Catholic Faith Prompts Nebraska Legislator to Filibuster Anti-Transgender Legislation

State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh

Catholic faith has been motivating Nebraska State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh to block transphobic legislation. “I don’t believe God makes mistakes. I believe that transgender children are perfect the way that they are,” said Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh put her belief into action on February 23rd, the day after State Senator Kathleen Kauth introduced the “Let Them Grow Act,” which attempts to ban gender-affirming medical care for trans youth in Nebraska. In response, Cavanaugh launched a filibuster campaign with State Senator Megan Hunt that dramatically stalled the legislation’s progress, despite it having support from the majority of legislators. (The bill eventually passed last week when joined with an abortion ban for pregnancies after twelve weeks.) 

Cavanaugh’s Catholic faith taught her that “the most vulnerable amongst us are the ones that we need to stand up for the most,” according to the National Catholic Reporter. She learned this lesson from her Catholic education, from elementary school through college, as well as in her professional role as the development director for the U.S. province of the Servants of Mary, a community of women religious, from 2005-2008.

Dr. Alex Dworak, a professor and associate medical director of a community health center in Omaha, supports Cavanaugh’s position. “Doing nothing is not a neutral act, scientifically or ethically or religiously,” said Dworak, who considered becoming a Jesuit while studying at Creighton University, Omaha. “Staring suffering parents and children in the eyes” and denying them gender-affirming treatment is “a grievous sin of omission,” he said.

Tessa Lackey, a trans Catholic woman in Nebraska, says that Cavanaugh’s filibuster gives her “hope” and “means a lot,” especially coming from a Catholic legislator. “Being Catholic means you come from a foundation of faith and love and community,” Lackey said. “I would like to see Catholics practice what they preach about loving one another, treating others as they would like to be treated.”

Cavanaugh’s actions contrast with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent guidelines limiting medical treatment for trans persons at Catholic healthcare institutions. The legislator laments that the bishops’ document is “normalizing the public discourse around there being something wrong with someone who’s transgender.” Cavanaugh believes that every Catholic should consider this issue for themselves. “It’s good to have a more thoughtful conversation than just accepting what we are told by leaders,” she said. “Even if I am one of the leaders, you shouldn’t accept what you’re told. It’s always good to question and to come to your own conclusion.”

Cavanaugh has come to the conclusion that the anti-trans “Let Them Grow Act” would harm Nebraska’s trans youth. “I will continue to stand up against hate, and I will continue to stand up for children for as long as necessary,” she said.

Though Cavanaugh is in the minority in Nebraska’s state senate, she is not alone in believing that people of faith must take a stand against transphobia. Eli Musselman, a trans man and a sophomore at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said that though he rarely hears about Catholics advocating for trans rights, Cavanaugh’s action “intrinsically feels very Catholic.” He concludes, “Jesus would be filibustering.”

–Ariell Watson Simon (she/her), New Ways Ministry, May 23, 2023

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