The Nebraska Family Alliance (NFA) has taken the first step to re-legalizing discrimination against LGBT people in Lincoln. They plan to overturn Ordinance 22-31, also known as the Fairness Ordinance, by putting it on the ballot during a low-turnout election. If the NFA is successful, a Lincoln restaurant could legally hang a “no gays” sign in the window. A Lincoln landlord could decline renters because they are transgender. And, although a 2020 Supreme Court decision currently prevents employers from systematically refusing to hire LGBT employees, the NFA is preparing for the day that courts change their minds. The NFA wants it to be fully legal to segregate all LGBT people out of any job, business, or dwelling in Lincoln.
The NFA is trying to motivate voters with the worry that Lincoln’s Fairness Ordinance will cause transgender people to commit assault in public restrooms. This bad-faith argument is only the latest installment in a lengthy history of crap arguments that the NFA has used to hurt queer Nebraskans, and many other Nebraskans, for over thirty years. They employ misleading arguments because, if the NFA were honest about their real beliefs, voters would be horrified.
I first met Jefferson Downing, the president of the NFA, at a Lincoln coffee shop in 2019. Although he had requested the meeting, he asked me almost no questions. Instead, he spent most of the time trying to portray himself as a non-hateful person who was merely acting upon his sacred commitment to certain timeless, unchanging principles. He was perfectly polite and soft-spoken as he enumerated the legal rights he would take away from LGBT people, and the ways in which he would harm their families.
It is ironic for something called a “family alliance” to have the overall purpose of destroying families. Yet, as you will read, the NFA selectively destroys families that don’t meet their standards: queer families, single-parent families, and unmarried families. Jefferson Downing and his organization believe they have a literally God-given right to outlaw any family that is not centered upon a heterosexual marriage conforming to rigid Christian gender roles.
This fixation is evident in the NFA’s long hatred of gay marriage. They authored an amendment to the Nebraska constitution that prohibits same-sex marriage, and they ran the expensive campaign that ratified the amendment in 2000. Although this amendment was nullified when the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, the NFA still spends time and money keeping this dead-letter law in the state constitution. They hope one day the court will change its mind, allowing the NFA to destroy gay marriages statewide.
They also prevent LGBT couples from raising children. Because of NFA lobbying, same-sex couples in Nebraska could not adopt until 2017. Once, after forcing a lesbian couple to leave the state by waging a years-long court battle against their right to become parents using artificial insemination, the NFA director snarked that the family he exiled should have simply stopped being lesbians.
The NFA defeated a previous Fairness Ordinance in Lincoln ten years ago, and they consistently fight antidiscrimination laws at the state level. The only purpose I can see of denying jobs and housing to LGBT people is to drive them back into the closet, or drive them out of Nebraska. They also wish queer people away by keeping “conversion therapy” (the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to straighten out gay people) legal to use on Nebraska children.
The NFA is perfectly willing to harm straight people, too. For example, they opposed extending Nebraska’s domestic assault law to unmarried couples. Spokesperson Dave Bydalek said “I am aware there are domestic assaults involved in dating, but the public policy of recognizing dating and other types of relationships outside the context of marriage cheapens the importance of marriage in our society.” This amounts to the policy that domestic assault is a fitting punishment for anyone who goes on dates.
The apparent belief behind this policy of punishing dates with violence is that people should get married immediately, without dating. (Only heterosexual marriages, of course.) Once they leap into that ill-considered marriage, it should be very hard to get back out of it. The NFA’s oldest policy priority is making heterosexual divorce more difficult. The NFA’s predecessor organizations (Nebraska Family Council and Family First) were founded when no-fault divorce laws were fairly new. These laws dramatically lowered rates of domestic violence and abuse because numerous people, mostly women, were able for the first time to escape bad marriages. The NFA’s purpose was to put a stop to this freedom for Nebraska’s women, trapping them in abusive and violent marriages.
The NFA loudly opposes abortion and most forms of sex education, and more quietly opposes birth control. Apparently, the ideal is that married women should have no options for reproductive control or for a fulfilling sex life outside of getting pregnant. Once the children arrive, according to the NFA, they are property to be disposed of however parents see fit.
“Fundamentally, children belong to their parents” according NFA policy director Nate Grasz, speaking at a 2019 school board meeting on the subject of preventing children from ever hearing about the concept of gay or gender non-conforming people. NFA spokesperson Karen Bowling, while arguing for legal conversion therapy, explained that parents have “carte blanche” to wholly control their children, including their sexuality. Conversion therapy harms children (also, it does not work) but willfully harming children is within the property rights of a parent.
It is not a surprise that the NFA believes parents are entitled to legal ownership of the minds, bodies, and sexuality of children. After all, the NFA is the state-level affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. That organization’s founding mission, since the 1970s, is to keep it legal for parents to beat children to keep them in line. Dobson sells books on how to transform “strong-willed” children into “compliant” ones using a lengthy campaign of physical violence.
Of course, this ownership of children is only granted to heterosexual married couples. For example, the NFA opposed day care centers in Lincoln public schools because it was better to “encourage teen mothers to place their children in adoptive homes” than to permit these young women to raise their own children. Because single parenthood is not a type of family that the NFA approves of, they use the power of the law to dissolve such families.
This overall picture of wrecking families, harming children, and driving LGBT people away is bleak. But, voters don’t know that this is the mission of the NFA because the NFA lies about it. For example, a few months after my meeting with Jefferson Downing, the coffee shop where we met became the site of a national scandal. A barista, Natalie Weiss, recognized a customer as an NFA staffer. Natalie yelled at the staffer because of the NFA’s support for anti-LGBT policies. Natalie called her “bigoted trash” and told her to leave and never come back.
The NFA chided Natalie for her lack of politeness; they seemed scandalized by it, and pretended they would never do something similar. In truth, the NFA works to legally exclude transgender people, like Natalie, from public places including coffee shops. They are doing it right now, by opposing the fairness ordinance. They are powerful policymakers, merely pretending to be powerless victims of exactly the treatment they dish out to others. They lie because they know that normal people would consider the NFA’s goals grotesque if they were presented clearly.
I take NFA president Jefferson Downing at his word when he says he is committed to timeless, unchanging principles. Though the NFA is no longer vocal about their opposition to divorce and gay marriage, this is only because those preoccupations have gone out of fashion. Downing and his organization have not changed what they stand for, because they have confused their personal preferences for the will of God. If we give them the chance they will again end same-sex marriages, take away children from queer couples and single parents, trap women with abusive husbands, and legally encourage violence toward people with the audacity to enjoy dating.
Transgender people are a minority within a minority. The Nebraska Family Alliance is hoping they are small enough, with so few allies, that they cannot effectively defend themselves. Voters in Lincoln must not allow this. We are morally bound to have laws that protect transgender people against discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Moreover, if voters don’t stand with transgender Lincolnites now, all Nebraskans become more vulnerable to powerful lobbyists who think they have a God-given right to destroy families. We will all share in the fate we allow to befall transgender citizens.