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‘I could see in you the hope for your future’: Transgender Texans on coming out and leaving the state

Interviews with transgender people and their families offer a portrait of everyday Texans caught up in a culture war.

(CN) — Transgender Texans and their families are leaving the Lone Star State, but no one knows how many. Early last year, Republican Governor Greg Abbott ordered the state child-welfare agency to investigate families who were providing gender-affirming care to their children, sparking fear among Texas families and prompting resignations at the agency.

Leading medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend this care for children — but as the 2023 Texas legislative session nears an end, lawmakers look set to follow Abbott’s directive with a legal ban for minors. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which investigates claims of child abuse, says it’s opened 15 CPS investigations into families over this care.

At DFPS meetings, transgender Texans and their allies now regularly show up to beg officials to end the investigations. The proposed ban on gender-affirming care is just one of several bills this year targeting LGBTQ+ free expression, including new rules on drag queens and "obscene" books. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican who describes his politics as "Christian first," has listed several of these measures as priorities for him.

Talk to transgender families at the Texas Capitol, and almost everyone is already moving or has a back-up plan to leave. Below are the voices of these Texas families on coming out, living as trans and what it's like to say goodbye to their state. These interviews, edited for style and clarity, offer a portrait of everyday Texans caught up in a culture war.

Rebecca* Tillison hangs a piece of art in her bedroom with the message "Trans is Beautiful." The art was a gift from "the first of her aunts to embrace her," her father Mitch said. Shortly after Rebecca came out as trans, "they painted nails together and talked about her future as a woman," he added. "It meant a lot to [Rebecca] to be treated as the girl she'd always been." Photo courtesy of the Tillison family.

'I just said it'

In the Dallas area, parents Mitch and Tiffany Tillison say gender-affirming care has saved their 12-year-old daughter’s life. If Texas bans it, they will have to leave.

In practice, that would mean the family splitting up. Tiffany would stay with their son in Dallas, where they agree he'd do better, while Mitch would take their daughter Rebecca* to New Mexico. (Courthouse News is redacting Rebecca’s name at the request of her parents and because she is a minor.)

Rebecca was assigned male at birth. She first experienced the joy of being a girl while playing at a friend’s house one day. "She was painting my nails," Rebecca said. "That’s when I realized."

"I’ve always admired long hair — 100%. Specifically, my mom’s long hair.

"There was one other moment, at the friend’s house again. She has a doll head. It’s a gigantic one, like a mannequin head. It had a wig.

"It had a lot of knots in it. One day I just got all the knots out. I was brushing it and spraying it. I was like ‘This is a nice feeling’ when I finished. It was the soft hair and everything else that made it beautiful.

"I was thinking about telling my parents, but I didn’t know how. I was extremely tired one night, so I just said it. It was on the way home from a soccer tournament.

"I hadn’t even realized I had said it until it went in my mind, like: ‘Oh, I just said that.’ It felt like a lot of weight on my shoulders was taken off."

Mitch Tillison poses for a professional photo in his classroom. The photo was taken by his father, a photographer with the same name. When it comes to allegations that teachers are "grooming" students to be transgender, it's "an inverse relationship from what the public thinks," Mitch said. "I didn’t know shit about transgender stuff. The students taught me a lot.” Photo courtesy of Mitch Tillison Photography.

'I didn't know shit about transgender stuff'

Mitch Tillison has already started looking for jobs in New Mexico, just in case a proposed ban on gender-affirming care for minors passes. He told bosses and coworkers that "if they get calls for references out of state, my intent is not to accept anything. It just means that I’m ensuring I have a place to escape to."

Mitch was adamant that he wanted to use his full name. "A fight worth having requires people to be vulnerable, open and available," he said. As both a public-school teacher and a parent of a trans kid, he says he sees these issues from multiple vantage points. "I didn’t know shit about transgender stuff. The students taught me a lot."


"For 10 or 11 months, [Rebecca] would oscillate through these really sad cycles. She would text my wife and tell her, ‘If you come by my room and I’m crying, I’m just feeling really sad today.’ The school counselor did an official assessment for suicidal ideation. That was fucking world-shaking.

"We found these tickets to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. It was like $160 roundtrip per person. My daughter’s always loved the beach. We thought, this will help.

"In St. Thomas, she bobbed sadly in the ocean like a bobber stuck in a snagged fishing line. No happiness, no joy. She had fallen so far down into the dumpster fire of sadness and depression that she couldn’t even enjoy herself at the goddamn beach.

"So then, she tells us that she feels like a girl.

"We didn’t push anything on her. I will say this until my dying fucking breath, we never even used the word transgender in the beginning of this.

"She gave us a vision of who she thinks she is. We told her that there’s no pressure to define herself as anything right now. But if it would make you feel more comfortable to wear girl clothes and paint your nails, then by God girl, let’s do this."

Vivian* tailors a skirt in her sewing studio at her family's home near Houston. A technical theater major and self-described "old Hollywood fan," Vivian suggested her pseudonym. "I was going for Vivien Leigh," she said. "I figured Marilyn might be too obvious." (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

'I could see in you the hope for your future'

Molly Carnes and her daughter Vivian*, 20, who asked to be anonymous, have always been devout Christians. In 2020, Vivian decided to come out publicly as transgender on Queer Youth of Faith Day. "I wasn’t so concerned with [acceptance from] my non-faithful friends as much as I was with the other religious people," she said. In 2021, she had a renaming ceremony at her home church in the Houston area.

Last year, and especially after the 2022 elections, Vivian and her family decided it would be safer for her to leave Texas. A technical theater major focused on costume design, she’s transferring to a university on the West Coast. Among the policies that worried her the most was a decision last year by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to pull state data on Texans who had changed their gender markers. "A registry of trans people," Vivian remembers thinking: "Are you kidding me?"

Molly: "The Episcopal church has an official rite that acknowledges the transition of transgender Christians. When [Vivian] learned about that she said she wanted to do it, but it was during COVID. You said, 'I don’t want to do it until I don’t have to wear a mask.'"

Vivian: "It’s important that people see my face."

M: "You had been wearing a mask your whole life. That’s what you told me."

V: "That sounds like something I would say."

M: "It was an optional service on Sunday night that people could come to. We had about 80 people there. In the place of a sermon, [Vivian] shared a little bit of her story. It was lovely to watch you be vulnerable like that and trust that your church family was there."

V: "I was talking about a particularly formative moment when I got my first doll. I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a problem.’ I think deep down I always kind of knew what was going on. I experienced feelings of being out of place, like I was living someone else’s life.

"I’m leaving in August to go to [a West Coast state] to finish school. Kids leave their families all the time to go to college, but I mean, our entire family is here. We have been here for centuries, maybe."


M: "When we were there visiting, I could see in you the hope for your future."

V: "As much as I love Texas, and I am going to miss it, I really felt like I belonged out there."

M: "The day we were coming back, it was like I saw the cloud just come back over you."

V: "It was dread."

LGBT-Rex is a regular fixture at pro-LGBTQ+ protests at the Texas Capitol. The woman inside the costume, Stephanie Perdue, says she was targeted in an anti-trans hate crime in 2017. "That fired up my activism a lot more," she told Courthouse News earlier this year. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

'I couldn’t hear him laugh anymore'

In small-town southeast Texas, the McRoberts family has been in Texas for generations. Wendy McRoberts doesn't want to leave. "I think it would crush my mother if her only grandchild had to leave the state," she said. Still, like other parents of transgender Texans, she does think about it. "Colorado would probably be my first choice."

After her transgender son Theo grew up and moved elsewhere in the state, Wendy says there were around three or four months when he couldn't access his medications. She blames state politics, including an opinion by Paxton declaring transgender medical care to be child abuse, which she says spooked doctors and led to long waiting lines just as Theo was looking for non-pediatric care.

"He did okay at first. The first thing he noticed was his voice cracking a little. Then, the exhaustion. He kept getting more and more tired.

"The fat started redistributing. It was coming back in spots that looked female. He started wearing big clothes again to hide his appearance. He didn’t go out as much.

"He was living with his girlfriend. I was worried about pregnancy. His doctor told me, ‘Let’s get him on birth control.’

"As it kept going, it was like I could see him go back into his shell. He was trying to fight to stay the same for his girlfriend. That was a scary time.

