Nebraska Legislature advances bill to restrict trans health care for minors

Opponents’ passionate pleas fail to sway supporters on final day of debate

By: - March 23, 2023 4:15 pm
Opponents of LB 574 regarding gender-affirming care hold signs in the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol, including a sign that reads, "Keep hate out of health care."

Opponents of LB 574 meet senators following the final day of debate regarding the bill on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. Supporters garnered enough votes to advance the measure, which brought emotions for those for and against the bill and a promise to continue fighting. (Zach Wendling/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.

State senator Kathleen Kauth speaks on the floor of the Legislature.
State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

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 State 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 State 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: State Sens. Tom Brandt of Plymouth and Jana Hughes of Seward voted present, while State 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.

State senator Jana Hughes listens to colleagues on the floor of the Legislature.
State Sen. Jana Hughes of Seward on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“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.

State senators join in support of trans youth at a rally in the Nebraska State Capitol.
State Sens. John Cavanaugh, Machaela Cavanaugh, Tony Vargas, Danielle Conrad, Jen Day and George Dungan join in support of trans youth at a rally in the Nebraska State Capitol on Feb. 8, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“I’m taking back this conversation, and it starts now,” State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said.

Machaela Cavanaugh, along with State Sens. Danielle Conrad, John Fredrickson, Megan Hunt, Jen Day, Carol Blood, Lynne Walz, John Cavanaugh, George Dungan and Tony Vargas, spoke Thursday. State 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 State 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.

Nebraska state senator Lynne Walz speaks about her son on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature.
State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

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.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.