As Texas slowly turned up the heat on trans youth and their families over the past year, Violet didn’t want to be the frog trapped in the pot of boiling water. “The frog doesn’t realize it until it’s getting cooked,” she says. “We could see where things were going and we thought, ‘We really need to not wait until it’s too late.’”
Violet, whose name has been changed because she fears potential prosecution from her former home state, is the parent of two transgender children. Last year, she decided it was time to leave Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning trans students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Things only got worse from there. In February, Abbott issued an order directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to conduct “investigations of any reported instances of Texas children being subjected to abusive gender-transitioning procedures,” according to his office.
Although Violet knew she needed to leave Texas to ensure that her children weren’t taken away from her, she didn’t know where to begin. Moving felt like a daunting task, even aside from the expense of starting over in another state. She wanted to move to Colorado, which has had comprehensive laws banning anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination on the books since 2008, but there are 178 school districts in the state. Where would she even begin in narrowing down which is the best one for her kids? How would she find doctors that she knew wouldn’t misgender or deadname them?
Violet suddenly had countless questions spanning everything from the best neighborhoods to trans-inclusive summer camps, but luckily, she knew exactly who to ask. After her children came out to her last year, Violet joined a private support group for Texas trans youth and their families on Facebook, and she soon found that other members were eager and willing to help. She says that talking to other parents who were able to offer referrals and personally vouch for medical providers they knew in the state who were “friendly, positive, and inclusive” made a “complete world of difference with everything we need to rebuild our whole life.”
“That’s my safe place,” she says of the group. “I do a lot to make sure that where we’re going are safe places and what we’re doing are safe things. I’m a really extroverted person. I’ll tell anyone my life story, but the way things are in Texas, I had gotten to a point where I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to know anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know me. To have some place where you don’t have to watch what you say, there’s just this understanding there.”
Families of trans kids in states across the U.S. have increasingly begun relying on parent networks as they struggle to make impossible decisions about their future. Many of these groups are forced to meet in secret — whether in members-only Facebook groups or at undisclosed locations — to ensure their children are not harmed. While Abbott’s order has been partially blocked by a court ruling, at least two states have enacted laws this year that criminalize gender-affirming medical care for trans youth: Alabama and Arizona. Arizona’s law applies specifically to surgical procedures on minors, but the attacks on Alabama trans youth have been sweeping. This year, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has signed laws that jail doctors who offer hormones or puberty blockers to trans minors and force teachers to out trans students to their families.
Allie, a mom who helps moderate the Texas Facebook group, says the resources it has provided to hundreds of families in the state since it was founded in 2015 are “life-changing.” Although the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to organize in person, it offers everything from small group meetups that function as informal therapy sessions to referrals to gender-affirming doctors. At least six families have moved as a result of the increasing scrutiny on trans youth in the state, and the group has been their major engine of support as they seek to relocate.
With countless families across the country looking to these kinds of online whisper networks for guidance, Allie says it’s critical for parents and their children “to be able to just connect and speak with others that are going through the same things.”
“Sometimes their kids find friends out of those connections with other trans kids that have been through it,” says Allie, who asked that her real name not be used in this story. “It’s lonely and overwhelming, but when you’re fighting for your kid, you don’t really have much of an option.”
Hundreds of groups in the U.S. are dedicated to ensuring that families of trans kids have the help they need, whether they’re underground Facebook groups or public-facing organizations. PFLAG offers peer-to-peer support services in more than 400 chapters spread across all 50 states. South Dakota Transformation Project, a Sioux Falls-based nonprofit, provides everything from regular hangouts for trans youth to free personal styling sessions through Marty’s Closet, a clothing-donation service run out of the apartment of a retired 67-year-old trans woman. Gender Expansive Kids and Company — or GEKCO for short — hosts monthly meetings in the greater Indianapolis area, where trans kids can play together while their parents discuss issues impacting their lives. Due to safety concerns, the locations of GEKCO meetings are not publicized.
While family support groups traditionally operated as a space where parents with kids who were newly out could find community, the needs of families have shifted dramatically in recent months. In 2022 alone, more than 140 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S., and the majority seek to deny gender-affirming care and athletics opportunities to trans youth. Eighteen states ban trans girls from playing on school sports teams in alignment with their gender identity, and nine of those laws were enacted this year.
Amid this record surge in anti-trans legislation, many parents have created GoFundMe campaigns to raise money to relocate to states where their children can be safe. Support groups have been instrumental in efforts to ensure these families get to a place where they no longer feel they have to live in fear, often sharing crowdfunding links through their personal networks. Others got help in a more informal way: After Julie met Violet in a workshop for parents of trans kids, it was her new friend who gave her the strength to leave Texas, where her family has lived for seven generations. She had never even considered moving until Abbott’s directive was issued in February.
“I never thought that I would be in this position where I feel like I need to flee for my child’s safety,” says Julie, whose name has been changed. “I always thought that I would vote and try to do advocacy and activism and help improve things in the place that I’ve always called home. It was a shock to see these announcements coming out and go, ‘I think we need to leave.’”
