State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh’s legislative blockade reflects how advocates for (and against) trans rights rely on the playbook used in fights over abortion access.
This story was originally published on The 19th.
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh ground Nebraska’s legislative body to a halt for three weeks, stonewalling every bill regardless of whether she personally opposed it. In eight-hour stretches, she fulfilled the promise she made to her colleagues last month: to “make it painful” for the statehouse to target trans youth—even if it meant sleeping on the hardwood floor of her office between committee hearings.
Her filibuster is paused, but she and fellow Democrats hope that their efforts during this time have swayed Republicans to kill the bill. Cavanaugh brought national attention to the proposed ban on providing puberty-blocking medication and hormone treatment to trans youth in the state—and her use of the filibuster to keep a bill from being quietly slipped through the legislature echoes another one-woman statehouse stand from 10 years ago.
That filibuster, in 2013, was led by Wendy Davis, then a Texas state senator from Fort Worth who held up proceedings for almost 13 hours to block passage of an omnibus abortion bill in 2013. Although the filibuster worked, the bill was ultimately signed into law—then overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.
In an interview, Davis reflected on the parallels between her own filibuster and Cavanaugh’s—and how their stories are part of the many threads connecting the fights for abortion access and transgender rights.
“Both of these bills, and the many bills on both trans rights and abortion rights, seek to undermine one of our most basic privacies and liberties. And that is, that relationship to govern decisions about our own bodies in consultation with doctors that we trust and with our family,” Davis said.
Davis agrees with what LGBTQ+ advocates have been saying for years—that the playbook used to spread anti-trans legislation is similar to how anti-abortion bills evolved in statehouses. The initial bills focus on protecting young people and normalizing rhetoric that can then be used to draw back rights across the board, she said.
“We’re already seeing that, of course, happen with trans rights, just as we saw it happen with abortion rights,” she said. “I think so much of this is about ‘othering’ us.”
Arli Christian, an ACLU campaign strategist on LGBTQ+ rights, said Davis and Cavanaugh show what lawmakers can do now to help slow the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that primarily targets transgender youth.
“We need lawmakers right now to stick their necks out to protect trans kids,” they said. “We need to make sure that anti-trans bills don’t pass in the dark of the night and to get attention for the attacks that they are.”
Cavanaugh’s filibuster drew news coverage as she pressed on. But now it is on pause: She reached an agreement with Speaker John Arch on Thursday to allow for a cloture vote, to see who among her colleagues was willing to “legislate hate against children.” One round of debate took place last week; Nebraska law requires two more rounds of debate before a final vote on any bill.
Fights for abortion access and gender-affirming care are inherently linked as they both center on bodily autonomy, Christian said. How advocates fight back is also similar, they said—through organizing fundraisers to help cover banned medical procedures, sharing personal stories in testimony and conversations with lawmakers, and descending to state capitols to protest bills and committee hearings.
Through her filibuster, Cavanaugh also blocked the advancement of a six-week abortion ban—although she told The Washington Post that her main priority is preventing the gender-affirming-care ban from passing through the legislature.
Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, said both Davis and Cavanaugh took advantage of tools available to them as the minority party in their statehouses—and used it to amplify dry procedural politics into a powerful rallying cry.
“A filibuster rule like this … it benefits the minority and gives them the ability to both influence and stall the process, or even halt the process. And that’s what we saw Wendy Davis do,” she said.
Although Nebraska’s legislature is a one-chamber body and is officially nonpartisan, Republicans hold more seats.
Anti-abortion and anti-trans bills have another thread in common, Dittmar said: They’re both more concerned with stoking a conservative base than solving real problems. Both issues are used to gain attention and fervor, despite lacking evidence for core claims and legislation, she said.
“On both of these issues, it becomes less about the issue itself,” she said. “In many of these cases, there’s very little argument for these bills coming out of an actual problem.”
State Sen. Jen Day, one of Cavanaugh’s Democratic colleagues, said that the filibuster—which she believes has broken the record for the longest the state has gone in one session without passing a single bill—was borne of necessity after anti-trans bills were being pushed through the statehouse.
“Those of us who don’t support these types of legislation have been left with very few options,” she said. “These bills have been given priority hearings, so they were heard earlier than any other bills, they were shoved through committee with no amendments.”
Davis said that same dynamic played out for her. It underlines the importance of bringing national attention to the often-opaque rules in state legislatures, she said—and the importance of paying attention when those rules change.
“When Democrats have figured out ways to use them to our advantage, Republicans have very quickly worked to change the rules so that those tools can’t be used anymore,” she said.
After Cavanaugh agreed to pause her filibuster—although she has reportedly told several outlets that she will resume blocking bills if the gender-affirming-care ban advances—a Republican senator called for new rules to prevent a similar filibuster from happening again.
Day feels optimistic about the bill dying this week. She hopes that conversations she and other Democratic state senators have been arranging between conservative senators and families of transgender youth, as well as LGBTQ+ activists, will be fresh in senators’ minds.
“We know that families have been able to reach senators and get them either on the fence or agree to not vote for the bill,” she said. Of the chamber’s 49 seats, there are 32 Republicans and 17 Democrats—and 33 votes are needed to pass the bill.
Day knew Davis’ legacy—and admired her tenacity—when she was first elected. Now, after facing the realities of being in office, she understands just how difficult a filibuster is. It’s not just physically exhausting—the lawmaker who filibusters is willingly putting a target on their back.
“That can be really contentious. People can be downright awful and hateful and say disgusting things about you, especially when you are the one who is the face of the discussion,” she said. “And for Senator Cavanaugh to be willing to put herself out there in that way, to make sure that these kids can just be themselves and parents have the right to make those decisions about their children’s lives, is I think incredibly honorable.”
Democrat State Sen. Megan Hunt believes her party has enough votes to kill the bill but knows it’s not a done deal until Thursday. The whole scenario has left her feeling anxious, since it hits so close to home — her 12-year-old son, Ash, is transgender.
“Everybody knows that the best outcome is the bill failing, we know it’s right and just, but the pressure is on us in the moment to get it right when it really counts,” she said. She’s found herself replaying events over and over, asking if there’s more she can do to protect Nebraskans.
Hunt, the first out LGBTQ+ lawmaker elected in Nebraska, doesn’t plan to mention Ash during the bill debate. She said her proximity to transgender people matters less than her conviction that the legislation is wrong.
State Sen. John Fredrickson, the first out gay man elected to the Nebraska legislature, said Cavanaugh’s filibuster is an extreme response made to an extreme piece of legislation.
“We have to all dig deep right now, and we have to look for the helpers, because the helpers are there,” said Fredrickson, a Democrat.
On Twitter, shortly after vowing to block the progress of the bill, Cavanaugh shared a message for transgender kids. “I hope our trans youth here in Nebraska and across the country take heart in knowing that there are grownups in the room (more than just me) fighting for you!” she said. The senator did not respond to requests for comment.
Across the country, many LGBTQ+ advocates, as well as families of trans youth, feel overwhelmed in response to a wave of bills that outpaces and outmatches prior years’ record-setting deluge of legislation — and feel like they are treading water in a bleak situation.
Davis is familiar with that feeling. She watched the overturn of Roe, ending the days of hope that had come after the Texas abortion bill she fought was killed in court. But fights like Cavanaugh’s give her hope again, she said.
“Now we find ourselves in a pretty bleak place. But it is such a great reminder to me, in my most despairing days, that there is value in the fight. We have to show up every day and bring it. And certainly Senator Cavanaugh has shown us and reminded us what that looks like.”
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