Why you should care
Because examples of courage in unlikely places can make a real difference.
Ashley Swartz lives in the house where she grew up, surrounded by 160 acres of corn and soybean fields her father tilled before her. She tried moving to the closest big city — Lincoln, Nebraska — but didn’t last six months, missing nights filled with buzzing crickets and effervescent stars. Like most farmers, Swartz worries about the crop, after a summer that started off too dry and hot and is ending too rainy and wet. Like most parents, she worries about her finances and, particularly, paying off her daughter’s student loans.
Unlike most of her neighbors, though, Swartz has to worry about being accepted by her church, the same one that kicked her out a decade ago, telling her that “as long as you’re living this way, you have the devil on your back,” she remembers. And she has to worry about whether her friends will be denied health care or a job based on their sexual identity. Because unlike most in her tiny community of Malmo, an hour west of Omaha with a population that barely tips over a hundred, Swartz grew up as a man but identified as a woman.
Swartz is transgender, having started her transition more than two decades ago, long before Caitlin Jenner entered the cultural lexicon — back when few even knew what “trans” meant. Since then, the 55-year-old has crisscrossed the sandy plains of the deep-red Cornhusker State, where less than a fifth of residents live in communities with explicit workplace protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Sharing her story in schools, churches and community centers, Swartz has been asked to speak by the ACLU of Nebraska and the pro-LGBT group Caring Catholic Families, among others.
Swartz’s activism in Malmo has mostly taken the form of her quiet, but powerful, presence.
In a state of fewer than 2 million people, where residents joke there is just “one degree of separation” from one person to the next, the power of her lone voice is amplified. “Here is a person who has transitioned, and yet is still assimilated in our culture,” says Chaplain Royal, a gay pastor who operates a nondiscriminatory wedding service in Omaha. “Whenever we create opportunities for the Ashleys of the world to share their story, we create safer spaces for people to learn, ask questions and break down those barriers.” And as progressives and LGBT activists debate how to make gains nationwide, Swartz is showing the impact of choosing to stay within one’s own community. “If you want to make a difference, Nebraska is the front lines,” says Adam Morfeld, a Democratic state senator, the place “to be fighting the battles that need to be fought.”
Of course, that doesn’t make the fight any easier. After transitioning, Swartz watched as children picked on her two kids, and her former church friends called in a gay-conversion therapist. Nor did it help that President Donald Trump tweeted in July that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, although no such bans have been implemented yet. “Nobody has been complaining about [trans service members], so it’s kind of frustrating that it’s happened,” Swartz says.
At least 22 transgender people died due to violence last year, the most ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Just two hours from Malmo is the site of the 1993 killing of Brandon Teena, a trans man whose rape and murder in Humboldt, Nebraska, inspired a documentary, and the Academy Award–winning film Boys Don’t Cry. It takes a “really brave individual” to lead on these issues, says Morfeld, because LGBT rights are far from settled in Nebraska. Back in March, the senator sponsored a workplace anti-discrimination bill that was shelved by a 26-18 vote, with opposition coming from groups such as the Catholic Conference. Legal change in other parts of the country has been rapid, but changes in perception have not. Before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, Cornhuskers changed their constitution to explicitly ban the union of same-sex couples, Royal notes, adding, “They’re going to need more than a couple of seconds” to process this cultural shift.
Swartz’s activism in Malmo has mostly taken the form of her quiet, but powerful, presence. Sitting in the local firehouse, where she has served as a volunteer firefighter for almost three decades, her journey is displayed for all to see. A dusty squad photo from long ago shows an unsmiling “Kevin Swartz,” but farther along the wall there’s a newer photo of Ashley posing confidently with her fellow firefighters. Although one squad member said he would feel uncomfortable going into a fire with her, she says most have been supportive. Back when she was considering gender reassignment surgery, a banker responded that he didn’t know what she was talking about — and didn’t care. “It’s kind of old news here,” the banker, Stuart Krejci, told the Omaha World-Herald in 2015, adding: “You have to hand it to her. It did take a lot of courage 20 years ago.”
What makes Swartz such an effective ambassador? In many ways, she reflects the values of her community — especially in her optimism, and her faith. Her normally warm, cheerful demeanor changes, however, when she recalls a much darker time in 1995, before she transitioned. Distressed by her divorce and not wanting, as she puts it, to hurt her family anymore, she was contemplating suicide. Climbing atop the grain combine in her machine shed, she looked around for a length of rope but couldn’t find it — and suddenly she felt a sense of peace over her identity, a moment she calls divine inspiration. Her life was saved that day, and now, she lives on to sow the seeds for others.
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