Sometime later this year, Julie plans to join Violet in relocating to Colorado, which has become a popular refuge for parents of trans youth leaving Texas. At least two additional families from the private Facebook group are moving to Colorado, according to Allie. While these families are spread across the state, Violet says they stay in close touch, texting each other when they need advice or just to vent. Julie’s household is still preparing to move as her child finishes up school for the year, and she says Violet has already connected her with a gender-affirming clinic that treats trans youth and with local resource groups for parents in the state.
But even with the support she’s received, Julie can’t shake the feeling that she’s not getting out fast enough. She is concerned that things are “only going to heat up and get worse” for trans youth as Texas awaits the governor’s race in November and legislative session in 2023. Texas state lawmakers meet every other year to debate policy, and the previous session, in 2021, saw the introduction of at least 70 bills seeking to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. An anti-trans sports ban was signed into law in October.
Although Violet left Texas two months ago, she admits that she still doesn’t feel safe. She and her children spent weeks couch surfing in family members’ homes before getting settled into her new apartment, which she hopes will be a temporary fix while they search for a house. Every day she fears that someone from a Texas child-welfare agency is going to come to Colorado and knock on her door.
“I just worry about: ‘OK, so how serious are they going to get about hunting people down?’” she says. “I know that sounds like some weird dystopian novel, but [Child Protective Services] is not a joke. Their goal is to make sure kids are safe, so when they start investigating, even for made-up reasons, you’re already way over your head.”
Although parent support groups are critical for those seeking a fresh start in a new state, the reality is that moving remains out of reach for the vast majority of youth and their families. Magic City Acceptance Center(MCAC), an LGBTQ+ resource space in Birmingham, Alabama, hosts a private Discord server where trans youth who don’t have the ability to access its services in person can ask questions and get the resources they need. Of the nearly 600 young people who regularly log on to its platform, MCAC founding director Amanda Keller says that just one is leaving Alabama as a result of anti-trans legislation. Many others would like to but don’t have the means to do so.
“We hold support groups for parents of trans youth, and we reached out to that group,” Keller says. “They all said, ‘None of us are able to move.’ We would never begrudge anyone wanting to leave. In fact, we support people in accessing whatever resources they need, wherever they go. But this is their home and they shouldn’t have to leave because they’re running from something.”
Organizations like Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA) are working to help create safe spaces for families of trans youth who aren’t able to move or don’t want to. The group, which was founded in 1998 and counts around 350 members on its Facebook page, offers everything from a monthly series of illustrated coloring books honoring trans heroes like pioneering Stonewall activist Marsha P. Johnson to a soccer camp for LGBTQ+ youth. SAGA recently transitioned its twice-monthly support groups to meet in person after two years of holding space online during the Covid-19 pandemic, and meetings are held in a secret location.
Lizette Trujillo, a facilitator for SAGA’s parent group, says that having other parents to lean on has been invaluable to her family. After her son, Daniel, came out as transgender in 2016 at the age of eight, the Trujillos didn’t speak to many of their relatives for two years. Their family is in a better place now, but she says Daniel was never aware there was a problem because his calendar was packed to the brim with playdates with other trans kids.
“He never felt that sting of not having family around, because we were relying on our support group,” Trujillo says. “Daniel never felt like he was isolated and alone. He just thought, ‘Oh, we have these new people in our lives. It’s so exciting.’”
Despite her best efforts to make sure that her son knows that he is loved and supported by those around him, Trujillo says the legislation targeting her family has weighed heavily on them — like when Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law in March outlawing gender-affirming surgery for trans youth under 18. Although surgery generally is not a recommended form of treatment for trans youth, procedures like chest reconstruction and double mastectomies may be prescribed for trans teen boys in rare cases.
Trujillo says that she and other parents thought they failed their children when that bill was passed. “We all felt like, ‘Here’s this one way in which we can’t protect them,’” she says. “No matter what we did, the GOP was committed to passing this legislation. It’s devastating to think about your child losing their civil liberties and not being treated as a whole person.”
Families like Trujillo’s hope to leverage their networks to make sure no one else is forced to move because they no longer feel safe in their own state. Equality Squad, an activist group created in 2019 to lobby for filibuster reform, has since pivoted to opposing discrimination against trans youth. The coalition is run by three mothers with trans kids, and they hope to amass unprecedented turnout among parents to protest anti-trans legislation in 2023. Many are worried that Republican lawmakers are preparing a bill that would criminalize parents who support their trans kids, in the vein of a failed 2021 proposal in Texas.
Carla Roberts, one of the moms behind Equality Squad, says it isn’t a traditional support group, but maintains that it shares a common goal with the parent-led organizations in states like Texas and South Dakota: They all just want to keep their kids alive. Before her 18-year-old daughter came out as trans, Roberts says the teen struggled with suicidal ideation. After beginning hormone treatment in 2020, she says her daughter no longer feels suicidal, and Roberts confesses that her worst fear is going back to that dark place from which her family came.
“I don’t get to sit back and relax,” she says. “Next year I want everyone to be tough and pissed. I’m trying to just give people that fire. I know people are scared, but we need to amp this up.”