In June, Katie Laird and her son Noah, then 15, packed up a U-Haul at their home in Texas and drove more than 1,000 miles to Colorado.
She said they decided to move after months of living in fear. In February, following a legal opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any allegations of parents providing gender-affirming medical care to their minor children as child abuse.
The department began opening investigations into families days later, but Laird told NBC News in March that she didn’t have plans to move. She said that while she feared a state investigator could show up at her front door, she and her family felt like they could fight back.
That plan changed less than a month later, she said, after Noah lost access to his transition-related care program for three weeks following a decision by the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston to pause all gender-affirming care for its minor patients. At the time, the hospital said in a statement that the decision was made after assessing the actions of Paxton and Abbott.
“This step was taken to safeguard our healthcare professionals and impacted families from potential criminal legal ramifications,” it said.
On June 27, Laird and Noah pulled away in the U-Haul after saying goodbye to Noah’s father, his stepfather and the teen’s 5-year-old brother. The emotional moment is captured in “Dear Noah: Pages From a Family Diary,” an NBC OUT documentary that debuted on NBC News NOW and Peacock on Friday and will publish on NBC News Digital on Wednesday. The documentary was produced by NBC News Digital Docs and premiered at Meet the Press Film Festival at DOC NYC on Nov. 15.
Noah, now 16, said that, in that moment, it felt like he and his mom were running away.
“It was just hard and it still is hard to leave literally everything I’ve ever known in my entire life,” he said in an interview this month.
The family’s story reveals part of the impact Abbott’s directive is having on the families of trans youths in Texas. They left out of fear that Noah would lose the care recommended by his medical team, but also because the state was becoming increasingly hostile for trans people, Laird said.
In 2021, Texas considered over 50 bills targeting transgender people — more than any other state — with just one becoming law: A bill that bars trans student-athletes from playing on the school sports team that aligns with their gender identity. The next legislative session begins in January, and Republican legislators have already again filed a number of the bills that failed last year.
Laird plans to continue advocating for trans rights in Texas from her current home in Colorado.
“That is a commitment that Noah and I made when we left,” she said. “This is our home. We have been pushed from it, and we will keep fighting — no matter where we live — for the state because we know that what happens in Texas has great influence across the nation, and we have to stay in the fight.”
A ‘staggering’ toll
Since Abbott’s directive, the Department of Family and Protective Services received 15 reports of parents providing gender-affirming care to their minor children, Director of Communications Patrick Crimmins said in an email Friday. Out of those, it opened 14 investigations. Ten are closed and four are still active, he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas and other civil rights groups have since filed two lawsuits — one in March and another in June. In the first suit, filed on behalf of one family under investigation and a psychologist who is a mandatory reporter, the Texas Supreme Court upheld a narrow injunction that only blocked the investigation into the plaintiffs.
In the second suit, filed on behalf of three families who were under investigation and PFLAG National, a nonprofit group that supports the families of LGBTQ people, a judge issued two separate injunctions blocking the investigations into the three families and also all other new investigations into members of PFLAG. The Department of Family and Protective Services can still pursue investigations into families who are nonmembers.
Paxton appealed in both the cases but appeals courts have upheld the injunctions, according to Brian Klosterboer, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. Neither Abbott nor Paxton returned requests for comment.
Klosterboer said the impact of families who are under investigation and those who are afraid of being reported has been “devastating.”
“The mental health toll, especially, from all of this happening is staggering,” he said.
Though it’s hard to track how many families have been affected in some way, the ACLU of Texas and other advocacy groups created a webpage for the families of trans youths in the state so they can stay updated on the investigations and find attorneys. Klosterboer said that since July, the webpage has received several thousand views.
He said he also knows of students who chose to stay home from school in the spring.
“These were students who already faced a lot of challenges at school being trans and facing discrimination or bullying, and then the threat that DFPS could pull them out of class and investigate them just added yet another trauma in their life and something they were worried about,” Klosterboer said.
The investigations, combined with the trans athlete ban, send “a really harmful message to the trans youth and their families that they’re not welcome in Texas, even when they have received a lot of support from friends, coaches, teammates, others,” Klosterboer said.
‘Living in these two extremes’
Laird said that she and Noah have been incredibly happy in Denver. Noah is thriving in his school, which she said is very inclusive of LGBTQ youths.
Noah said that he skateboards and rides his bike often and that he and his mom spend a lot of time finding good food.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Even just the Pride flags up everywhere makes me feel really safe. It’s so much more accepting.”
However, Laird said, living in Denver has been like “living in these two extremes.”
“We are so happy here,” she said. “And then at the same time, we have this sort of co-existing reality of just extreme sadness. We are homesick, we miss our family, we miss our friends, we miss our TexMex,” she said, jokingly.
She added that they struggle with a kind of survivor’s guilt, because they were able to leave Texas while others can’t, and that’s why they plan to be involved in the upcoming legislative session.
Republican legislators in Texas have already introduced at least two measures that would designate gender-affirming care for minors as child abuse under state law and another that would strip doctors of their liability insurance if they provide such care.
The state is already one of 18 that bar transgender athletes from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identity. Four states — Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee — have passed laws restricting gender-affirming care for minors, though judges have blocked Alabama’s and Arkansas‘ measures from taking effect.
Gin Pham, the communications and outreach manager at the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said advocates have been fighting anti-trans legislation since at least 2017, when the state first began considering a bill that would’ve barred trans people from using the public restrooms that align with their gender identity.
“The reverberations of 2017 are still felt today,” said Pham, who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
They said the group has been preparing for the upcoming legislative session by traveling to large cities in the state and holding weekend events for trans people and their loved ones.
“We’ve been able to really bring together the community to really address what’s happened this year, but also looking forward to the next year,” Pham said.
Laird said she’s preparing for the worst to happen during the next legislative session, but ultimately she does hope that she and Noah can return to Texas. She said that leaving felt like a defeat.
“My immediate feeling as we were leaving is that I’m being pushed out of my home, and I just don’t feel like there is anything I can do about it,” she said.
But then, about halfway through the trip, something shifted in her, she said, because as they got further from home and into New Mexico, she saw a clear sense of relief wash over Noah.
“And that’s everything,” she said. “That’s the whole point, is to get into a place where he gets to just be Noah, not this political battleground.”