‘You need to know us’: Trans youths describe life in Nebraska

Transgender and gender-nonconforming children from Kearney, Lincoln, Bellevue and Omaha talk about advocating this year in the Nebraska Legislature to ‘humanize’ their existence

By: - July 5, 2023 7:30 am
A collage of four trans and gender-nonconforming youths in Nebraska

Transgender and gender-nonconforming youths in Nebraska speak out on their identities in the context of politics in the state. From left are Nola Rhea of Lincoln, Isabella Manhart of Omaha, Julian Murdoc Stokes of Bellevue and Maeve Malice of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — When 17-year-old Nola Rhea begins her senior year in the fall at Lincoln High School, it could be her last year of education in Nebraska.

The prospective high school graduate, who has plans to study economics and sociology, could have her pick of a Nebraska college or university. Instead, she’s looking to Minnesota or another state where she believes she can be safe from laws such as some proposed in the Nebraska Legislature.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Nola, who is transgender, said this week. “I grew up here and part of me wants to stay, part of me wants to go, but with the laws, I basically made my mind up.”

She is one of six trans or gender-nonconforming youths who spoke to the Nebraska Examiner recently to discuss their experiences living in Nebraska. 

Nebraska lawmakers watch the final vote to approve LB 574 on May 19. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Their stories come after the Legislature passed Legislative Bill 574 in May to restrict gender-affirming care for minors. Transition surgeries will be banned when the bill takes effect Oct. 1.

The state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Timothy Tesmer, will have the final say on regulating  puberty blockers and hormone therapies. He has said those rules and regulations may not be ready by that date, leading to uncertainty about what happens at that time.

Also pending in the Legislature is LB 575, which would define K-12 school bathrooms, sporting teams and locker rooms as either male or female according to sex assigned at birth, and LB 371, which would prohibit minors from attending drag shows.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha proposed LB 574 and LB 575, while Dave Murman of Glenvil proposed LB 371. The pair have described their legislation as efforts to “protect children” with no ill will intended toward transgender or LGBTQ people.

No problem until ‘Legislature decided to make it’ one

Nola’s mother, Heather, said that when Nola came out at the end of eighth grade, she was worried for Nola because she didn’t want her child’s life to be harder.

Nola Rhea, at right, and her mother, Heather Rhea. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

However, Heather said, Nola became happier. Nola has been on hormones for multiple years. Though Nola expects her medications to be allowed when LB 574 takes effect in October, she and her mother said other families won’t be as lucky.

Nola said that while no one has derided her for being trans, life has worsened with the introduction of bills in the Legislature. 

“There was no problem up until the Legislature decided to make it a problem,” Nola said.

The transgender community used to have small visibility, largely being relegated to being the subject of jokes in comedy movies, Nola said. Now some accuse trans people or lawmakers opposing bills such as LB 574 of being in favor of “mutilating children.”

Heather said she watched most of this year’s legislative session, often from the legislative balconies, where debate was consumed by LB 574 and near-endless filibusters. 

Those efforts, the family noted, brought a different kind of visibility both locally and nationally.

State lawmakers have adjourned until next January, but some last month detailed to the Examiner an alternative path for LB 575 next year: to leave the fight to the school boards.

Heather said she read the senators’ comments and cried.

“It’s really easy for you to say that you don’t want this fight anymore because you should have ended it before you hurt people,” she said.

‘You need to see our faces’

Isabella Manhart of Omaha is an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, studying education.

Manhart, who is nonbinary, said they could threaten to leave the state as there is a teacher shortage, but they remain committed to teaching in the state’s largest school district. 

Isabella Manhart sits in front of the Urban Abbey’s children’s book section on June 26, 2023, in Omaha, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

They want to help create the kind of schools that they wish they had growing up and that they wish their younger brother, who is also trans, could have now.

“Trans kids will continue to grow up here, whether or not there are good people fighting for them here,” Manhart said. “And I want to be one of those people fighting for them.”

Manhart often spoke at the State Capitol and lobbied state senators this spring, similar to the Rheas and other families of other trans youths who contacted senators in what they said were attempts to humanize their experiences. 

Manhart said they showed up with a packet of highlighted research to show senators, some of whom met with families and were receptive.

Others were not.

One senator compared hormone therapies to heroin, Manhart said, and another, in an email to their family, told them they were sinners.

