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RAINBOW CLOUD STORY: Mar Lee on living in a conservative state while queer, non-binary, & disabled

CW: Suicide, Depression, Dating Violence, Domestic Abuse, COVID-19

My name is Mar Lee, but you can call me Marlee or Mar, and my pronouns are they/them/theirs. I’m a 5th-year student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I’m the Community Organizer for OutNebraska, Nebraska’s state LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization. I’m a member of Dear UNL, a group of sexual assault survivors from UNL that decided to stop being quiet. I’m an Advisory Board Member for Disability Rights Nebraska’s Protections and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Advisory Council.

I’m a rancher, helping raise sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks using regenerative agricultural practices. I’m a Nebraskan, born and raised. I’m a friend; a partner; a sibling; someone’s child.

I also happen to be queer, non-binary, and disabled.

When I was young, I had a very good idea of who I was. I loved being outdoors, in nature and amongst animals, and wanted so badly to live on a farm. I was so jealous of my friends who got to live in the country, so I was constantly outside, especially after moving right next to a lake when I was a kid. I was always in the dirt, running around with my brothers and boys in our neighborhood.

I also knew I wasn’t a “girl” when I was younger.

I remember my mom describing to me that a tomboy is like a girl that acts kinda like a boy. I remember beaming as that term resonated with me and I found neutral ground and a self-describing word that made more sense to me than “girl”. Luckily, gender roles were never enforced on me by my parents; there are pictures of me as a kid running around in overalls and wearing a baseball cap backward, which is still how you’ll often find me today!

Growing up, I lost those parts of myself for a long time when I felt the forces of misogyny pressing down on me for the very first time in my young life. All of a sudden, I had to defend that I was a girl and that girls CAN do things just as well as everyone. Despite that, I struggled with the labels; being called the “Lady” version of the school’s mascot made me cringe and I remember arguing with my junior high English teacher about using the singular “they.” I also remember when a friend told me in junior high that he was kind of like a girl and a guy; it made sense to me and I didn’t question it at all. He transferred schools later that year because of the bullying and harassment he was receiving.

That was when I first fully realized that it wasn’t safe to be like me.

I hid who I was for a long time. In that hiding, I was failing to come to terms with my mental and physical health issues that I was dealing with. I was missing school a lot to deal with pain that was caused by what would later in college be diagnosed as hyperthyroidism, pleurisy, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. In school, I was also struggling a lot due to the mental and physical abuse I was enduring from my family and a relationship I had been in. I was depressed, anxious, in pain, and traumatized; yet when I would walk in those school doors I put a smile on my face and no one would’ve guessed a thing.

That all changed when I ended up admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Suddenly, everyone realized that the happy, perky, cheerleader, actor, singer, academic that everyone thought they knew and loved, wasn’t who they thought I was. I faced my own death and came back from it, a changed person. I realized I couldn’t keep hiding anymore. I couldn’t keep pretending to be someone I wasn’t; whether that was straight, happy, able-bodied, or a girl. Some of those realizations came a lot later than that, but it was all part of the journey that I’m still on and will continue because life is important.

It took me almost losing mine to realize we only get one.

I decided I wasn’t going to waste it.

So at 16, I was outed to my whole town as bisexual when I started dating a trans guy who I met in the mental hospital (because that’s the rural trans experience baby!). I stopped caring what people thought and moved on, I had other things to worry about like making sure my family had food on the table after my mom finally kicked out my abusive alcoholic father after he hit me. I was working constantly, 1-3 jobs at a time through high school.

My senior year I cut my hair short and old ladies in the bakery called me slurs but I didn’t care anymore; I was comfortable. I ended up wearing a rented tux to my senior prom and going with a friend; it was the most comfortable I had felt out of any prom I had attended. It took going to college to realize that there weren’t just binary options of boy and girl, and finding where I existed in the in-between process was exciting but scary. Mostly because I knew I would have to come out again.

I have now been out as non-binary for three years; it’s been two years since I legally changed my name as well. I have also been dealing with these increasingly worse health problems for just as long. My chronic pain and illness symptoms are variable, meaning that some days I have them, some I don’t. Sometimes I can go about my day, having all the energy to get things done; other days, I wake up feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck and can’t leave my bed. That has made it hard for me to be able to attend school regularly, and it has set me back a bit as well. My health problems have made it difficult to be able to work, and I’m very fortunate that in my job I’m able to work remotely, which I was doing even before COVID came and nearly isolated me completely from people for over a year.

Due to COVID, I was also forced out of my housing situation with five other people who were interacting with the public on a daily basis, and into a small half-renovated bus with my partner who I met during the pandemic. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment on my own while being a full-time student and part-time worker, and living with five other people who were essential workers was dangerous, so I ended up houseless during the pandemic. Luckily, I still had shelter over my head, but we didn’t have immediate access to plumbing or wifi which made working and going to school remotely extremely difficult. It was a mess that was juggled, but now my partner and I are living on 20 acres outside of Lincoln, and we’re housed and happy as our ranch is growing!

It can be extremely difficult for people like me to find their way growing up because we don’t really have it laid out for us. Navigating the complexities of the world while being queer, trans, and disabled in a rural, conservative area is extremely tough. I made it out and decided to go back in because I know that there are kids who are like me that need an adult to help show them that navigating it is hard, but not impossible. I needed to advocate for myself and for my community. Even if I don’t know the people in the community, I know a lot of their experiences because being queer in a rural area creates a lot of shared experiences. I wish I had that person back then and wish I could be there for everyone in that way now because not all of us make it out.

Last year, I had a friend from high school who grew up with me kill herself after struggling to navigate the world as a disabled trans-woman. She wasn’t getting access to the healthcare she needed. The medicine she needed is still criminalized (yes, marijuana IS medicine), and her family rejected her and cremated her under her dead name. I constantly think about Luna and how one of the few other people who shared my experiences so closely is now gone from this world. That’s why I’m writing this now; to bring visibility to experiences like ours.

But more than visibility, disabled transgender individuals need SUPPORT; both individual and community support; both emotional and financial. I’m trying to help be that support through working with OutNebraska, providing LGBTQIA+ advocacy, education, and social opportunities for the community across the state. The Rainbow Cloud Project is trying to be that support by sharing stories like mine and other members of the community. We can all try to be that support for our friends, family, and just random people we may meet in our lives by listening, understanding, and being kind.

Kindness costs nothing.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-787-3224

Social Media:

Instagram: marlee_poetry

Medium: Mar Lee

#lgbtqia #nonbinary #disabled #disabledLGBTQIA #rainbowcloudstory #queer #OutNebraska #kindess #supportLGBTQIAlives #transgendervisibility #comingout #DearUNL #NebraskaLGBTQIA

* Interested in sharing your #RainbowCloudStory on The Rainbow Cloud Project?

Email us at to find out more today :) *


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