their constituents’ interests. While those opposed to the one-chamber system say it can create an opportunity for one political party to force objectionable laws through – especially if that party has dominance in the chamber.

Hunt said the increased visibility of the Legislature this year because of LB574 is an opportunity for greater transparency and accountability. Hunt said it could even boost civic engagement and inspire more Nebraska voters.

“We want people to know that no matter what happens, we will always use every tool available to us to fight against discrimination,” Hunt said. “To make sure that people have equality under the law and to protect our LGBTQ family.”


This story was commissioned for Nebraska Public Media from the Midwest Newsroom, a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.