Until a few years ago, Grey Wilson’s journey as a trans person had largely been a peaceful one.
A week before his 13th birthday, he came out to his mother, Lauren, in a PowerPoint presentation that laid out why he should be allowed to transition. It had previously proven to be a successful method of getting what he wanted: Every time he yearned to adopt a dog or a bunny, he would create a slideshow detailing the costs of pet ownership, appropriate feeding schedules, and where to obtain the animal in question. (Grey only got turned down when he asked Lauren for a snake.)
Lauren, a self-described data nerd, found herself convinced by the research Grey had compiled on the psychological benefits of gender affirmation. When the presentation concluded, she thought to herself, “Yep, that’s my son.”
But Grey’s happy existence ended seemingly overnight when he testified in the Texas Legislature against a 2021 bill seeking to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Anti-trans activists showed up at the family’s door after their home address was shared online, and Lauren said men with assault rifles tailed her when she was driving and tried to follow her to work. Grey was suddenly troubled by a new guilt, the fear he had brought all this down upon him. “The thing they hate about her is me,” he thought to himself. “They’re going after her because of me.”
“I felt a lot of responsibility for what was happening,” said Grey, now 19. “I know logically it isn’t, but a part of me thought, ‘Well, if I wasn’t trans, she wouldn’t be getting harassed.’”
The bill banning gender-affirming care for Texas youth — which threatens doctors who offer transition care to minors with loss of licensure — became a law two years after Grey’s testimony, and many families left the state in response. But the Wilsons, who aren’t being identified with their real last name due to safety concerns, were worried that simply going to a blue state like California or Colorado wouldn’t be enough. What if their new state started passing the same policies as their old one? Lauren knew that selling their house would only generate enough revenue to finance one move, and she worried they would be stuck if they chose the wrong state.
Instead of risking their only chance at escape, Grey and Lauren decided to flee the United States altogether and start over in New Zealand — a country where they had few friends or connections. They chose New Zealand for pragmatic reasons: It’s considered among the world’s most LGBTQ+ friendly nations, ranked 10th in a 2020 survey from UCLA think tank .
“A part of me thought, ‘Well, if I wasn’t trans, she wouldn’t be getting harassed.’”
– Grey Wilson
Families that spoke to HuffPost felt that getting out was their only option, particularly as the 2024 presidential election looms. Several candidates for the GOP nomination, including former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, have vocally opposed allowing trans kids to access gender-affirming care before the age of 18. At least three candidates have called for a federal ban on transition treatments for minors — among them former President Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner, who has likened trans youth health care to “child abuse” and “child sexual mutilation.”
Grey knows that his family is privileged to be able to pick up everything and move, and that nagging guilt comes back when he thinks of the friends and community they left behind in Texas. But over a Zoom call from his new apartment, he says there’s no future in a state that denies his basic rights, in a country where his opportunities to live as himself are narrowing.
“We don’t really have a lot of hope that things will get better before they get significantly worse,” he said. “We’d rather not have to deal with the significantly worse part.”
The Costs Of Migration
It’s unclear how many other families across the U.S. have made the choice to move abroad in response to discriminatory policies because they are largely doing so without any resources or infrastructure to support them. Nonprofit organizations focused on advocating for LGBTQ+ immigrants — such as Immigration Equality in the U.S. and Rainbow Railroad in Canada — have long been focused on the migration of refugees to North America, often from the global South. The issue of trans people and their loved ones heading the opposite direction is a relatively new phenomenon.
Among the few organizations offering dedicated resources to trans Americans seeking to leave the country with their families is TRANSport, a North Dakota-based group founded by Rynn Azerial Willgohs. The organization, which is applying for formal nonprofit status, is geared toward resettlement from the Dakotas and neighboring Minnesota. When she spoke to VICE News in January, Willgohs reported that 30 people had already reached out for help moving abroad. Willgohs did not respond to several requests for comment on this story, but the number of requests has likely increased significantly in the months since: More than 700 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in 2023, by far the largest number in history, according to data provided by the LGBTQ+ think tank Movement Advancement Project.
Families of trans youth leaving the U.S. are likely to need as much help as they can get: Relocating abroad is a time-consuming, emotionally taxing process that typically costs tens of thousands of dollars. Sirelo, an independent online platform that allows customers to review moving companies, estimates that the cost of moving to New Zealand ranges from $15,000 and $20,000. Workers relocating to New Zealand for a job offer, for instance, will need to apply for a notoriously pricey work-to-residence visa, which costs nearly $2,000 in U.S. dollars. Lauren and Grey found that obtaining residences that would allow them to house four cats and three dogs was extremely difficult in New Zealand; many landlords required them to submit a “dog resume” detailing their breeds and respective temperaments.
And without established networks in place, trans children and their loved ones have largely been left to fend for themselves, whether it’s researching friendly countries or financing their move. When Marie Ponce’s family decided to move to Uruguay after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was reelected in November 2021, they knew they couldn’t afford to take the entire contents of their four-bedroom home with them — which an online calculator for an international storage service estimates would cost up to $17,000.
When Marie, her husband and two children leave the U.S. next month, they will take just four suitcases with them. A friend has agreed to hold onto their car and some family photo albums to make sure there’s some record left of their previous life, the one they had spent years building in Texas.
“If you knew her, the least interesting thing about her is that she’s trans. I just wanted to go to a place where people wouldn’t care.”
– Marie Ponce
The Ponces, who are being identified by pseudonyms out of concern for their safety, chose to move to Uruguay despite the expense, Marie said, because it’s one of the most welcoming countries in South America to foreign workers, and they would be able to obtain residency after three years. Uruguay also has some of the world’s most progressive laws mandating equality for the trans community. After passing a law in 2009 allowing trans people to correct their name and gender identity in government documents, the country went even further in 2018, enacting sweeping policies intended to guarantee “a life free from discrimination and stigmatization.” The “Trans Law,” as it’s known colloquially, established a constitutional right to gender-affirming care and set aside 1% of all government jobs for trans workers.
What they are hoping to find in Uruguay is a place where Marie’s 9-year-old daughter, Chloe, will no longer be a political football. Before Texas passed its gender-affirming care ban, Abbott issued an executive order in February 2022 directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who allow their children to transition. The directive achieved what Texas Republicans had been trying to do for an entire year: In April 2021, lawmakers advanced legislation seeking to classify the provision of gender-affirming care to minors as “child abuse,” which is a potential first-degree felony in Texas, punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
In the following months, child welfare agents opened cases against dozens of families across the state, and the Ponces compiled a “safe folder” with letters from family members, psychologists, and even local faith leaders stating that Chloe is happy and healthy, in case they got a knock at their door. Marie knew that this was no way for her child to live, that Chloe needed to live in a place where the fear of persecution wouldn’t be part of her daily life.
“It’s been really important to me to let my child have a childhood,” Marie said. “I’ve tried to keep her insulated, so that she can grow up and be who she is. If you knew her, the least interesting thing about her is that she’s trans. I just wanted to go to a place where people wouldn’t care.”
There is little data currently on trans migration out of the U.S., but the modicum of research that does exist indicates that dozens, if not hundreds, more families may follow the Ponces and the Wilsons in the coming months and years. In a June report from the liberal think tank Data for Progress, 41% of trans adults and 43% of young people between the ages of 18 to 24 said they have considered moving as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, whether that’s relocating to another state or leaving the country altogether. The national survey of 1,036 respondents found that 8% of trans adults had already left their home as a result of policies making it more difficult to live their lives freely.
Just because trans people and their families can move, however, doesn’t mean it’s an easy choice. Marie has tried to sell the move to her children as an adventure, a chance for them to see the world, but deep down she knows this isn’t what she wanted for them. Since her kids were very young, Marie dreamt that they would be nurtured by what she calls “lifelong community,” that they would grow up surrounded by uncles, aunts, neighbors and fellow churchgoers who had held them when they were still babies.
“I had that growing up in a small town,” Marie said over a staticky line that cut in and out as she spoke. “The church that they were dedicated in — where they lit the chalice and know all the little old ladies — they’re gonna lose that. It’s going to be really hard to rebuild that and in a way impossible because you’re not born again. You’re not going to be a baby growing all the way up again. That is definitely gone.”
Creating Pathways To Safety
As trans migration out of the U.S. becomes more common, the fact remains that it’s an imperfect solution to the problems currently facing America’s LGBTQ+ community. There has never been a known case of a trans American claiming asylum abroad on the basis of political persecution, and those who do move may be severely restricted in terms of where and how they are permitted to work. Some countries, for instance, don’t allow immigrants to hold employment while they apply for citizenship. Even those who obtain student visas, like the Wilsons, or rely on remote work, like the Ponces, could be extremely vulnerable if sudden job loss occurs.
A third parent who spoke for this story, Vanessa Nichols, was forced to move her 14-year-old son back to the U.S. from Costa Rica after she was unexpectedly terminated from her position working in the country’s tourism sector. She and her son had originally fled Florida in November 2020 after they started getting death threats sent to their home, including a handwritten note telling her that she would be hunted by local mobs if she didn’t “repent” for her son’s identity.
“It felt scary. It felt lonely. It just felt impossible to stay in that state because it wasn’t safe,” Nichols said over a Zoom call a few days before learning she had been let go. “I’m originally from Chicago, but my parents moved me down to Florida when I was 10 so I spent most of my life there. All of a sudden, it felt so foreign to me.”
For families who can’t afford to immigrate or don’t want to risk relocating to countries where they may lack support networks in case of emergency, upstart groups are helping trans people and their relatives find safe havens within the U.S. and other resources they need — including suggesting LGBTQ+ affirming schools and helping families find health care. Such groups include Elevated Access, a door-to-door helicopter service that helps trans passengers fly out of state to relocate or seek gender-affirming care; Transitional Justice, which provides housing for trans people seeking to leave hostile states; and A Place for Marsha, which focuses on finding safe shelter for those seeking specifically to move to Las Vegas.
A coalition of advocacy groups has formed in Minnesota to meet the needs of trans migrants who move to the state, which is one of about a dozen in the U.S. to formally declare itself a refuge for trans health care. But community organizations are scrambling to meet the needs of a population facing an unprecedented crisis: At least 60 families have either moved to the state or confirmed they intend to do so, according to the LGBTQ+ nonprofit Transforming Families Minnesota. Its executive director, Hannah Edwards, said the organization gets “two to three” emails every week from parents looking for help in getting to safety.
Because this small assortment of groups is severely limited as to the number of clients they can help — especially since many organizations are still in their pilot stage — trans migrants are often forced to create their underground passageways to get to safety, both in the U.S. or abroad.
Roberto Che Espinoza and his partner fled Tennessee this year following a yearslong campaign of targeted harassment from far-right groups, which Espinoza said included unmarked packages being sent to their home. Following his move, Espinoza’s nonprofit, Our Collective Becoming, has pivoted to providing mutual aid funds for trans people and families moving to the greater Rochester area, where he is currently living in a safe house. He estimates their sector of upstate New York has been seeing “100 to 200 trans and queer refugees a month.”
Espinoza is working to get local churches to donate food, clothing, and even money to trans refugees and their loved ones as they resettle. “Housing is a big need,” he said. “There’s no rent control in Rochester, and people are in definite need of affordable housing. There are not enough mental health care providers, period, and with this influx of people, I don’t know what we do.”
In their new home in New Zealand, the Wilsons also hope to create a safe passage for trans people and families who aren’t sure whether they should stay in the U.S. or leave as soon as possible — and might not be sure where they would even go. They are currently applying for asylum, and if their petition is approved, they would be the first Americans to be granted refugee status abroad on the basis of trans identity. It’s unclear when their case might be decided.
While they await news on their legal fight, Grey is acclimating to life in New Zealand, whether it’s the grammatical nuances in its dialectical English or learning the meaning of common Maori words employed in everyday life. He’s also adjusting to the local food: The only place to get sour pickles in Auckland is a single grocery store that sells American food, and he says that pizzas, which didn’t become popularized in New Zealand until the 1970s, often include “all kinds of random things just shoved onto them.” There’s also the matter of New Zealand’s polarizing flavored milks, which include banana, mint and lime, the latter of which he refuses to try. “That’s a combination I’m not testing,” he said confidently.
The adjustment process has been more difficult for Lauren because of everything they sacrificed to get to where they are now. The home that she sold to pay for the move was her dream house, the one that she was supposed to grow old in, and she misses its antique wood floors. She had a great job that she loved, and after she finally left the U.S. in June, it took her months to find employment as a foreign worker seeking part-time work on a student visa.
Lauren knows they made the right choice, but as she sleeps on a mattress on the floor of their new apartment, she can’t help but mourn what they’ve lost.
“My son is happy,” she said. “He is thriving. It’s not that I’m not happy, but I gave up a big chunk of my life, and I can’t go back to it. We’re really lucky that we were able to afford to do this and that we got to safety, but it’s a lot harder than I was expecting it to be.”