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A trans teenager and her mom reflect on Nebraska restricting gender-affirming care

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been one week since Nebraska's restrictions on gender-affirming care went into effect. No one under the age of 19 is permitted to undergo related surgery, and medications are subject to a variety of restrictions. Lawmakers say they're concerned young people are making these decisions too early. Nebraska is one of 22 states that have approved such laws. Nola Rhea, a trans teenager in Lincoln, Neb., has been speaking out against the bill since it was announced, along with her mother, Heather. Nola and Heather Rhea join us now to give us their reactions to the new law. Thank you both so much for joining us.

HEATHER RHEA: Yes, thank you for having us.

NOLA RHEA: Hi.

RASCOE: So, Nola, I want to start with you. Like, what has it been like for you growing up as a trans person in Nebraska?

N RHEA: It's been good, actually, for the most part. There was, like, one person who wasn't cool, but then, like, everybody else at school - it was really nice. And everything was going really well until the legislature was like, we're going to intervene. We can't allow trans people to be happy. That would be ridiculous.

RASCOE: Nola began receiving gender-affirming care in 2020. Talk to us about, you know, how the both of you came to that decision and what that process was like.

H RHEA: Yeah. So Nola struggled with mental health, confidence, depression, gender dysphoria previous to that. And then when she came out to me that this is what - that she was trans and this is what's causing these things, we started to see a therapist. And then after several months of therapy, the therapist and her superior recommended that we see an endocrinologist. And then they recommended puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy. But that really changed her confidence and her ability to engage socially and academically and just in life. And she has been way stronger mentally since then.

RASCOE: And this law - it doesn't affect minors who are already receiving puberty blockers or hormone therapy, right? So, Nola, you've basically been grandfathered in, so you can continue with your treatment.

N RHEA: Yeah.

RASCOE: And so, like, I guess how do you feel about that? Because you can continue on, but then obviously it's affecting other teens who are going through similar experiences that you've gone through.

N RHEA: Yeah. I feel a similar way about it as I do to, like, I'm going to move for college. So, like, I won't be subject to whatever bill they cook up next. But I don't feel like a lot of people who are younger than me and trans are going to have that same luxury. And it makes me sad.

RASCOE: How does it feel, Nola, that, basically, you have to leave your home to feel safe to continue on just being yourself? Like, how does that feel?

N RHEA: I mean, it doesn't feel good. I realized a few weeks ago that I was moving to flee government persecution, and that was a really weird realization when I put it that way. I feel like everybody should be free to be who they are. You know, maybe that would be respected a bit more. Yeah, it's annoying. My mom cries a lot because it's like you have a whole mass of people in the government telling you you're mentally ill. Your mom's mentally ill. Your mom's an abuser for supporting you and doing things that have unambiguously made your life much better. It's ridiculous.

RASCOE: The state is still working out details on how it's going to restrict nonsurgery care. The temporary rules call for a, quote, unquote, "clinically neutral talk therapy" before receiving any medication. I mean, do you think that's reasonable, or is it unrealistic to ask of people?

H RHEA: It's not very clearly defined, is it? And so I don't know how you can provide a transgender person the care they need by being ambiguous and not validating what they're saying is happening to them, not to mention the cost-prohibitiveness of the same guideline.

RASCOE: I mean, you know, there's the outright ban that Nebraska now has on gender-affirming surgery until someone's 19. The argument that the lawmakers are making is that they want to make sure no one makes a decision they'll later regret. What do you say to that argument?

N RHEA: There are people who detransition, and that's OK. But, like, I think to say, oh, well, you know, there's a small risk that they might change their mind later, so we shouldn't let them, you know, be happy. But, like, the pros and cons of that should be considered between a doctor and a patient, not between the state and everybody else.

RASCOE: You know, Nola, you talked about going to college next year. What are your plans for college? Where do you want to go to college? What are you going to major in? What are your plans for your future?

N RHEA: I want to go to college in Minnesota. I'd like to major in sociology and economics, and I'd like to hopefully someday go into law and be a lawyer. I would also like to go into politics, which - I mean, how many times do you hear that story? Oh, this young, ambitious person wants to go into politics and make people's lives better. But it's true. I do.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

N RHEA: Yeah. So hopefully, I actually can make people's lives better.

RASCOE: That's trans teenager Nola Rhea and her mother, Heather Rhea, speaking to us from Lincoln, Neb. Thank you so much for joining us.

N RHEA: Thank you so much.

H RHEA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne