Civic Engagement Nebraska Politics

Natalie Speaks

“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” 

– John F. Kennedy

On September 11, 2019, I was fired from the Downtown location of Cultiva Espresso and Crepes in Lincoln, Nebraska. The reason for my dismissal, as described in the media, was that I had called Marilyn Synek, a customer and employee of the Nebraska Family Alliance, among other things, “bigoted trash.” While that portrayal is not untrue, I do not believe it fully contextualizes what I did and why. Seeing Red Nebraska has graciously offered me this space to tell my story, my motivations and my feelings in the aftermath of this incident, in my own words. Thank you all in advance for your time in reading this.

Photo credit: Joshua Redwine, Redwine Photography

I am a trans woman. I am the former Secretary for Nebraska Young Democrats, the former Vice-Chair for the Young Democrats of America LGBTQ+ Caucus, a former employee and volunteer for Leirion Gaylor-Baird for City Council in 2013, James Michael Bowers for State Legislature in 2014, Chris Beutler for Mayor in 2015, and Chuck Hassebrook for Governor in 2016. In 2017 I directed a canvass funded jointly by Nebraska ACLU and OutNebraska specifically designed to explore Lincoln voters’ opinion on Lincoln’s Fairness Ordinance and earlier this year I initiated discussions with several of my elected leaders, with whom I have been fortunate enough to form personal relationships, about the future of that ordinance.

In 2012 Lincoln’s City Council passed the Fairness Ordinance which, if enacted, would grant legal non-discrimination protections to Lincoln’s LGBT2QIA+ community in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Before enactment, the Nebraska Family Alliance and others mounted a successful petition drive. In just 15 days, they were able to gather more than 10,000 signatures on a document saying the City Council could not enact the ordinance without putting the issue to a vote. At the time, conservatives in my city knew they had the funding and the votes to bury the issue at the ballot box, and they were itching for the fight. The writing was on the wall, and the Democratic majority City Council knew it. They decided to sit on the ordinance, letting it gather dust but refusing to let it die in a city-wide vote.

Earlier this year, Lincoln sat a new city government. Democrat Leirion Gaylor-Baird became just the third woman to occupy the office of mayor since the town of Lancaster became the City of Lincoln in 1871. James Michael Bowers became the city’s first openly LGBT2QIA+ elected City Councilperson, and we gained a Democratic supermajority on the City Council. These developments gave many in my city the belief that a mandate existed to put the Fairness Ordinance on the ballot in our next election, and that the ordinance would pass overwhelmingly. They began to lobby city leaders to take steps towards that goal. When I learned of this effort, I immediately began to speak with the people I knew with influence in city government about the risk of holding that vote.

Based on conversations conducted with voters during the canvass I directed in 2017, the underlying feeling of an “undecided” Lincoln voter on this issue is as follows: they have a sense of decency and fairness and believe that anyone who identifies under the LGBT2QIA+ umbrella should not be fired or lose their home because of who they are. However, because most of them believe they do not have anyone who identifies in that umbrella in their lives and therefore have no frame of reference for our lived experiences, they don’t believe such discrimination actually happens in Lincoln. For that reason, they would not support voting for the Fairness Ordinance. Those people could be reached, and their minds could be changed, but the Nebraska Family Alliance also knows those people exist, and they know exactly how to lock in their votes.

From experience with ballot initiatives in other cities on issues similar to Lincoln’s Fairness Ordinance, we know how organizations like the Nebraska Family Alliance frame this issue to voters. Their messaging argues that passing ordinances similar to Lincoln’s lead to a local increase in adult male pedophiles, disguised as women, entering public women’s bathrooms to sexually assault women and girls. This messaging strategy is extremely effective on voters like the ones previously described. The exact language they use is insidious and direct. According to the data, messages like these are linked to an increase in violence against trans women in locales that are exposed to it. In other cities where similar ordinances have been put to a vote, opponents use this messaging in radio ads every morning and evening during prime commuting hours and on every primetime television news broadcast. Therefore, just bringing this issue before voters, regardless of our chances of success, would be dangerous specifically for people like me, and broadly for the entirety of the LGBT2QIA+ community who call Lincoln home. Additionally, our best estimates on our current position on this issue stipulate that we would need, at minimum, $500,000, and 250 paid full-time canvassers knocking doors seven days a week for eight months to fight those ads and give us a reasonable chance to win. Based on that $500,000 budget, those canvassers would be grossly underpaid for the value of their work. Lincoln’s unemployment rate currently sits nearly a full percentage point below the national average. It is my sincere belief that the city does not currently have the funding mechanism, existing organization, and available workforce necessary to mount a successful ballot initiative in favor of the Fairness Ordinance, and it is for these reasons I lobbied my elected leaders hard for several weeks over the summer to publicly state the Fairness Ordinance would not be brought before voters anytime in the near future. And to reiterate, the reason we could not do this was because of the Nebraska Family Alliance and their state and national allies.

My effort to discourage a vote on the ordinance took what I can honestly describe as an extreme emotional toll. I came at odds with members of my own community. I had to painfully explain to friends and political allies alike that even though the city had been waiting a long time already for the Fairness Ordinance’s enactment, we absolutely had to wait longer still. The risk of doing it now was too great, and the chances of our success too small. It was the unfortunate truth, and I and others took it upon ourselves to deliver it. On September 4, 2019, an article appearing in the Lincoln Journal Star stated that several of the city’s leaders had determined now was not the time for a vote to be held, and that it was their belief one should not be held until the community was certain a successful campaign could be mounted. While I had not been the only one advocating the position I took, I was among the strongest proponents and perhaps the most forceful voice in my contingent. My work for the moment finished, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and was exhausted.

I do not hold a college degree. I was born and raised here in Lincoln and graduated from Southeast High School. I attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois for one year on a theater scholarship, and an additional year at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, where I won a Collegiate National Championship in competitive forensics, but rarely attended class. Because I was never driven to finish college, I have relied on wage labor to pay my bills for most of my adult life, working in places like Cultiva’s kitchen. Being a trans woman and a wage laborer in Nebraska is a unique struggle. 

Nebraskans’ top three values are Football, Politeness, and Runza. In that order. Politeness rules our social interactions, our interpersonal relationships, and our worldview. It is exceedingly rare to experience rudeness publicly in our society, and when it happens, something is wrong. “Nebraska Nice” is the mantra of our lives; my community rephrases it “Nebraska Nice, not Actually Nice,” because this mantra can hide private bigotry behind public friendliness. In private moments when no one is listening, and they will suffer no consequence, our fellow Nebraskans will let us know in no uncertain terms that we are Other and unwelcome. In small moments when money is being exchanged at a register, when food is being placed on a table, when a movie ticket is being bought, when we’re trying to enjoy a cup of coffee privately, or when we’re passing a stranger on the street, they will sneer at us, deliberately misgender us, call us ugly, a freak, depraved. They’ll tell us to seek counseling. They’ll tell us to stay away from their children. They’ll tell us to kill ourselves. It is the absolute furthest from anything that could be described as civil. And if we in those moments say “hey what the hell?”, we’re the ones disrupting the rules of our polite society. By speaking up to defend ourselves, we are transformed in their eyes from the trans person trying to exist to the rude trans person disrespecting the norms of our social interactions. Then, and only then, after thousands of disgustingly incivil interactions, when one of us finally says ENOUGH, does the conversation turn to “the loss of civility”. These moments are a near daily occurrence for me and many others just like me in Lincoln, and they happened regularly during my employment at Cultiva.

Cultiva is a liberal place. The staff is overwhelmingly LGBT2QIA+. The General Manager is openly queer. The owners hate the President with a passion. They take genuine pride in employing members of the LGBT2QIA+ community in my city and giving them a safe and inclusive place to earn a living. Something not exactly common here. The message we had always received as employees was that if anyone came into our store and made us feel uncomfortable, or was aggressive to us while we were on the clock and working, we could kick them out and management and ownership would support us. I had never used that privilege, mostly because I was nearly always taken off guard and unsure of myself in those moments, but it was for that reason, I felt comfortable doing what I did.

On the morning I was fired, I was tired and emotionally worn. In addition to my recent discussions with city leadership and my community on the Fairness Ordinance, I’d recently served several customers engaging in that typical Nebraska-not-so-nice, quietly dehumanizing way, who I had again failed to kick out of the store, and I was fighting a cold. As I arrived for my morning shift, there sitting and enjoying her crepe was Marilyn Synek, Communications Specialist for the Nebraska Family Alliance, an organization I had been fighting for years, and a group that was the source of a great deal of recent personal stress. On her way out the door, I could no longer tolerate her intolerance of me and my community. I wanted to show her what it was to face constant aggression, incivility, and a sense of being unwelcome. I screamed. I berated. I attempted to shame. The moment was one of rage and frustration, and many of the exact details of that exchange are not clear in my memory. I do remember calling Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who Marylin used to work for, a bigot, and I remember saying her current employer, the Nebraska Family Alliance, was a bigoted organization. 

