This month, Lauren Rodriguez will move out of her home in Texas, a state where she has lived for 20 years, to relocate to New Zealand. “People think we are dramatic for leaving, but when you look at what’s happened to my family, we’re not,” she says, amid packing up her life’s belongings. “It has been a total witch-hunt. It takes its toll.”
Six years ago, Rodriguez’s son Grey told her that he was transgender. That first night, she stayed up Googling “what to do when your kid tells you they’re trans”. From there, she took him to get his “first boy haircut” and contacted local LGBTQ+ organizations for advice.
Although she describes the climate against trans people then as less hostile than it has become, the news was not well received by some in their neighborhood. At the extreme, neighbors, a teacher, and even family members reported Rodriguez to Child Protection Services (CPS) for helping her son, who was then under 18, access gender-affirming medical care. Rodriguez, a social worker, has been on the receiving end of more than 10 complaints to the CPS. All cases were opened, investigated and closed.
During this period, Texas was one of a number of Republican-led states where the political mood was changing. The current legislative session in Texas has seen an unprecedented number of anti-gay and anti-trans bills pass through the senate. Some restrict teaching about gender and sexuality in schools. One bill has a section that would allow anyone to criminally prosecute an individual librarian in a school for distributing “harmful material”.
Other bills would ban drag, while one, SB14, would ban gender-affirming care for under-18s. If it passes, Texas will follow the 19 US states that ban or restrict access to transgender care, with penalties for doctors who break the law.
This sudden change in political tone has left many in Republican states feeling unsafe. A survey this year found that 50% of LGBTQ+ Florida parents wish to move, particularly in the wake of HB1557 – otherwise known as the “don’t say gay” bill – passed in March 2022, which bars teachers from educating children between kindergarten and third grade on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the law, a Florida teacher was recently investigated for showing students a Disney movie featuring a gay character.
Around the same time as the “don’t say gay” bill was passed in Florida, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, published a letter calling on “licensed professionals” and “members of the general public” to report the parents of trans minors to the state if their children appeared to be receiving gender-affirming medical care.
After the letter was published, a new case was opened against Rodriguez, and this time the investigations were more violating and intrusive. By this time she had started doing advocacy work for trans kids, including testifying against an anti-LGBTQ+ bill at the state capitol in 2021 about her decision to support her son’s top surgery. In 2022, by which point Grey was 18 and away at college, the CPS showed up at Rodriguez’s doorstep and workplace. “The CPS agent read out my testimony as evidence against me,” she explains. “The agent called the top surgery ‘genital mutilation’. They kept saying that if I could do these things to my kid, I could do it to a client. But I don’t know how you could transition an adult client against their will.”
Rodriguez has spent over $15,000 on legal fees defending herself against these claims. During the latest period of investigation against her, she was also doxxed; her address spread online after she spoke out in the press against the worsening climate of transphobia in Texas. Campaigners showed up at her home picketing with signs accusing her of child abuse and posted flyers through her neighbors’ mailboxes picturing her face with a target over it. Strangers carrying guns have followed her to work. The police were unable to intervene due to Texas’s constitutional carry laws, until one of her tailgaters was arrested for carrying a weapon as a convicted felon.
Rodriguez’s story is one of many; swathes of LGBTQ+ Americans are either migrating or want to migrate due to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in their states. The Miami Heat basketball player Dwyane Wade, who has a teenage trans daughter, recently made headlines for moving his family to California because he did not feel safe raising a child in south Florida amid mounting hostility and regressive legislation. The bill SB254, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in May 2023, would not only prohibit gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18 in Florida, and restrict adult access to this care, but would allow the state to temporarily remove parental custody of trans children.
These laws encourage the “financial and emotional destruction” of LGBTQ+ people, says Bob McCranie, a Texas real estate agent who runs Flee Red States, an initiative he decided to launch in 2021 after observing intimidation of LGBTQ+ friends and colleagues.
Flee Red States operates almost like a refugee organization – except that the migration is internal. People with the financial capital and flexibility to do so are fleeing political persecution in their own country.
So far he has facilitated moves to Illinois, Colorado, Connecticut, New England, New York and California, working on behalf of those looking to leave states where legislation is making life unlivable, including Texas, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Indianapolis and Tennessee.
‘I could be locked up on a federal charge for performing in drag’
Eight years ago, when same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, research found that LGBTQ+ people were moving to red states as conservative cities became more accepting.
Florida, in particular, drew LGBTQ+ visitors, families and retirees in large number. Areas like Fort Lauderdale, St Petersburg and south Tampa are home to significant LGBTQ+ communities.
However, that is changing. Recent safety advisories from Equality Florida and the NAACP address LGBTQ+ people thinking of traveling to the state.
