Why LGBT advocates oppose the petition to put nondiscrimination protections on the ballot

A group calling itself “Let Lincoln Vote” is now collecting signatures to put an update to Lincoln’s anti-discrimination protections on the ballot for Lincoln voters. You may have heard of a similar effort recently from the Nebraska Family Alliance, a hate group. Many leaders in the queer and trans community are saying both of these petition drives are harmful to our community and are encouraging people not to sign, though they agree with the goals of stronger anti-discrimination protections. So what’s really going on, and how did we get here? Allow me to explain.

The History

A charter amendment extending anti-discrimination protections to LGBT Lincolnites was first proposed, and rejected by voters, way back in 1982.

Then, in May 2012, the Lincoln city council passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Two organizations, Family First and the Nebraska Family Council (which soon after, merged to become the Nebraska Family Alliance), collected enough signatures on a petition drive using a process in the city charter that forced the city council to either rescind the ordinance, or put it on the ballot for voters to decide whether to uphold it. The two homophobic groups stood proudly in front of a “Let Us Vote” banner. The Lincoln city council at the time chose to leave the anti-discrimination updates in limbo; not officially rescinded, but not allowed to be enforced as an official part of the city charter, either. 

On February 14, 2022, the Lincoln city council unanimously passed a comprehensive revision to Lincoln’s Equal Opportunity Code, Title 11 in the Lincoln city charter. (Council members Tom Beckius and Richard Meginnis were absent and thus did not vote.) Council member Sandra Washington had introduced the update, which in addition to banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and military veteran status, also clarified the process to file a complaint with the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, and the responsibilities of that commission for investigating those complaints.

The very next day, the Nebraska Family Alliance launched a petition drive under that old slogan “Let Us Vote”, to force the city to either rescind the Title 11 update or bring it to a citywide vote. The NFA needed 4,137 signatures; by March 1st, they had collected over 18,500.

The executive committee of the Nebraska Stonewall Democrats, the LBGTQIA caucus of the state Democratic party, passed a resolution on April 19 encouraging the Lincoln city council to rescind the fairness ordinance. The Lancaster County Democratic Party’s Central Committee also voted to urge the city council to rescind, also on April 19. The Stonewall Democrats’ statement is worth reading in full; here is an excerpt:

Whereas, the Lincoln City Council leadership that brought the proposed Title XI changes forward ignored and failed to center the voices of Lincoln’s transgender community in the process of moving forward with the proposed changes; and

The Stonewall Caucus cannot support the Fairness Ordinance moving forward without:
– Transgender leadership is at the forefront of planning, steering committee, and campaign leadership directing the proper actions to take in adopting the Title XI changes; and

  • A comprehensive multi-month deep canvassing project; and
  • A fully-functional, well-funded, staffed, and proactive campaign infrastructure; and
  • Ample public venues for discussion (town halls, community roundtables, open houses) for community engagement on the issue are arranged.

After many conversations with community members, a split city council voted to rescind the ordinance rather than put it to a vote on June 13.

Now, a new group is leading the charge to force Lincoln to vote on the human rights of marginalized groups. Under the slogan “Let Lincoln Vote” (sound familiar?), they claim to be the voice of the LGBT community, though what they won’t tell you is that many members of the LGBT community, and particularly trans leaders, are adamantly opposed to doing the very same thing the NFA wanted to do: putting LGBTQIA+ civil rights on the ballot.

 Why not let Lincoln vote?

The Nebraska Family Alliance is highly organized and adamantly anti-LGBT. Their current rhetoric is highly specific: inciting panic and fear about trans people on billboards, radio programs, and of course, all over social media. People who are most at risk from this dangerous rhetoric, that is, trans people, have stated that they are not interested in making themselves a target for a months-long onslaught of transphobic PR in service of a largely symbolic update to city code. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 in Bostock v Clayton County that discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity are already included under protections that cover discrimination based on sex; the ruling is often interpreted to cover housing and public accommodations as well.)  

Proponents of putting the ordinance on the ballot claim that those who oppose doing so are simply afraid of losing, or afraid of hearing mean words about themselves, but the people I am listening to are expressing so much more than that – fear not just for mental health outcomes, but for the physical danger that gender nonconforming and trans people may face in a Lincoln where transphobia has been turned up to 11. With no organized campaign in place to ensure the passage of the ballot initiative, those who are going to be targeted say it’s simply not worth it right now.

And of course, anyone dismissing the mental health outcomes (as Let Lincoln Vote’s website does, with a glib note to contact a mental health professional “if you feel anxious or depressed”) is doing so knowing full well one trans Lincoln activist has already literally died over this issue. Milo Winslow was a bright light in our community, finding his voice as an advocate and forging connections with others. First testifying in support of the Youth Mental Health Protection Ordinance introduced by Council person James Michael Bowers in 2021, Milo was ​​excited to use his voice and share his lived experience to debunk the dangerous practice of conversion therapy before the council. A year later when the updates to Title 11 were before the council, Milo again stepped up to speak, articulating the difficult position this well-intentioned update to city charter would place the most vulnerable Nebraskans in. Milo’s words deserve reading in full, though I’ll excerpt some of his public Facebook post from February 21 here:

I’m angry that it’s a fight we’re having. I’m angry at the far right for weaponizing trans feminine people for their agenda. I’m angry at the dehumanizing language they use in their flyers. I’m angry at their forcing their religious ideologies onto others in the most hateful and vile ways. I’m angry that not even a week in and I’ve already been intentionally misgendered in conversations about it and told my experience is “an affront to God,” because it’s only going to get worse from here.

Mostly though, I’m angry at the political move that brought us here. A move made during midterms. A move made without the financial resources to back it up. A move made when less than 3 years ago polling said it wouldn’t pass. A move made after multiple queer and trans advocates BEGGED for it not to be made. I’m angry that this was done without a plan with the necks of transgender people (mostly trans feminine people) on the line. I’m angry that I now have to reckon with not trusting local politicians that I once felt I could trust.

Self-care. Extra therapy sessions. Finding positive connection. Snuggling Cornelia (his cat). Working as much as possible. And checking out of social media when necessary.

I’m just angry. Very angry. And we aren’t even a full week in to it all.

It’s going to be a long few months. Take care friends.

On March 3rd, he posted a TikTok video about his lack of support system and how it was affecting his ability to do the advocacy work that the moment demanded. 

And I realized yesterday that if I continue to work on this campaign, if I continue to try to be an advocate and an activist, I will likely be a casualty of the cause. Because I am not emotionally in a place where I am strong enough to do this work while not having a support system at all.

On March 3rd, Milo died by suicide. 

So this is what’s at stake, when trans people are saying that they are not ready to take the hate directed at them. When they say that the lead-up to the vote will be devastating for the trans community, whether the vote ultimately succeeds or not. Actual lives. Beautiful, strong, beloved people who will face devastating hatred from fellow community members, with no extra resources in the community ready to be marshaled in their support. 

Of course, the mental health impacts of a transphobic PR blitz will occur regardless of when the vote takes place. But, with the stakes so high, the people who are going to be most targeted have been saying that it’s only worth doing if we have a well-organized, well-funded campaign to counter that hate and ensure the measure will pass. We can’t simply trust that Lincoln voters faced with relentless fear-mongering propaganda will do the right thing, regardless of how many individual cis gay people voters have supported. Transphobia is a different beast, and as Milo pointed out in his final posts, even exists among the cis gay and lesbian community. 

That’s why I, and many others, are asking you to think twice before saying it’s time to put some of our most vulnerable populations’ human rights up to a public vote. Those who are saying now is the time are minimizing the experiences and desires of the trans and gender nonconforming people who will be most impacted by the transphobic frenzy leading up to a vote which even if successful, will have minimal practical gain. When asked to sign the petition to put human rights on the ballot, don’t sign, and tell your friends why they should decline to sign, too.