Farmer, Grandmother, and Volunteer Firefighter Talks Growing Up Transgender in Nebraska

For Ashley Swartz, a lifelong Nebraskan, farmer and volunteer firefighter, her gender transition saved her life and her family.

Born a boy in a small town in Nebraska, Ashley’s earliest memories was about confusion she had with her body, and shame for not meeting society’s expectations about who she should be. It was a feeling Ashley buried deep down through marriage and the birth of two children, Brandon and Alyssa. It was a secret held in place by fear of another tragedy — the rape and murder of a fellow transgender Nebraskan, Brandon Teena, two hours away.

Unable to reconcile who she was and who she needed to be, Ashley dedicated herself to her work and her community. Following her father’s footsteps, Ashley threw herself into farming. She also joined the Malmo Volunteer Fire Department.

But that feeling of isolation never left her. “I felt dead inside,” Ashley said. The desire to transition strained Ashley’s marriage eventually leading to their divorce; their two young children going with her ex-wife.

Loneliness and depression soon followed, as did thoughts of suicide. One night driving cattle from Columbus, Ashley remembers suddenly feeling numb in her hands and feet, unable to feel the steering wheel at her hands. Though she got home safely, it was only later she learned that it was an anxiety attack. 

Something needed to change. If it didn’t, Ashley knew she’d lose her life and her family forever.

(Right) Ashley with her daughter, Alyssa, in 2014. (Left) Ashley with her granddaughter.

(Right) Ashley with her daughter, Alyssa, in 2014. (Left) Ashley with her granddaughter.

It has been two decades since Ashley’s gender transition. Instead of uprooting her life in Malmo, she transitioned right there. Living everyday as a woman, she often got hate mail and glaring looks from neighbors. Talking to other firefighters about her transition, one said he would be uncomfortable going into a fire with her.

Ashley’s transition also affected her children. She recalls a friend of her son trying to blacklist him, threatening to tell her son’s friends that his mom is transgender. Brandon, a young boy, is in tears. Ashley asks him, “Would you like me out of your life?” “No,” he said.

Today, Ashley’s relationship with her children is strong. And it’s strong, in part, because of her newfound faith. Finding a church had been difficult after her transition. But for Ashley, it was her transition that allowed her to connect with God. “I had no idea how wonderful this journey could be on one end of it, and the little miracles of how it strengthened my faith along the way.”

For years, Ashley crisscrossed the state speaking in schools and churches, telling her story. “I wasn’t going to transition. Now I ended up becoming an activist. I never thought of that happening.” The support she’s received, especially from people of faith, has strengthened Ashley’s resolve. After a talk at a South Dakota college years ago, a born-again Christian student prayed over Ashley in gratitude. “God, I pray for Ashley. I thank you for Ashley coming to educate us. And I pray, God, that you continue giving Ashley the courage to speak to others about this.”

In a new ad campaign funded by the HRC Foundation, Ashley is now telling her story on airwaves across the state. “I believe our communities are strongest when we work together,” Ashley says in the ad. “So let’s work together to strengthen the state we love.” Listen to the ad here:

Featured photo via The Omaha World-Herald.

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