“I saw the tide beginning to turn against LGBTQ+ people as far back as President Obama’s election in 2008,” says J. Clapp, former executive director of Durham LGBTQ+ Center, who also performs in drag under the name Vivica C Coxx. In North Carolina, where she lives, “we were a purple state, but the right’s response to Obama was: ‘We’ve given them too much rope if they’ve elected a Black person.’ Our somewhat progressive state went immensely conservative.”
J. Clapp began experiencing more racism and transphobia, as well as seeing more Confederate flags in Durham. Now, Republicans in North Carolina are pushing to ban drag shows in public places – a move that would have been unexpected 10 years ago. Each morning, J. Clapp checks the headlines on local drag bans.
“I have a background check, people trust me with their kids. Yet if North Carolina’s drag ban goes through, I could be locked up in prison on a federal charge.”
While legislation plays out in the courts, it is engendering more on-the-ground hostility from extremist rightwing groups. In June 2022, 31 members of Patriot Front were arrested en route to a Pride event in Idaho carrying weapons. In Moore county, J. Clapp’s local area, a drag event was recently disrupted by a power outage. Reports later showed that the local power substation had been shot out, leaving 40,000 people without power. One resident died in connection with the outage. Like other local activists, J. Clapp believes members of the far right were behind the attack. (The police are investigating far-right groups, though no arrests have been made.) “No one is standing up against these groups, and we – LGBTQ+ people – just feel helpless.”
Of the half a dozen families the Guardian spoke to for this piece, each mentioned gun crime in the context of their fears over rising anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. “Permitless gun laws cause a lot of people to be very concerned for their lives,” says Julio Capó Jr, author of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 and a professor of history at Florida University. “After the Pulse massacre [in Orlando], as a gay Latino man in Florida, I’d be lying if I said that when I go to a gay bar I am not looking for exits. These laws only further my fear and anxiety.”
McCranie, meanwhile, recalls a local Pride event last year where he was met with intimidation. “The event was like a community fair – and there were people dressed in all black with their faces covered and AK47s on their backs, taking pictures of us for their book of people they don’t like. Tell me why I would stay in a state that allows this.
“When we talk about the migration happening, it’s a combination of anti-trans and anti-gay laws and the armed wing of the Republican party. I call them the brown shirts. This situation, it’s creating a pressure cooker for the community.”
McCranie believes that with the climate worsening in Texas with each legislative session, LGBTQ+ families and individuals should consider moving now, before “the writing is on the wall”, as he puts it. “I think the urgency is about a four or a five right now and my concern is when it gets to nine, it will be too late. People won’t be able to get out.”
‘Nowhere is universally safe’
For many parents of younger trans kids in states like Texas and Florida, the moment to move has already arrived, less of a choice and more of a necessity, given how many bills are specifically seeking to limit or criminalize gender-affirming treatments.
Camille Rey moved from Texas to Maryland in August 2021 after that year’s legislative session. When her son, who is trans and now 10 years old, began to use his new legal name, Leon, his pediatrician refused to use his new gender marker and pronouns. He began experiencing physical and mental health problems linked to stress. Like Rodriguez, Rey testified at the capitol against bills that would ban or limit gender-reaffirming care for minors, “I had taken him to the capitol to testify with me,” says Rey. “He wanted to come, but maybe it was a mistake. He heard the opposition testify, people spewing all kinds of bile. Due to the stress of that, he began having chronic stomach pains. At one point, it was so bad we thought he had appendicitis.”
Leaving Texas meant moving two kids out of their school, spending $20,000 on the move (plus fees to sell their home), and no longer having access to immediate family, but Rey felt it was the right decision for Leon’s welfare. She no longer feels safe returning to Texas: “I feel like a political refugee in my own country.”
Another mother of a trans minor, Karen, who wishes to keep her full name private, relocated from Texas to Portland, Oregon, in June 2022. The decisive moment arrived for her when she learned that her daughter, Jessie, now eleven, would not be able to compete in female sports if they remained in Texas, after a bill banning trans youth from playing on sports teams aligned with their gender went into effect in January 2022. Karen was also conscious that teachers might not be obliged to honor Jessie’s pronouns (already the case in one Texas school district). “If teachers don’t have to honor a person’s pronouns, or aren’t even allowed to acknowledge someone’s gender identity, not only are things bad now, I struggle to see how they are going to get better.”
While Karen had not been put under investigation by the CPS, she feared that if she did not leave Texas, they would soon come for her. “Even after the move, it took almost a year for my nervous system to recover from the stress of that.”
