As conservative states target trans rights, a Florida teen flees for a better life
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As conservative states continue to pass laws targeting transgender rights, some trans people are deciding to leave. Stephanie Colombini at member station WUSF has the story of one teenager who decided to flee Florida in the middle of the school year to start a new life more than a thousand miles from home.
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STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Josie's 16. She's at home in St. Augustine sifting through her bedroom closet with her mom, Sarah.
SARAH: Remember this dress? When's the last time you wore it?
SARAH: High school homecoming.
JOSIE: Winter homecoming.
COLOMBINI: Dresses, cardigans, overalls - each bring back a memory.
SARAH: Oh, my God. This is one of my favorite dresses.
COLOMBINI: There were a lot of good memories like school dances and family vacations. But Josie says the good times have felt scarce as Florida has become increasingly unwelcoming to transgender people. She and her parents asked to go by their first names only out of fear of retaliation. Josie was packing up her closet because she was moving to Rhode Island in a few days. Her aunt and uncle live outside Providence. Her dog, Reesie, pushed around the suitcase to snuggle up to her.
JOSIE: She has, like, a sense when I'm sad, and then she just, like, comes running in.
COLOMBINI: Josie didn't want to go, but she feels like she can't live in Florida anymore. The state is one of more than a dozen that have passed bans on gender-affirming medical care for minors, and Josie didn't know if she'd lose access to the hormones she takes to help her body align with her identity.
JOSIE: I felt pretty scared.
COLOMBINI: The bans started in March. Florida's medical board said the treatments were too experimental for minors. Kids like Josie, who'd already started care, could continue, but she didn't trust that would last. In fact, the legislature even considered forcing all trans youth to stop treatment by the end of the year.
JOSIE: I thought that they would realize what they've done wrong and, you know, repeal some things. But they just kept going. It just became, like, too real too fast.
COLOMBINI: In the end, lawmakers let kids like Josie stay in treatment. But she was already convinced Florida just wasn't a safe place for her. School has been challenging at times since Josie came out as trans in eighth grade. Some childhood friends rejected her. She wanted to play on the girls' tennis team, but a recent Florida law forbid it. And it was painful when Florida teachers had to start watching what they said about LGBTQ issues.
JOSIE: They were required to take down, like, little stickers on doors that said that it was a safe space, which is just ridiculous. You want your students to be comfortable and safe.
COLOMBINI: The new laws and anti-trans rhetoric are hurting kids across Florida, says psychologist Jennifer Evans. She works at the University of Florida's gender clinic in Gainesville.
JENNIFER EVANS: I'm seeing a lot more anxiety, depression. Things I hear patients say are, the government doesn't want me to exist. They don't feel safe.
COLOMBINI: Evans points to the many states passing all sorts of bills that target trans individuals, not just their medical care but what schools can teach or what bathrooms you can use. Evans identifies as queer herself. She says a bill doesn't even have to pass for it to cause harm.
EVANS: It's a lot to feel like enough people in this country don't agree with your existence, which actually isn't affecting them. It's painful to see that.
COLOMBINI: Evans says at her clinic, four families have already moved out of Florida while another 10 plan to leave this year. Some older teens she treats are also planning to get out when they turn 18. But moving isn't easy. Josie's dad Eric says, like many families, they had a lot at stake.
ERIC: You know, just financially, it's difficult to uproot what we've set up.
COLOMBINI: They've owned their home in St. Augustine for a long time. And Eric recently started a new job. Josie's mom, Sarah, works at a private college with a benefit that allows Josie and her older sister to get reduced tuition at some colleges around the country. So her parents decided that, at least for now, Josie would go live with her aunt and uncle, and they would stay behind. Sarah says it was a devastating call to make.
SARAH: It was just terror in my heart. Like, you could just feel that cold burst in my chest and going all throughout my body. Like, Josie's part of everything I do.
COLOMBINI: Josie will finish her sophomore year up north. She says she'll miss her parents' hugs and her friends. Before she left, she had a going-away party.
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SILENTO: (Singing) Now watch me whip. Now watch me nae nae. OK.
COLOMBINI: The teens played a dance video game. Sarah brought out black forest cake.
SARAH: What does it say on the bottom, Josie?
JOSIE: It says, we love you, Josie. Thank you.
COLOMBINI: A few days after that party, Josie and her mom flew north to get Josie settled. Sarah said it was really hard to leave her daughter in Rhode Island.
SARAH: I was a mess. I cried the whole way to the airport. I just felt I was going the wrong way.
COLOMBINI: She's still adjusting to life without Josie at home, but they talk every day. Josie says her aunt and uncle have been really great. Her new high school is a little smaller than her old one and in a more liberal area. So far, it's been pretty good.
JOSIE: My first week, I had a streak of making at least one friend per day. Like, in one day, I made four.
COLOMBINI: Josie loves that the school has pride flags in the halls and its own Gender and Sexuality Alliance club.
JOSIE: It was just such, like, a shock to me - like, not a bad shock. But, like, you're just shocked at - this is how schools can be. It's just that Florida is choosing not to be like that.
COLOMBINI: We reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis' office several times to respond to families' concerns but haven't heard back. Josie's parents say they'll keep their pride flag waving in the front yard and advocate for other trans kids while she's away. Josie says she still thinks about those who can't leave, but right now she needs to move on. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.
KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with WUSF and KFF Health News.
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