Though senators might not listen, Manhart said, a central focus was to force lawmakers to look trans people in the eyes before the final vote on LB 574.

“You need to know us,” Manhart said. “You need to see our faces when you think about this decision and what you’ve done because it’s not something that we have the privilege to take lightly.”

Opponents of the Nebraska proposals have also criticized LB 574’s supporters because regardless of whether they met with trans constituents, they serve with Omaha State Sen. Megan Hunt, whose son is trans.

‘We are living a happy life’

A family in Kearney with a 14-year-old trans son and an 11-year-old trans daughter, who spoke on the condition they not be named due to fear of retaliation, said they tried in the spring to meet with their state senator, to no avail.

The two children each came out at the age of 9 and began transitioning. The boy is on hormones; the girl is waiting for a puberty blocker later this year before LB 574 goes into effect. They hope to be able to continue their care under LB 574’s grandfather clause.

Protesters march around the Nebraska State Capitol for "Trans Day of Visibility"
Protesters march around the Nebraska State Capitol, nearly overlapping around the block on March 31. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The 11-year-old daughter said that if she had talked to the senators, she would have asked why the legislation was needed, and why now.

“We are living a happy life knowing we’re comfortable, that’s who we are, and then you’re just there to ruin it while not even knowing who we are,” she said. 

The 14-year-old son is involved in Boy Scouts and was involved in youth sports prior to a new Kearney school policy restricting sports on the basis of sex, similar to LB 575.

The child did not play on the boys’ teams because of a different policy enacted by the Nebraska School Activities Association. Instead, he was their team manager, but that is no longer allowed, his mother said. 

The boy said life has become darker and “more in the shadows.” 

His parents said their children have been pushed back further into the closet and out of public view.

‘A culture of fear’

Johnny Redd, who handles communications for OutNebraska, a nonprofit focused on uplifting LGBTQ Nebraskans, said they know of many families who have expressed intentions to leave the state.

Trans rights advocates hold signs that say "Stop attacks on trans youth," "trans rights are human rights" and "trans Nebraskans belong" at a protest in the Nebraska State Capitol
Trans rights advocates gather for a rally in the Nebraska State Capitol on Feb. 8. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Redd, who is nonbinary, said they are concerned that if trans youths have formed tight-knit friend groups to support their identity, splitting them up if some leave the state could be “devastating.” 

For families that don’t have the means to move, Redd said, parents can feel guilty and children can become comforters for their parents instead of parents comforting their children.

“This is just creating a culture of fear for our young people,” Redd said. “They’re constantly looking over their shoulders, even in more blue cities like Omaha or Lincoln.”

Dr. Alex Dworak of OneWorld Community Health Centers, who provides health care for trans patients, said last month that he has talked with many families of trans youths and adult patients who have considered leaving. A few, he said, have already left.

Gov. Jim Pillen at a town hall last week addressed LB 574 and said, “If somebody decides to be a transgender at 19 years of age, I’ll love them like any other Nebraskan.”

Redd said people follow their own journey and timeline, so they could come out well before or after the age of 19.

‘We’re not going anywhere’

Julian Murdoc Stokes of Bellevue. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Julian Murdoc Stokes of Bellevue and Maeve Malice of Omaha, both 18, said the proposed legislation is an effort to push trans people out of public view entirely.

Though the legislation has people riled up and scared, Stokes said, the year has brought confidence in his identity and community.

“I’d rather die young and trans and happy than die old and miserable and someone I’m not,” he said.

Similar to Manhart, Stokes is looking to be an educator and wants senators to know that he graduated and will seek to help future students thrive in school.

Malice, a Black trans woman who was homeschooled, said they prepared a speech about a year ago — before the introduction of any Nebraska legislative proposals — because they had a feeling some would come.

That speech was to address misconceptions about trans people but became a way to speak to those watching. 

Maeve Malice of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Malice gave different versions of the speech at the Capitol this year, encouraging others to step up against legislation and other efforts she described as injustices. 

Echoing similar criticism from State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha on the floor of the Legislature, Malice said the legislation is a step toward the eradication of trans people and an authoritarian effort to push them away.

“We’re here, we’re queer, and we might be full of existential fear, but we’re not going anywhere,” Malice said.


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.