Transgender Missourians say this legislative session made them 'refugees' in their own state
Linda, Pat and their 15-year-old son Alex describe themselves as refugees of Missouri.
Alex, which is a pseudonym to protect his privacy, is transgender. He’s lived his entire life in Missouri, and though his family imagined him leaving state for college, they truly believed Missouri would always be home.
It wasn’t until March, when Democrats in the state Senate were trying to block a bill banning transgender minors from puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, that they knew Missouri was no longer safe for their son.
Access to medication, sports teams and even his mental well being could no longer be guaranteed in Missouri.
So that month, around the time efforts to stop the legislation fell short, Linda and Pat bought a house on the West Coast sight unseen and began to pack.
Linda’s job allows her to work remotely, so she was able to swiftly make a plan to relocate. She describes her family as privileged.
“So many people cannot escape,” Linda said. “We are some of the fortunate ones that we are able to actually (move). If people can leave, they’re trying to leave.”
Alex’s family isn’t alone.
Republican lawmakers have become laser focused on legislation affecting transgender Missourians. That reality is pushing some to flee with their families or send transgender teenagers to out-of-state universities.
Most can’t leave, or are determined to stay. But regardless of where these families choose to live, the last five months have left deep scars as these families watch lawmakers and the state’s attorney general take direct aim at their lives in a way most couldn’t imagine possible just a few months earlier.
“I think adults, for the first time, felt the real, palpable fear of the types of things that are happening in Florida and Texas,” Shira Berkowitz, senior director of public policy and advocacy for LGBTQ+ organization PROMO, said. “It’s both about wanting to move now before Missouri could ever get to that point and to not have to think about this.”
Similar legislation has been percolating in Missouri for the past three years. But Berkowitz said the avalanche of bills, and the priority they were given, made 2023 different.
“Actionably, trans Missourians have to think differently about protecting themselves this year than any other year,” Berkowitz said.
By the end of the 2023 legislative session, the American Civil Liberties Union was tracking 48 bills in Missouri it deemed anti-LGBTQ. Only one state, Texas, had more bills on the ACLU’s list.
For some, even the threat of the legislation was enough to push them to other states. Then, they must look at what legislation is passing in their potential new home.
“It’s not just (Missouri) that has bills that are very clearly moving through the process and are not being stopped, it’s that other states all around us are passing the same laws,” Berkowitz said.
Transgender Missourians are looking to states with more welcoming laws, Berkowitz said, specifically those that are “doubling down on ‘trans health care is health care.'”
Speaking to reporters on the legislative session’s final day, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, defended the legislature’s actions.
“I think we addressed transgender [sic] as we thought we should,” he said. He went on to say: “Our children don’t need to have these transformative surgeries or drugs given to them when they’re teenagers. They need to be 18.”
Linda has heard from transgender kids who wonder whether to speed up plans to start cross-sex hormones prior to August, when a bill banning minors from access hormones goes into effect. Anyone receiving treatment prior to Aug. 28 will be permitted to continue.
For her family, and many others, moving just made more sense.
“There’s no point staying,” she said. “I consider it dangerous here.”
Carol Sattler assists Columbia-based LGBTQ+ community center The Center Project as a program coordinator for a parent group. She said she felt a “real shift” in the group last week as more people consider moving out of state.
“I really felt like people are seriously thinking about this,” she said. “Because people know that next year is going to be worse.”
Sattler has attended the group since 2016 to support her nonbinary child, and parents started worrying more about the state legislature last year, she told The Independent.
“Starting last year, people’s blood pressure is just going way up,” she remarked.
The parents begin meetings discussing the latest legislation — a means to address the issue and refocus on their children for the rest of the gathering.
“The nonstop stuff we have to pay attention to takes time and energy and focus,” Sattler said. “When you could be out having fun, or in my case, working in my garden or whatever. But instead you’re looking at bills and seeing where they are.”
Families traveled from across the state to the Capitol throughout the legislative session to testify against the proposed bills. But in most cases, testimony was limited, leaving those who made the trip unable to share their thoughts.
For those who did testify, they feel their pleas were not considered.
“Our families are having to come up and testify repeatedly, sharing their stories and trying to change the hearts and minds of elected leaders,” Berkowitz said. “It has created an environment where they have to sit in the harm and that fear, and they know they’re not being heard.”
In a national poll by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ+ youth’s mental health, 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that “recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.”
In another survey by The Trevor Project, 55% of young transgender and nonbinary Missourians said they “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.”
Although Alex says his peers sometimes make flippant comments about transgender people, he surrounds himself with affirming friends. If not for the new laws being enacted, he wouldn’t want to move.
One day after state lawmakers passed anti-transgender bills, Kansas City passed a resolution labeling itself a “safe haven for gender-affirming health care.”
The resolution says city personnel will not prosecute or punish people or organizations helping others receive gender-affirming care. If Missouri imposes a law punishing those involved in or receiving care, “city personnel shall make enforcement of said law or regulation their lowest priority.”
“Kansas City government is committed to ensuring Kansas City is a welcoming, inclusive, and safe place for everyone, including our transgender and LGBTQ+ community,” Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement.
Berkowitz said PROMO and other organizations are having to thoughtfully consider their approach. While some families are leaving the state, groups want to support those who remain.
“Are there going to be mutual aid to help keep this care available? Are parents going to have to establish telehealth networks outside of the state? Do they need doctors in Illinois?” Berkowitz said. “Those conversations started months ago.”
Planned Parenthood offers gender-affirming care for patients 16 and older. Yamelsie Rodríguez, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said her organization’s location in Fairview Heights, Illinois, will welcome Missourians willing to travel just across the state line.
The ACLU of Missouri, which already sued to block the attorney general’s emergency order blocking access to gender-affirming care for both adults and minors, has vowed to “explore all options” to combat legislation passed this year.
Asked about families leaving the state because of the legislature’s actions, Plocher said they shouldn’t be fearful and that the Missouri GOP doesn’t have “any disdain for anybody.”
“What we’re doing is protecting children from undergoing what we believe are harmful procedures,” he said.
He pointed to the legislation regarding transgender student athletes.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter. I don’t want her playing sports against a guy,” Plocher said. “We passed this common-sense reform to protect our children, and I’m sorry that families feel that way. But this is Missouri, and we’re gonna protect the vulnerable.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she doesn’t think Plocher is listening to families with transgender kids.
“I personally have been contacted by many families who are leaving our state,” she said. “What I continue to say to them is, ‘I understand, and I’m sorry that we weren’t able to stop this from happening, and I’m sorry that you don’t live in a state that you feel safe in.’”
Alex said he is “terrified” to start over in a new school in a new state. But his anxiety about the change isn’t enough to keep him in Missouri.
“It feels like, wow, things are actually happening, and we are moving. It’s very stressful,” he said. “If I had the option, I would stay here. But that isn’t an option for me.”
Alex said his parents aren’t forcing him to move. Instead, it’s Missouri elected officials pushing him away.
It is a quick move, Linda acknowledged, but the tension has been building for years.
“There are certain times where it was like, when do you leave the place where you’re comfortable and is your home?” she said. “When do you choose to be either internally displaced in your country or become a refugee?”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.