Megan Hunt made history in November by becoming the first openly LGBTQ candidate to win a seat in Nebraska’s state legislature, but she still doesn’t have health insurance.
Forty-nine lawmakers hold seats in the unicameral Nebraska Legislature, the smallest state legislative body in the country. Even though elected representatives are government employees who serve in the capitol building in Lincoln for five months of the year, they don’t receive any kind of benefits. The costs of monthly insurance can additionally be difficult to pay for on a legislative salary: Nebraska state lawmakers only earn $12,000 a year.
Like many representatives in the Nebraska Legislature, Hunt has another job. She co-owns Hello Holiday, a successful Omaha-based boutique clothing store she founded with Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik in 2012. It’s the kind of place where you can find everything from a pink plaid sundress to a vintage t-shirt that reads “Dolly Parton Vibes.”
But Hunt says the financial burdens of elected office keep many potential candidates from running to begin with. When she was elected to the Nebraska Legislature last year, she became the first out bisexual person to win statewide office. She was also the first woman to serve from her district. According to Hunt, Nebraska has never elected a Muslim or Asian state lawmaker. Currently, there are only two black representatives, and Hunt says it’s the most the legislature “has ever had.”
“Representative democracy is something I really believe in, but it’s not what we actually have,” Hunt tells NewNowNext. “All we get is the same old, wealthy white men because those are the only people who can afford to run.”
Hunt, a 32-year-old single mom, hopes her first year in office blazes a trail for other candidates who don’t fit the straight, white, cisgender mold. According the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which endorsed Hunt during her 2018 campaign for midtown Omaha’s District 8, only four other LGBTQ Nebraskans are currently serving at any level.
Marque Snow, who declared his candidacy for District 9 in June, could be number five. If elected in November 2020, the second-year Omaha school board member would be the first black gay man seated in the Nebraska Legislature.
Throughout the next year and a half, Hunt says she will be asking other LGBTQ Nebraskans to join Snow by throwing their hats in the ring. She plans to meet with LGBTQ community groups and college students to walk them through filing their candidacies and answer questions about what it’s like to run for public office. But most importantly, Hunt intends to help them fundraise.
“Marginalized communities don’t have the donor network that wealthy old white men have,” she says. “My focus is going to be on doing what I can within the system to make it easier to run and easier to serve.”
Opening the door to the next generation of out candidates isn’t just about passing the torch. Hunt says increased political representation is critical if LGBTQ people hope to “normalize our identities” in the Nebraska State Capitol. Earlier this year, Hunt’s colleague, Sen. Tom Brewer, told the North Platte Bulletin that the freshman lawmaker is “transgender” and “reminds us of it most every day.” When Hunt confronted him about the comments on the floor, Brewer responded, “I don’t know what you are.”
Hunt is not transgender. In fact, she believes she has a great deal of privilege as a
white cisgender woman with a love of bright pink lipstick and cotton-candy colored cardigans, describing herself as “LGBTQ-lite.” She says, “If you look at me and you meet me, there’s nothing challenging about me.”
When Hunt was attacked on the legislative floor, she thusly recalls thinking: “If you can’t accept my white Midwestern self, you really have a long way to go.”
While some of Hunt’s liberal colleagues in the legislature were shocked and surprised by the exchange, she wasn’t. Last year she brought her daughter, Alice, along to help her campaign, eventually knocking on 22,000 doors in Nebraska’s largest city. Although Omaha’s District 8 is one of the most progressive in the state, she was called a “faggot” and “cussed out” in front of her child.
As Gay Star News previously reported, Hunt also received “death and rape threats” throughout the campaign. “Her young daughter was even doxxed when people discovered what school she attended and posted that information online for malicious intent,” the website reported.
Despite some growing pains, Hunt thinks Nebraska has enormous potential to advance LGBTQ rights in the coming years, which she says is partly due to its unique political structure. The legislature is the only state lawmaking body in the U.S. that eschews party leadership. There are no causes or minority and majority leaders, and every single piece of legislation is guaranteed a hearing.
Hunt took advantage of that opportunity by pushing 19 bills during the 2019 legislative session, including proposals to ban conversion therapy and outlaw the LGBTQ “panic” defense in criminal cases. It was the first time either plan had been put forward in the legislature.
While Hunt had been advised by friends and colleagues to “find her footing” and “wait her turn” before diving in with her own bills, she says the estimated 75,000 LGBTQ youth who will be subjected to conversion therapy before they turn 18 don’t have the luxury of time. A recent report from The Trevor Project found that 42% of young people who had undergone “pray the gay away” treatments attempted to take their own lives within the past year.
“I don’t really believe in waiting for permission to start these hard conversations because for as long as I’m going to be in the legislature, we’re going to be having these conversations,” Hunt says.
Neither of those bills became law, but they got committee hearings and were voted on by Hunt’s colleagues. Despite the fact that conservatives control 30 of the legislature’s 49 seats and Nebraska has voted for the Republican candidate in every election since 1964, she has “no doubt” the state will pass both pieces of legislation “in the next few years.”
What makes Hunt so confident? She says the relationships she has built in her first term have built a foundation for transformation. When seats were being assigned in the legislature for the year, Hunt asked to be seated among Republicans.
“I know all of my colleagues really well,” Hunt says. “I’ve had beer, pizza, and burgers with them, and I consider them friends. During session, everybody stays in Lincoln within a couple blocks of the capitol, and sometimes it feels a little bit like summer camp. We’re sitting on a patio, and we’ve got a couple of pitchers.”
Although there have been some initial bumps in building coalitions for the future, Hunt remains convinced she’s going to “wear down” her opponents with “lots of beer, lots of hanging out, and lots of playing cards in the lounge.” Over the summer, she also plans to visit her colleagues’ districts, appear on conservative talk radio shows, and join conservative colleagues to the far-right for town hall discussions.
“It’s not just about building relationships with my colleagues,” Hunt says. “It’s about destigmatizing my identity for other Nebraskans. The more my colleagues see me as a friend, the easier it’s going to be. It’s going to take time.”