"The biggest thing was, I couldn’t hear him laugh anymore. He has a beautiful, hilarious, loud, obnoxious laugh. We have a wicked sense of humor in this family because we have to. He just wanted to hide away from the world."

'We were very much raised with gender roles'

Theo, now 21, doesn't like thinking about that time. "It was traumatic," he said.

He leaves the lobbying at the Texas Capitol to his mom. Like some other young transgender Texans, he bristles at the thought of having to go to the statehouse to argue for his rights. "I should be allowed to exist without being controversial," he said. "Not everything I do has to be some sort of activist activity."

"Growing up, all my friends fell into the category of either tomboy or boy. I grew up in a very small town, so we were very much raised with gender roles.

"We would rough house and all that kind of stuff. Boys being boys. As we got older, they would refuse to do that stuff with me.

"I didn't fully come out until I was 14 I think. I kind of just sprung it on my mom. She was like, 'What do you want for Christmas?' I was like, 'Testosterone.'

"My best friend in band, he's in the Navy now. We were the two top tubas. He was my number one supporter in my friend group.

"He's not really an emotional guy. He's a very macho man. He told me he was proud of me. I was like, 'You bastard, don't make me cry.'

"I grew up singing. I had to reteach myself how to sing [with a deeper voice]. I can't sing opera anymore. It was worth it."

Protesters hold rainbow gay pride flags during a rally for trans rights at the Texas Capitol on March 27, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

'It’s my last bluebonnet season'

Later this year, Lauren Rodriguez plans to join her transgender son Grey in New Zealand. The 19 year-old relocated there in February, fearful of proposed anti-trans legislation in Texas and across the country. To finance the move, Lauren is selling a house outside of Austin that she once considered her "forever home." "There’s a lot of guilt with it," she said. "I always said, 'You don’t run away. You stay and fight.' Here I am, running away."


"My son landed on February 22 in Auckland. When he sent me a message I was actually doing a training at work. I looked down at my phone and I saw a Facebook message that said: 'Hey mom, I made it. I’m safe.' I burst into tears in front of 100 people I was giving a presentation to. It was kind of embarrassing.

"I didn’t cry when I dropped him off at the airport. I was like, 'Let’s just focus on getting you to your connection in San Francisco and then getting you out of here.' Once he was there, it all kind of hit me. He keeps telling me how wonderful it is. He’s weaning off of his antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. He’s like, 'I didn’t know you could live life like this.' I feel horrible that at 19 he’s finally like, 'Oh, this is how other people feel.'"

"I usually wouldn’t say I’m much of a crier, but the last 6 months, it’s been a lot. I’m just like, this is the last time I’m going to take a picture of my son in Texas. This is the last time I’m going to do this, this is the last time I’m going to do that.

"Like bluebonnets. I love bluebonnets. I don’t know why. They just make me irrationally happy. I cry every time I see them this year, because I know it’s my last bluebonnet season. You can’t take bluebonnets to New Zealand. I checked."

Protesters hold trans pride flags during a rally at the Texas Capitol on March 22, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News Service)

'My child is not an -ism'

Hanna*, a mother in the Austin area, is planning to move her family to Colorado. Grappling with the current and proposed policies in Texas has been “exhausting” and “really detrimental,” she says. She asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of possible CPS investigations. Her 16-year-old transgender son decided not to participate in this story. “He just wants to live his life.”

While Hanna is eager to leave, her son isn’t. State politics aside, he’s thriving in school, with a good group of friends and affirming teachers. “He’s doing well there,” Hanna said. “He shouldn’t have to leave.”

"My child is not an -ism. My child is transgender.

"If you look up -ism, it’s ideology. That’s how [anti-trans politicians] are trying to present it. They’re trying to present it that all these kids are groomed or indoctrinated or all this kind of stuff, which is not true.

"I’m the parent of my child. The state does not have a right to make any choices on medical care or how I raise my child, point blank.

"So many people go to the Capitol and share really intimate aspects of themselves and their children to try to make legislators understand. To be honest with you, I don’t think they even deserve to hear any of that.

"Parents try to make them understand, and they don’t really care. It’s quite traumatizing to get up there and share.

"When my son came out to me, he said, 'Mom, I hate being transgender.'"

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Categories / Civil Rights, Health, Politics

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