Leaving Texas, families with transgender children seek refuge in Colorado


AURORA, Colo. — Brianna went to bed Aug. 22 with a knot in her stomach.

That night, a Texas school board near her home passed a “Don’t Say Trans” policy barring employees from discussing what the district defined as “gender fluidity.”

The school board’s new policy was the latest entry in growing, right-wing political playbook that targets transgender youth and the adults who support them.

Months before the school board’s decision, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to conduct child abuse investigations into parents whose children received gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy. Abbott’s decision was in line with the heavily conservative state legislature, which had introduced more anti-transgender bills than any other state.

In 2020, Brianna’s son, Rylee, came out as a transgender boy. He was 12 years old at the time.

Brianna and her family moved to Texas — which has one of the largest transgender communities in the country — in 2015 to be closer to their extended family. Brianna knew the small town they called home was far from progressive, but she expected to largely be left alone as she and her family kept their heads down and raised LGBTQ+ children.

But the state’s policies seemed to get crueler over time. Brianna knew her family wasn’t safe.

“I went to bed knowing what was happening and woke up the next day thinking, ‘we have to leave,’” Brianna recalled. “'We have to get out of Texas. This is not going to get better; it is just going to get worse.'”

She spent the following day researching states that were more welcoming to transgender people. The Pacific Northwest was too rainy, California was too expensive, Minnesota was too cold. She booked a 24-hour trip to Colorado — which received high marks from places like the Movement Advancement Project — to vet the state, making sure to ask folks she encountered about its safety for LGBTQ+ kids.

As she drove around Denver and saw rainbow flags plastered in business windows and hanging outside homes, Brianna knew where to move.

“It was so overwhelmingly positive and welcoming,” she said of Colorado. “In Texas, you couldn’t even talk about this stuff.”

The family voted in the Nov. 8 Texas election, feeling they owed their votes to friends in similar situations who couldn’t leave the state. Three days later, they packed their bags and started their journey to Aurora.

Tired of living in fear

Lucas and Sarah had deep roots in Texas. Lucas worked at a nonprofit supporting kids in the foster care system; Sarah taught music at a private school. The two had family and deep friendships in the state.

But fear overwhelmed them in February 2022 after Abbott declared gender-affirming care for children a form of child abuse. The couple’s son, Alec, came out as transgender years earlier and began transitioning soon after.

Bullying and harassment were common for Alec in his small Texas town, but when laws began to threaten his safety, his parents knew something needed to change.

“There was a moment where I just imagined Alec being taken from our family,” Sarah said. “Just having to process that was extremely scary and upsetting.”

Lucas and Sara became more outspoken in their LGBTQ+ allyship by helping plan Pride festivals and volunteering with Equality Texas.

Alec and Lucas sit on their couch discussing their experience moving from Texas to Colorado. (Elle Naef/Rocky Mountain PBS) 

Alec did his best to fit in at school. He wore baggy, unassuming clothes and tried to keep his head down.

“There were so many times where I was like ‘if I just de-transitioned and lived, I could live easier here,’ but the dysphoria makes things so hard,” said Alec, who is now 15 years old. “It wouldn’t have been a happy life for me.”

Other parents began complaining that Sara was using her position as a teacher to “push an agenda.” Sarah maintains she never discussed politics in class.

“It was very clear that we were being targeted because this was a relatively small town and we had been outspoken,” Lucas said. “I knew this was really scary and we worried about what could happen to our family.”

Brianna and Rylee also remember living in fear.

“How exhausting it was, not knowing day-to-day what laws were going to be passed that would hurt my child and not understanding why it’s something that people care about,” Brianna said. “I don’t understand the vitriol towards these kids who just want to exist and the parents who just want their kids to survive.”

Brianna tried to educate those around her and give them the benefit of the doubt. But many people didn’t seem interested in learning.

“It’s extremely frustrating and there's no amount of education I could do,” Brianna said. “You think you can educate people away from bad beliefs, but they’re not interested in the truth. They’re interested in their narrative and that’s it.”

Lucas and Sara remember having conversations with Alec where they reminded him not to stand out too much, which was a painful message to send for two parents who wanted nothing more than to affirm their child.

“We did a lot of apologizing to the kids and saying, ‘I’m sorry you can’t wear what you’d like to wear because we need to be careful right now,’' Sara recalled. “I remember saying that a lot. ‘We need to be careful right now.’”

The family also helped plan a kid-friendly Pride celebration in their town, hoping to show marginalized children that adults were on their side. However, several other adults, including an anti-LGBTQ+ Instagram “influencer,” showed up and chanted “groomer” at those participating in the festival.

“It was really weird because I grew up there and that place just turned on me,” Alec said.

The family had lived in their town for 14 years and felt it was important to stay and fight for other LGBTQ+ people. But as anti-transgender bills stacked up and hateful rhetoric grew louder, Lucas and Sara saw that their family’s safety was in jeopardy.

