Transitioning from a male to a female was the last thing Ashley Swartz wanted to do, which is why, in the summer of 1995, she found herself searching for a rope.
“I said I’d blow my brains out before I transitioned,” Swartz told a small crowd on Wednesday evening. “I didn’t own a gun.”
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But there was usually rope around Swartz’s farm in Malmo, a tiny community in the eastern part of the state. That day, she couldn’t find the rope anywhere. As she searched, she began thinking of a friend who had lost his father to suicide and of the difficulty he had coping with the loss. Realizing she didn’t want her children to go through the same thing, she decided to take a different approach.
“I said, ‘If you’re out there, if there’s a God, please take me,’” Swartz said, and in that moment her life changed and, perhaps more importantly, it didn’t end.
On Wednesday night, Swartz stood on the stage of the theater at North Platte Community College’s south campus and shared her story as part of the ACLU of Nebraska’s Transgender Voices Tour. According ACLU of Nebraska communications director Tyler Richard, the goal of the tour is to remind people of the biggest component of headlines about the transgender community and policies affecting it: transgender people. The nonpartisan nonprofit is doing that by introducing Nebraskans to other Nebraskans.
An estimated 60,000 people in the state identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. If they gathered together, they would make up the state’s third largest city, Richard said.
The Transgender Voices Tour is not only trying to educate cisgender Nebraskans, but also letting those who may be discovering their own identities know that they’re not alone.
“The stigma, the stress, the discrimination — it takes its toll,” said Richard, especially for young people.
In a 2016 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40 percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt and 92 percent of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
What Swartz once saw as a curse, she now sees as a blessing. Although she was raised Catholic, she truly found God the day she wanted to die and decided to live.
“This grace, this love just flowed through me,” Swartz said. “I still don’t understand it.”
She began reading the bible, hosting bible studies and doing street ministry. Her faith wasn’t good enough for the church she’d become a part of, though. After finding out she was transgender they asked her to leave, saying they would only stand by her if she transitioned back and lived as a male.
Swartz said they told her, “you have the calling of the devil in your life.”
It wasn’t just the church that wasn’t supportive. For the first year of her life as a woman, Swartz received hate mail and threatening voice messages. Once, at a bar, a man approached her and said, “What are you?”
“I said, I’m a child of God, just like you,” Swartz said. “He said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re nothing,’ ... then he pushed me.”
Thankfully, though, Swartz has never been a victim of extreme violence like some other transgender people have, she said. Just a few years before her own transition, a transgender man named Brandon Teena was raped and murdered in Humbolt, a town of about 875 in southeastern Nebraska and in 2016, 49 people were killed at Pulse, a LGBT nightclub in Orlando.
There were some people who were kind to Swartz and stood by her through the transition. Local business owners in her hometown promised to keep doing business with her after the transition and a few of them pointed out how much happier she seemed.
She’s been transitioned for 19 years and things are better than she ever could have imagined. When Swartz isn’t farming she spends her time visiting communities across the state and hoping to help foster a deeper understand of those who live in there and the obstacles they may be trying to over come.
Although things have improved for the LGBT community, Richard said, “we have a lot of work to do.”
To learn more about the ACLU of Nebraska or the Transgender Voices Tour, visit aclunebraska.org/transvoices.