transgender rights

How a Single Democrat Stopped the Anti-Trans Wave

Nebraska state senator Machaela Cavanaugh. Photo: Courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Legislature

“Sometimes, I’m really not in the zone, but sometimes I can riff for hours without thinking about it,” said Nebraska state senator Machaela Cavanaugh, describing her flow state while filibustering. For the past three weeks, the Democrat has engaged in an unusual filibuster to stop the passage of a Republican bill that would deny gender-affirming care to transgender youth. Most filibusters involve a politician stalling for hours to block the advancement of a single bill, but to kill the bill known as LB574, Cavanaugh has filibustered every bill that has come up for debate this session.

“I’m frustrated,” Cavanaugh said of her many eight-hour filibuster sessions. “Everyone is frustrated and that is the intention — to aggravate to get people to stand up and think about what we’re doing and adjust the trajectory that we’re on as a state.”

As other Republican-controlled legislators advance laws restricting transgender rights and access to care, Democrats in the minority in Nebraska are in a position to take a stand thanks to the state’s unique unicameral legislature. Thirty-three votes are needed to bypass a filibuster in the state senate. But the Republican majority is one vote shy of that threshold, meaning that Cavanaugh could theoretically keep up the filibuster indefinitely, assuming no Democrats peel off to kill her effort. “I will burn this session to the ground over this bill,” she said to colleagues in February. If LB574 does manage to pass the legislature, Republican governor Jim Pillen has said he will sign it into law.

After three weeks of filibustering — including speeches ranging from trans rights to the plot of Madagascar — Cavanaugh eased up on Thursday to allow for a cloture vote that would end her filibuster to see who among her colleagues was willing to “legislate hate against children.” At the time, the Republican majority was still one vote short of advancing the bill, until a Democrat, Mike McDonnell, jumped across the aisle to vote to begin debate. When asked if she had spoken to McDonnell since the vote, Cavanaugh answered with a curt “no.”

But with Nebraska law requiring two more rounds of debate before a final vote on any bill, Cavanaugh said she remains steadfast. “I am keeping up my filibuster on every single bill moving forward,” she reaffirmed on Friday. With Republicans in control of the legislature — and Democrats unlikely to pass many of their own bills — Cavanaugh’s protest also blocks other anti-trans legislation, including an effective ban on transgender students from playing high-school sports of their choice; a ban on minors attending drag shows; and a measure allowing medical practitioners to refuse care on a religious basis. Republicans are also pursuing a six-week abortion ban.

As the filibuster gains national attention, Cavanaugh has picked up several allies in her campaign to grind the Nebraska Senate to a halt. State senator Megan Hunt, whose son is transgender, gave a speech Wednesday accusing state Republicans of bowing to the party’s national agenda: “This is all of you playing government,” she said. Hunt also noted that care for transgender minors is already difficult to access and that her son is not on puberty blockers or hormone treatments despite his repeated attempts. “You know why? Because Medicaid denied it four times.” As of Friday, four of the 17 Democratic senators promised to block all legislation during the 90-day session, which is more than half-over.

Facing a rare show of true Democratic hardball, Republicans have made an effort to dilute the bill, working on an amendment that would not restrict access to puberty blockers to minors. But Cavanaugh refuses to budge on that front either, saying that she won’t let her GOP colleagues “vote for a watered-down version of transphobia.”

“I hope legislators across the country who are in a similar position realize that this is a significant moment in time and in our history,” she said. “We are seeing legislatures attacking, targeting, dehumanizing, and demoralizing a specific population of people. If we don’t stand in the way, we may as well be joining the attack.”

How a Single Democrat Stopped the Anti-Trans Wave