'It's not safe': Parents of transgender kids plan to flee their states as GOP bills loom

Texas mom Amber Briggle said moving would be hard for her family, but “my son always comes first.”

Parents are prepared to move states to protect their transgender children from bills targeting them.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
SHARE THIS —

George and Emily Spurrier are leaving their home of 16 years in central Arkansas due to a new law that will ban the health care that they say their 17-year-old transgender son needs.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vetoed the measure earlier this month, calling it “a vast government overreach.” But the Arkansas General Assembly overrode the veto, and the bill will become law this summer.

Emily Spurrier said when her son heard the news, he sat in her car and cried for an hour.

“It was just kind of a wave of emotions, thinking about moving and then him worrying about some friends that he has here in the Little Rock area,” she said. “And then just the thought that this is really the only place he ever remembers living.”

Arkansas is the first state in the country to pass a law banning transition care for minors. The measure will bar access to reversible puberty blockers, hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgeries, though surgeries aren’t included in global standards of care for transgender minors and aren’t performed on them in Arkansas, Hutchinson said during his veto.

The Spurriers’ son, who just started using testosterone, will no longer be able to access this physician-prescribed hormone once the new law is implemented, so his family is raising money on GoFundMe to move to New Mexico by August.

“The benefits are not going to outweigh the dangers of raising our children here in this state.”

Amanda Dennis

The Spurriers, along with some families in Texas and North Carolina, which are considering similar legislation, told NBC News they are prepared to move to protect their children.

Fourteen states are considering bans or restrictions on transition care for trans minors, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, found that 45,100 trans youth are at risk of losing access to care because of the proposals. Major medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Pediatric Endocrine Society oppose the bills.

As of Monday, there were at least 44 bills across 25 states targeting transgender youth, with five of them on governors’ desks, according to the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to laws that would limit trans rights.

George Spurrier said that, in addition to the transition-care ban, the Arkansas Legislature is considering several other bills that create an unsafe environment for his son.

“If it had been one or two bills, we may have been more optimistic about fighting and getting through all of it,” he said. “But the fact that they just kept coming one after another after another ... has just kind of demoralized us. Even if everything gets defeated or repealed, the spirit behind them is still here, and we just can't help but feel like it's not safe.”

In addition to the recently passed trans health care bill, Arkansas is considering four other bills targeting LGBTQ people, and the governor has signed two others into law, according to the ACLU. For example, Hutchinson signed a bill into law on March 26 that allows doctors to refuse to treat someone based on their religious or moral beliefs, a measure that advocates say would allow physicians to refuse to treat trans patients even in the emergency room.

Brooke, 8, won't be allowed to compete on girls' sports teams at school once one of Arkansas' new laws takes effect.Amanda Dennis

Another Arkansas family is also facing a deadline. Amanda Dennis, who has lived in the state for most of her life, said her family has about two to three years to figure out how they’re going to get care for their transgender 8-year-old, Brooke, by the time she begins puberty.

“I will have to fly to another state — and the problem is we're surrounded by states that are doing the same thing,” she said, adding that Kansas, Missouri and Texas are all considering similar bills.

Flying to another state wouldn’t be financially sustainable for the family, Dennis said, and like the Spurriers, she’s also worried about how other recent laws and proposed bills will affect Brooke. Dennis said her daughter wants to try out for gymnastics, cheerleading and dance, but she wouldn’t be able to compete on a girls’ team due to a bill Hutchinson signed in March that bans trans student athletes from competing on teams that align with their gender identity.

“It breaks my heart that I'm going to have to, at one point, should we choose to stay in Arkansas … tell her, ‘Brooke, you won't be able to try out for any of these teams.’”

Arkansas is also considering a bill that would prohibit schools from requiring teachers to refer to trans students by a name and pronoun that isn’t consistent with their sex assigned at birth.

“So there's more things coming down the pike that will really eventually force us to leave the state,” Dennis said. “The benefits are not going to outweigh the dangers of raising our children here in this state.”