“It was a constant state of anxiety and fear,” Lucas said. “All it would take was one person in our town who didn’t like us and report us and we would’ve had a CPS case that we would be dealing with.”

In 2023, the family said goodbye to their longtime church, colleagues and friends and moved to Denver, where they felt safer in their new home.

Alec, Lucas, Sara and other family members pose together next to drag queens. (Elle Naef/Rocky Mountain PBS.) 

Relaxing again

The contrast between living in fear and living in a state with codified LGBTQ+ rights has been immense, the families told Rocky Mountain PBS. 

“I’ve met some really sweet people here,” Alec said. “It definitely feels like a whole reset.”

Though they know things are safer in Colorado, Alec, Sara and Lucas said it has been a struggle to shake the feeling of fear, as they lived in fight-or-flight mode for so long.

“We’ve only been in Colorado for a few months and I feel like I’m still letting go of some of those anxieties and fear and worries,” Lucas said. 

Some of the anxiety and fear dissipated after the family connected with other LGBTQ+ Coloradans.

During their first week in town, they attended a drag brunch in which the performer affirmed the transgender kids in attendance. 

“It was really emotional for me, because we had left a bad situation so recently,” Alec said. “It was really heartwarming to hear that.”

An abnormal childhood

As Alec navigates his transition, he said many of his peers treat him “like Google.” They ask him invasive questions, he said, which can sometimes make him feel like a political prop.

“I become their search engine and it’s so strange,” he added.

When he is not advocating for his rights, Alec enjoys watercolor painting. His family has a collection of chickens he painted on their walls.

Alec, 15, stands next to his watercolor paintings of the family’s chickens. (Elle Naef/Rocky Mountain PBS) 

Sara tries to encourage Alec to simply be a kid.

“Having to speak to other adults about what it’s like to be trans, that’s a lot of responsibility,” Sara said. “I know it’s important but it’s very heavy and it’s not a normal childhood.”

Lights at the end of the tunnel

As state legislatures introduced a record number of anti-transgender laws targeting children, many adults have stepped up to try and ease burdens on young adults.

“We try to just make sure we’re doing the things that help them in life and society,” said Sandra Zapata, director of youth services at the Center on Colfax, an LGBTQ+ community center in Denver. “A lot of it is just making sure they know they have a space to come, and once they find us, it’s a good place to make connections so folks will create those personal relationships with each other.”

Zapata leads the Rainbow Alley, a youth program at the Center on Colfax. Both Rylee and Alek attend Rainbow Alley and said they’ve made many friends and connections there.

“It’s about giving them that space where there’s no rules, there’s no expectations of how you’re supposed to dress and what colors you’re supposed to like, and what kind of careers you’re supposed to have,” Zapata said. “So, then you’re left with this blank canvas.”

Zapata leads the Rainbow Alley program at The Center on Colfax. (Elle Naef/Rocky Mountain PBS)

Zapata said many of the children they meet come from states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Though moving can bring newfound safety, the process is often isolating, Zapata said. 

“There’s a lot of sadness, maybe you lived in one place your whole life and now you're having to move, not because you want to but because ultimately you know it’s going to be safer,” Zapata said. “It's still hard to leave your friends and family and whoever you’re leaving behind.”

Zapata said housing is often the biggest barrier for those looking to move to safer states. Colorado’s housing prices skyrocketed in recent years, making a move to the state out of reach for many families.

Though many people see Colorado as a sanctuary for LGBTQ+ people, especially compared to its neighboring states, the state is far from perfect. The United States Supreme Court, to use a recent example, recently sided with a Denver website designer who argued that designing websites for same-sex couples violated her First Amendment rights. Moreover, several school districts have attempted to pass their own “don’t say gay,” bills as well.

Nevertheless, more families with LGBTQ+ children are deciding to move to places like Colorado.

“There’s a migration happening,” said Bob McCranie, owner of Texas Pride Realty Group, a realty group in Texas that focuses on selling homes to LGBTQ+ Texans. “This is a national state of emergency for LGBTQ people.”

McCranie also connects LGBTQ+ Texans looking to leave the state with affirming realtors in other states, something he said is necessary as dozens of states cut rights for queer people.

Eventually, McCranie said, LGBTQ+ people across the country could lose rights regardless of the state they live in. McCranie said he asks clients if they’ve considered moving abroad, should conservative politicians and Supreme Court justices continue to roll back long-held rights.

“If some of these cases get overturned and the court says you can’t have gay marriage in any state, the blue states won’t be safe either,” McCranie said. “Do you have a plan for when and if that happens?”

Alison Berg is a reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at alisonberg@rmpbs.org.

Elle Naef is a multimedia producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at ellenaef@rmpbs.org.