I cannot say for sure if Marilyn’s framing of my words is accurate, because I do not remember. I cannot say with certainty that I did or did not call her specifically a “bigoted piece of trash,” although I will admit that has a nice ring to it. My coworkers were stunned, and I believe most of the customers in the store were, too. My Kitchen Manager pulled me aside and explained that while he did not disagree with what I said, I would most likely need to answer to the General Manager and ownership for the vulgarity that I used. I agreed. I messaged the General Manager and one of the owners explaining briefly what I had done, and, naively, I explained that I wanted to tell them before “a potential negative yelp review.” About a half-hour after my confrontation with Marylin, my Kitchen Manager received a phone call from the General Manager explaining my employment had been terminated, and asking him to give me the news. He did, and I left the store.

I think it’s fair to say I was distraught for the rest of that day. I had lost my job when I did not think that is what would happen. To be clear, the policy was that the customer had to have made us feel uncomfortable “while we were working,” and it had to be “overtly aggressive,” neither of which Marilyn had exhibited. I had used loud profanity liberally (pun intended). However, in my mind, I would maybe be removed from the schedule for a week, told sternly never to do something like that again, and come back to work. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated what was acceptable given the circumstances and underestimated the target of my outburst that morning.

As I previously mentioned, Marilyn Synek is the Communications Specialist for the Nebraska Family Alliance and a former campaign staffer for Senator Ben Sasse. She is a well connected conservative politico in a conservative state. She has powerful friends both in our State government, and our local media, and partly due to her profession enjoys a broad social media reach. Her organization uses donor money to bring speakers to my state who turn away gay people from their businesses. They argue in front of my state’s legislature that gay conversion therapy and discrimination against the LGBT2QIA+ population of my state should be legal. They argue in front of our nation’s Supreme Court that granting trans people non-discrimination rights harms children. They tell every LGBT2QIA+ identified Nebraskan that if they are ever denied service, they should just go to another business. They say that gay people who complain about conservatives not wanting to accept us in society are being bullies. They tell us to shut up. On that day, Marylin had not been denied service and could very easily have just decided to go to another coffee shop in the future, exactly like she and her organization advise people like me to do. She did not. She went back to her office just two blocks from where I used to work and used her position as Communications Specialist for one of the most powerful lobbies in our state to whip up a national conservative fervor on Twitter. She decried the loss of civility while at the same time her supporters were calling my former coworkers at their job to berate them viscously. She knew this would happen. The NFA knew it would happen. They knew they would get publicity and maybe some donations. They thought none of you would ever hear from me again.

Those of you hate reading who have made it this far, congratulations. How’s your blood pressure? Would you like me to say I won’t do what I did again? Instead of messaging me and telling me to die, get ahold of Marilyn and people like her. Tell them to stop working for people like me not to have legal protections from people like you. If they listen to your advice, I promise never to do what I did to Marilyn, or anyone like her, ever again. 

I don’t regret what I did to Marilyn. I just don’t. Exactly like she doesn’t regret the incivility she and people like her advocate. Her organization, the language they use to argue against legal equality in my state and our country, and their social media strategy are harmful. They are harmful to people like me. They are harmful to families like mine. They are harmful to Nebraskan values. They are harmful to the principals of politeness and civility in our society. They are harmful to those things every minute, of every day. Now millions more of you know. Donate to OutNebraska. Donate to your local LGBT2QIA+ outreach/advocacy organization. Talk to your friends, your family, and your neighbors, about the importance of legal equality for every Nebraskan, and every American, no matter what. Talk about how horrible the NFA and their national allies are. Make sure everyone knows it. And, if you’re ever in Lincoln, Nebraska, stop into Cultiva Downtown. Buy a cup of coffee. Give the employees a smile. (Except Hannah – he hates that.) Be sure to tip.

Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine. Y’all will be hearing again from me soon, it’s a promise. Until then:

Chin up.

Purse first.

And remember, as a good friend of mine once said; Another day. Another fight for equity.

In Solidarity,

Natalie Weiss
Lincoln, NE
September 19, 2019