However, not everybody is afforded the choice to move. Saundra Mitchell, a YA author specializing in LGBTQ+ storytelling, and her wife, Jayne Walters, a trans woman and librarian, have been based in Indiana for 26 years. They have been looking to move their family for 10 months but are struggling to find a new job for Walters. “This year, we had 27 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in committee here in Indiana. At the beginning of the session, the ACLU suggested that most of them will probably die, but so far, all of them have passed, as Indiana tries to keep up with other red states,” says Mitchell. “They’re making it a felony to give a kid a book with queer characters, so as a YA author and librarian, we need to get out of here sooner rather than later.”
Right now, as with many red states, laws are focusing on children. Mitchell believes that as part of the next legislative session, laws will focus more heavily on adults, potentially compromising her wife’s access to hormones. “These laws,” she adds, referring to local censorship laws and drag bans, “are encroaching on free speech. It is becoming actively dangerous for us here, and my wife won’t necessarily be able to access healthcare. Under censorship laws, we could both be arrested for felonies, and once you have a felony [on your record] you can’t vote any more. Why is the response always, you guys can just move?” Both Mitchell and her daughter are living with disabilities, and Mitchell says the family would struggle in any state with a higher cost of living than Indiana. “We do not have a big savings account, and it’s not like we’re 20 and we can just grab a duffle and go where we want to. We’ve been married for more than 25 years and we have a family. We can’t just pick up and hope it works out.”
“Finding jobs, setting up a social network, kids in schools, parents in care … economically and socially, moving states is not something you do on a whim,” says McCranie.
J. Clapp points out that even if you do relocate, you’re not necessarily safer. At least 32 trans people were murdered in the US in 2022, most of whom were trans women of color. Two trans people – Daniel Aston and Kelly Loving – were killed during the Club Q shooting in Colorado, a blue state. J. Clapp chooses to stay and fight against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in North Carolina and continue her drag performances, writing in a recent campaigning newsletter: “We are not going anywhere.” But she also doesn’t feel like moving would benefit her. “I don’t think anywhere in the US is universally safe for me.”
‘Do we need to flee the United States?’
In Maryland, Camille Rey’s son’s health has improved, while in Oregon, one year on from their move, Karen says her family is much happier. She has noticed a trend, though, among her new blue state neighbors, of talking about anti-LGBTQ+ laws as an “over there” problem.
The reality is that anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is not limited geographically. Pride parades continue to be attacked. Shootings like that in Colorado Springs show that LGBTQ+ lives are at risk everywhere. Factions of the Republican party are pushing for a national “don’t say gay” bill. In the wake of Ron DeSantis’s 2024 presidential run announcement, campaigners worry that even blue states may not provide safety or shelter for queer people for long.
“The 14th amendment has been gutted with the overtaking of Roe v Wade. If the 14th amendment goes, our right to marriage and our freedom from sodomy laws, all that could go on a national level,” says McCranie. “So if we flee the state, but our rights go on a national level, the question becomes: do we need to flee the United States? I’m asking people I know: do you have a parent or grandparent from another country? You should go get that passport now.”
Mitchell and her wife are aiming to move to Minnesota due to its proximity to Canada, just in case. (Justin Trudeau has shown support for trans communities.) Rodriguez explains that she chose to leave the country, rather than Texas, so that she only has to move once. “My fear with the safe states is, what if the US passes federal anti-LGBTQ+ laws?” she says. “I had one house to sell, I had to do it to fund to go anywhere, so I should go where I don’t have to worry about what happens at the next election.”
Across the US, the ACLU has filed lawsuits against countless anti-LGBTQ+ laws, several of which the organization has won. If it passes, they are likely to challenge SB14, the Texas law that would block under-18s from accessing transition-related medical treatments, which is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the meantime, these laws are severely affecting trans people’s lives. A January report from the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention organization, found that 71% of LGBTQ+ youth said debates over bills affecting how they live negatively impacted their mental health.
Activists also fear that an exodus of LGBTQ+ people from red states will mean the diminished presence of LGBTQ+ communities and campaigners long term. Jo Ivester, a Texas-based trans rights campaigner and author of the book Never A Girl, Always a Boy, about her experience raising a trans son, explains: “I have friends who have moved out of state, out of the country, and others who are terrified to speak up, or come to the capitol and testify. Some will no longer come to Pride parades because they’re scared that if they do, the government will take their kids away.” This has left it more important for families like hers, with adult trans children, to advocate, she says.
McCranie would like to see outrage at the fact that people are being driven from their homes. “I have friends in [my local town] Carlton – they come to the LGBTQ+ bake sale, participate in Pride, shake our hands. But when I talk about these issues, they think: ‘Oh, Bob’s going off again!’ They say: ‘Oh, I hate politics!’ Well, this isn’t politics. This is our lives.”
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