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Trans Americans are fleeing to Illinois. Here’s why:

While Illinois has moved to protect access to gender-affirming care and enshrined civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community overall, four of the five states that border Illinois have all seen a massive rise in bills that target the queer community, especially transgender youth. According to the ACLU's anti-LGBTQ legislation tracker, Missouri's state legislature has considered 48 bills in 2023 alone that would negatively impact the queer community in areas ranging from healthcare to education to free speech and expression.

CHAMPAIGN — According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, 85 anti-transgender bills were passed in statehouses around the country this year. Many target trans youth, including access to gender-affirming healthcare for minors.

Medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association, support age-appropriate gender-affirming care, saying it can reduce adverse mental health outcomes and the risk of suicide among trans youth. The Trevor Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ youth, found in a national survey last year that more than half of all trans youth seriously considered suicide.

For the last installment of our series Flights and Freedoms, IPM’s Kimberly Schofield spoke to reporter Owen Henderson about Illinois’ efforts to protect trans rights.

KIMBERLY SCHOFIELD: Tell me a little bit about the current legislative landscape in the Midwest when it comes to trans rights.

OWEN HENDERSON: So there was a big wave of legislation around the country this spring, especially focusing on trans youth. Here’s what went into law in surrounding states just in 2023:

Indiana, Iowa, and Kentucky all passed versions of a law like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, banning instruction about human sexuality in any form before a certain age.

Indiana and Iowa passed laws requiring schools to tell parents if a child requests to use a different name or pronoun at school.

Iowa and Kentucky passed laws requiring students to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth.

Kentucky and Missouri both passed laws requiring students to play on sports teams that align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

And now, all four of these states, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri, all of the states that surround Illinois except Wisconsin, all banned gender-affirming healthcare for minors. I should say, Indiana’s ban is currently blocked by a court injunction.

SCHOFIELD: So what about Illinois?

HENDERSON: Illinois enshrined legal access to gender-affirming healthcare at the beginning of this year. It guarantees that in-state providers can’t lose their licenses for providing care that’s legal in the state of Illinois, even if that care is illegal elsewhere.

SCHOFIELD: What’s the effect been like from all of this legislation on the ground for trans people in the Midwest?

HENDERSON: So this past April, Missouri’s attorney general put out emergency rules that severely limited access to gender-affirming healthcare for everyone unless they met some very stringent criteria.

Those rules have since been pulled, now that Missouri has banned gender-affirming healthcare for minors. However, when those rules were first introduced, it shook a lot of trans Missourians up.

Ezra Witcher was living in Springfield, Mo., with his partner at the time.

WITCHER: “It was like, ‘Oh, okay, well, you’re no longer welcome in the state. Get out now while you can, before the dust settles and you see how bad it is.'”

HENDERSON: Witcher and his partner decided to start looking for other states with more protections for trans residents. They took a road trip through Illinois to visit a few potential places to move, one of which was Champaign-Urbana.

WITCHER: “Driving around and seeing all the pride flags and stickers, not just in downtown, but like everywhere was like, ‘Okay, I feel safe’.”

HENDERSON: Because they wanted to make sure Witcher continued to have access to his gender-affirming healthcare, the two decided he should move to Illinois as soon as possible, without the two of them even having an apartment.

Witcher reached out to a Facebook group for the local trans community, where he met Taryn Elam, who offered to let him stay in her guest room for free.

ELAM: “I could not in good conscience to stand by and do nothing while somebody was moving into the area, or trying to, and I’ve got the space.”

HENDERSON: Witcher stayed with Elam for about 6 weeks before he and his partner were able to get into their apartment this summer. Now the two are settling into the community.

SCHOFIELD: Oh wow. Is this story an anomaly?

HENDERSON: To put it bluntly, no. As more and more anti-trans legislation has been passed in statehouses around the country, more and more trans adults and parents of trans kids have been reaching out to organizations in Illinois to look into moving here.

NICOLE FRYDMAN: “People reach out by email or through social media, or the phone and say like, ‘We’re fleeing this particular state for this particular reason. We are not safe or our family is not safe. And we identified this community as a place that we’re going to be relocating to’.”

Frydman said that while the UP Center and its staff are just a small team at a small non-profit, they regularly have conversations about what else they can be doing to meet the “significantly and rapidly growing need” they’re hearing from members of the LGBTQ+ community who are reaching out from outside Illinois. 

While the UP Center doesn’t specifically track requests for help relocating to central Illinois, Frydman said that their team has seen an upward trend in the number of requests in the past two years. Because Champaign-Urbana is home to one of only three full-scale LGBTQ+ resource centers in Illinois outside of Chicago, they receive a lot of the questions, requests and even walk-in visits from people looking at relocating.

The center gets questions about everything from financial assistance moving to families asking about school systems to queer adults looking into real estate and jobs in the area.

And the requests aren’t confined to just other Midwesterners looking to move one state over. Frydman says that they get people reaching out from as far away as Texas. In fact, the state that the staff members of Uniting Pride have heard from the most is Florida. 

HENDERSON: Nicole Frydman with Uniting Pride of Champaign County has been getting a lot of those messages. She says that with the big increase in demand that they’ve seen, she wants the Illinois government to devote more resources to this issue.

FRYDMAN: “I wish our state legislators would recognize the level of the state of emergency we’re in and would give it the weight that they give to other areas of emergency.”

SCHOFIELD: So, moving forward, what are advocates pushing for in Illinois when it comes to trans rights?

HENDERSON: So, there are three bills that Equality Illinois is currently pushing for.

One would require trainings on cultural competency in healthcare so providers who aren’t from marginalized communities, like the trans community, are better equipped to treat patients who are.

Another would make things easier for businesses and universities to create gender-neutral, multiple-occupancy restrooms if they want to do so.

The last one would provide funding for schools that are working on implementing the age-appropriate and inclusive health education in public schools that’s currently required in Illinois law.

This story is part of IPM’s series Flights and Freedoms, in which we hear from people on the front lines of the fight for trans rights during National Transgender Awareness Week. You can find the other stories on our website.

Picture of Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson covers arts and culture, as well as LGBTQ issues for Illinois Public Media News. He studied journalism, Spanish and theater at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has worked with Illinois Public Media in various capacities since 2021.

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