Texas is considering a bill similar to Arkansas’ transition-care ban, but with criminal penalties. The bill would make it a felony for parents to provide their trans children with access to gender-affirming care. It would classify the act as child abuse, and parents who violate the proposed law could face up to 10 years in prison, have their child removed from their home and face civil litigation.

Amber Briggle kissing her son.Amber Briggle

Texas mom Amber Briggle, who lives north of Dallas, testified against the bill last week.

“I’m afraid that by speaking here today my words will be used against me should SB 1646 or SB 1311 pass, and my sweet son, whom I love more than life itself, will be taken from me,” she said.

Briggle said taking away her son’s access to care would “destroy him.”

“We gave him the support that he needed, and it was like a light switch turned on and like my baby came back to me and was perfect again,” she told NBC News, adding that the 13-year-old is a straight-A student and a great musician. “He can play the opening riff to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ on his ukulele — I will say I taught him that.”

Briggle said to have that familial support taken away would be “devastating” for her son.

“It's devastating because he is as successful as he is because he has that support,” she said. “It's also devastating and terrifying to think that taking away that support means taking him away from his family, and placing him with, who knows.”

Moving wouldn’t be easy for the family, Briggle said. She’s a small business owner, and her husband is a tenured professor.

“It'd be really complicated for us, but it's certainly not out of the question,” she added. “My son always comes first.”

Texas’ bill would also make it a felony for medical providers to administer transition care to minors. Kimberly Shappley, who has a trans 10-year-old named Kai and is a nurse at a clinic that serves LGBTQ people, said it’s a “double whammy” for her, because it would affect both her work and her family.

Kai Shappley, a 10-year-old transgender girl from Austin, Texas, speaks before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs, on April 12, 2021.Texas Senate

Shappley, a former conservative Christian minister, moved from her small Texas hometown to Austin in 2018, because she said the relatively liberal capital city has more supportive local policies for Kai.

“But if these laws passed, even Austin can't protect us,” she said. “It'll take everything we have — just living in Austin has been super expensive — it'll take everything we have to relocate. I'll do it. I'll have to.”

Shappley said she wants to see more action from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Biden released an executive order last month affirming that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but he hasn’t made a statement directly addressing the flurry of bills targeting transgender minors.

Shappley said she took time off of work to campaign for the Biden-Harris ticket, so she’s angry that they haven’t explicitly mentioned the bills.

“Even if they can't do anything right now, tell us what your plan is,” Shappley said. “Kamala Harris had a trans flag outside of her office. OK, if you're an ally, why aren't you loudly telling my kid she's gonna be OK? Why aren’t you loudly saying, ‘You know what, Mrs. Shappley, you don't have to move; we’ve got your back.’ I want somebody to say something.”

North Carolina is also considering a ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Advocates say it would likely be vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, but Katie Jenifer and her daughter Maddie said the debate over the bill is itself harmful.

Maddie, 13, said that, though laws targeting trans youth likely won't get past North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, the debate over the laws is itself harmful.Katie Jenifer

“If I didn't have my hormones or my [puberty] blocker, I'd be very unhappy, and I wouldn't want to leave the house sometimes,” Maddie, 13, said.

Even if advocates are saying the bill won’t become law, “there is still the smallest bit of chance, and that alone just makes me very anxious,” Maddie added.

Jenifer said she has told Maddie they would move should the bill or a similar one become law, but she acknowledged not everyone has that option.

“That's the real crux of the issue: How do we help those families?” she said.

Back in Arkansas, Dennis said Brooke, who’s currently in third grade, is ready to be part of a potential legal battle against the state’s new laws.

“She wants to be someone that can be a light to other kids her age, and she really wants to be a part of the conversation,” she said, adding that Brooke is “ready to put on her activist hat and help.”

While Dennis said she and her husband are proud of their daughter, “at the same time, we do get a little bit sad that an 8-year-old has to be the voice.”

Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram