Exhausted but energized, the lawmakers filibustering to stop an anti-trans law are nowhere near done

Nebraska state Senators Megan Hunt and Jen Day, transgender, filibuster, machaela cavanaugh
Nebraska state Senators Megan Hunt and Jen DayPhoto: Megan Hunt and Nebraska legislature

Every night, Democratic Nebraska state Senators Machaela Cavanaugh, Megan Hunt, and Jen Day make the hour drive from the state capitol in Lincoln to their homes in Omaha, exhausted from speaking for up to 12 hours each day to stop L.B. 574, a bill that would ban minors from receiving gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and hormone treatment.

The women and their colleagues — Sen. Danielle Conrad (D) and Sen. John Fredrickson (D), the state’s first out gay lawmaker — are now seven weeks into a filibuster — the longest in state history — to stop the “Let Them Grow Act.” Their filibuster has caused the unicameral state legislature to pass zero bills this session. Their filibuster has also challenged each senator’s stamina.

“It’s just the emotional, physically taxing part of it; that’s the hardest part,” Day tells LGBTQ Nation. “It just takes a lot of effort and mental strain to be on the mic talking for hours and hours at a time, particularly for weeks at a time. Sometimes, at the end of the day, you’re exhausted and you go home and you drop when you go to bed, and you’re like, ‘I can’t do this again.'”

“But you wake up in the morning reinvigorated,” she adds, noting both her privilege as a legislator helping to protect an already persecuted group and the massive support she and the others have received. Local constituents have prepared meals for the legislators’ families, friendly visitors have thanked them in the state capitol, and allies nationwide have sent them flowers and cards.

“There’s been so much great support that has kind of kept us going,” Day says.

Cavanaugh began her one-woman filibuster in late February. The bill’s author, Sen. Kathleen Kauth (R), and her Republican colleagues believe minors shouldn’t be able to access gender-affirming medical care until adulthood, but Cavanaugh knows that denying such care harms trans youths’ well-being — an assertion backed by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and other major healthcare groups.

At the start of her filibuster, Cavanaugh said, “If this legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority, then I am going to make it painful — painful for everyone… I will burn the session to the ground over this bill…. If you want to inflict pain upon our children, I am going to inflict pain upon this body, and I have nothing but time, and I am going to use all of it.” 

As her filibuster extended into its third week, national news outlets began taking notice, like MSNBC, ABC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Show, Vogue, and Rolling Stone. The AP, for instance, noted that Cavanaugh had spent legislative hours discussing “her favorite Girl Scout cookies, Omaha’s best doughnuts, and the plot of the animated movie Madagascar.”

Behind the scenes, Hunt, the state’s first out bisexual senator, was busy speaking to Republican colleagues — meeting in their offices, catching them in the halls — hopeful that negotiation could convince them to kill the bill. But, as it became evident that no Republicans would, Hunt decided to join Cavanaugh’s effort.

“There are at least five, six, seven Republican lawmakers who don’t support this bill,” Hunt tells LGBTQ Nation, “who have said, ‘I hate this bill. I know it’s bad for Nebraskans. I know it’s bad for the legislature.’ But what they need to do is find the courage to hang together as a block… Frankly, I’m not really sure … why they won’t.”

For Hunt, the filibuster is intensely personal. Her 12-year-old son is trans. If the law passes, it’ll violate her right to provide life-saving care to her own child, as well as the children of countless others.

When joining the filibuster effort in mid-March, Hunt told her Republican colleagues, “Don’t say hi to me in the hall, don’t ask me how my weekend was, don’t walk by my desk and ask me anything. Don’t send me Christmas cards ― take me off the list. No one in the world holds a grudge like me, and no one in the world cares less about being petty than me. I don’t care. I don’t like you.”

Now, after nearly a month of filibustering, Hunt says, “It really definitely takes a toll on you.”

But, she adds, “It’s really important outwardly to just seem really strong. In these kinds of knockdown drag-out fights in politics, as soon as you start looking weak, as soon as you start looking tired, it’s like a shark smelling blood in the water.”

Hunt gained confidence in her ability to do just about anything strenuous for hours on end after spending 70 hours in labor giving birth to her son. Now, with fewer than 30 days left in the legislative session, she says, “It’s not forever. There’s an end in sight.”

Initially, Cavanaugh’s one-woman filibuster required her to repeatedly file new legislative motions. Each one essentially gave her 15 minutes to speak, allowing her to perpetually remain in the chamber’s speaking queue. As more senators joined her effort, they helped use all the speaking time, grinding all legislation to a halt.

However, at the end of March, the legislature’s Republican majority changed the rules to limit the number of motions a senator can file. The filibuster team then changed its strategy.

To get a final vote, each bill must go through three rounds of debate: an eight-hour initial round, a four-hour second round, and a two-hour final round. By using the maximum debate time, the senators have greatly reduced how many bills can become law. Nebraska’s legislature usually passes hundreds of laws each year. This year, the chamber may pass just above 20. The filibuster team is confident that the six anti-trans bills introduced this session won’t be among them.

Though Republicans could try and change the rules again, Day says, “In order for them to take away the ability to filibuster entirely, it would require so many rules changes and would require so much dismantling of the institution itself that I don’t think that they will be able to go that far.”

Of course, not every legislator agrees with what they’re doing. “I don’t have the luxury to blow up everything,” Sen. Justin Wayne (D) told the AP, mentioning bills on criminal justice, school improvement, and child services that are now in limbo. The transphobic bill’s author, Kauth, criticized the filibuster group for putting their views ahead of citizens’ needs.

But even as June 9, the final day of Nebraska’s legislative session, slowly approaches, Day and Hunt disagree with those criticisms.

Day says that progressive legislation had little chance of passing through the Republican-dominated chamber to begin with. She notes that many Nebraskans consider transphobic legislation the true waste of the chamber’s time.

“The people who are standing in the way of progress for the session are not the folks like me standing up for human rights,” Hunt said. “It’s on those who refuse to negotiate and compromise, who are saying, ‘It’s more important to us to discriminate against kids than it is to have a successful session.’ It’s on them.”

Day also notes that Kauth’s bill is similar to other bans on gender-affirming care being introduced nationwide. “They’re almost identical to each other and they come from a very small handful of far-right groups,” she says.

To help combat such legislation, Cavanaugh, Hunt, and Fredrickson launched a political action committee (PAC) called Don’t Legislate Hate. The PAC’s website only contains a donation link currently, but it will support legislators who are fighting against the 400+ anti-LGBTQ+ laws introduced across the country. The senators are also urging people to speak out against these laws on social media using the hashtag #DontLegislateHate.

In the meantime, Hunt encourages everyday people to challenge anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in their own states by partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups who are already combatting such hateful bills.

She also notes, “There’s no wrong way to contact your lawmakers… and tell them, ‘We’re not going to take this blatant discrimination anymore.'”

“I think in this flyover state, we’re all kind of used to being ignored a little bit, but we’re doing really meaningful important things,” Hunt said. “I want to show people, lawmakers, average folks, advocates, whoever in every conservative community that it’s not hopeless, that they can make change, and there’s people all over the country who have their back.”

“If any of us could wave a wand and just make everything okay, we would do that,” she continues. “But Mother Nature doesn’t work like that. She equips us with the tools to do a hard job and requires us to do it even if that means using a fingernail file to take down the largest oak in the forest.”

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