Opinion | L.G.B.T.Q. Americans Could Become a ‘New Class of Political Refugees’

By Charles M. Blow

Opinion Columnist

Eleanor McDonough used to be a legislative aide in the Florida State House of Representatives. She was, she believes, the only openly transgender person working there. That was until the wave of oppressive, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. — and specifically anti-trans — legislation being passed in Tallahassee became too much for her to bear.

Two weeks ago, she resigned her position and fled Florida for New Hampshire.

As McDonough told me, it became a “difficult situation” working in the Capitol and “having people debate your existence on both the House and Senate floors, of whether or not you’re going to be able to use the restroom in the building.”

“When you have to take a look at history and what other authoritarians have done when seeking power,” she said, “you have to make a decision of: At what point is it too dangerous to stay?”

McDonough isn’t alone among trans people, queer people in general, and their families registering the danger and considering relocation.

As Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told me recently, “I think for the first time, at least in my history of the movement, we are seeing this new class of political refugees that are moving to different states because they believe that they’re not safe in their own.” These are gender refugees. Here, in America. Americans.

According to research by the Clark University professor Abbie Goldberg published in January by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which surveyed 113 parents in Florida who are L.G.B.T.Q. in the wake of the passage of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, “56 percent of parents considered moving out of Florida and 16.5 percent have taken steps to move out of Florida.”

The study found that some respondents were already saving money and looking for jobs and houses elsewhere. But the fight-or-flight dilemma that these families face is fraught because, as the study points out, “many felt conflicted,” noting that “they loved their families, friends and communities.” They’re being pushed to choose between the comfort of their chosen tribe and the safety of their families — something no one should have to do. It’s a predicament underscoring that anti-trans laws aren’t noble, but wicked; they don’t protect, they prey.

And as the study notes, for some families with L.G.B.T.Q. members, “moving was currently impossible,” as they were “caring for older family members or other dependents or had jobs that they could not find elsewhere.” As Goldberg has explained: “For L.G.B.T.Q.+ parents without the means to move or send their children to private schools”— where, hopefully, they wouldn’t have to be silent about their families — the stress that anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation creates “will be significant.” Uprooting and moving to get away from political persecution is a privileged option that’s just not feasible for everyone, at least in the short term.

One high-profile family that resolved to leave Florida is that of Dwyane Wade, who won three N.B.A. championships with the Miami Heat, and the movie and TV star Gabrielle Union. The couple has a transgender daughter, 16-year-old Zaya, and Wade has said that Florida’s anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws are among the reasons they decided to move. In April, he said “My family would not be accepted or feel comfortable there” and in May, he said of Miami, “As much as I love that city, and as much as I’m always going to be a part of it, I can’t — for the safety of my family, that’s what it was for me — I couldn’t move back.”

But, of course, Wade and Union are wealthy and have flexibility and resources — commodities that are beyond the scope of many.

According to a report released this month by the Human Rights Campaign, out of more than 525 anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills introduced around the country in this year’s legislative sessions, “over 220 of those target the transgender community.”

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, recently told me that “people are terrified, especially the parents of transgender kids.” He continued:

“We’re hearing from families all the time who are terrified, who are facing very concrete, practical issues of: My kid is about to lose health care; or my doctor, our family physician who we’ve been seeing for years now says they won’t treat my child anymore.”

The fear and desperation are so great, Robinson told me, she has even talked to parents who are considering giving custody of their trans children to family members in friendlier states.

This situation — the support for and passage of these laws — is not only sad, it’s obscene and infuriating. And it is deeply rooted in dehumanization and denial.

Last week, a federal judge in Florida granted a preliminary injunction for three trans youths against certain provisions in a state law meant to ban gender affirming care for minors. In the judge’s scathing ruling, he wrote two short sentences that ring profoundly because they seem to be so often ignored in the crusade against trans people: “Gender identity is real. The record makes this clear.”

The reality that “variations in gender identity and expression are normal aspects of human diversity” should be commonly understood, but it isn’t. Instead, far too many people falsely view gender diversity — including being trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming — as a dernier cri. They view gender dysphoria — the distress caused by the mismatch between someone’s gender and the sex they were assigned at birth — as a choice rather than a medical condition. They conflate the condition with its effective treatment: transitioning. And they assume that trans individuals are capriciously, almost recreationally choosing gender-affirming treatment with the ease of choosing and buying an ice cream.

They’re wrong.

Transitioning can be expensive and is often hindered by various hurdles. A 2023 survey by K.F.F. and The Washington Post found that only 31 percent of trans adults have used hormone treatments, and only 16 percent have undergone gender-affirming surgery.

The truth is that the broader L.G.B.T.Q. community and the trans community in particular are being bullied in this debate, and the willful ignorance around gender identity is being exploited. L.G.B.T.Q. Americans are being used as pawns in a political battle. We’re being scapegoated by scammers. Safety, even the safety of children, is being callously sacrificed so that public favor can be won.

It’s sick. And it has put many queer people in an impossible, existential bind.

This year, New Hampshire’s legislature has taken up proposals targeting transgender students and their families. But McDonough says she chose the state as her destination because she grew up in New England and has family there. She also reminded me of the state’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” which for trans people these days has an urgent meaning.

Source images by Jose A. Bernat Bacete, aguadeluna and Gluiki/Getty Images

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Charles M. Blow joined The Times in 1994 and became an Opinion columnist in 2008. He is also a television commentator and writes often about politics, social justice and vulnerable communities. @CharlesMBlow Facebook

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