In June, Katie Laird and her son Noah, then 15, packed up a U-Haul at their Texas home 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, Governor Greg Abbott directed the state Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any allegations by parents providing gender-affirming health care to their minor children. like child abuse.
The department began opening investigations into the families days later, but Laird told NBC News in March that he had no plans to move. She said that although she feared that a state investigator might show up on her doorstep, she and her family felt they could fight back.
That plan changed less than a month later, he said, after Noah lost access to his transition-related care program for three weeks after a Texas Children’s Hospital decision in Houston to pause all gender-affirming care for their minor patients. At the time, the hospital said in a statement that the decision was made after evaluating the actions of Paxton and Abbott.
“This step was taken to safeguard our healthcare professionals and affected families from potential criminal legal ramifications,” he said.
On June 27, Laird and Noah set off 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 air on NBC News Digital on Wednesday. The documentary was produced by NBC News Digital Docs and premiered at the Meet the Press Film Festival at DOC NYC on November 15.
Noah, now 16, said at the time, he felt like he and his mom were running away.
“It was hard and it still is hard to leave literally everything I’ve known in my entire life,” he said in an interview this month.
The family’s story reveals part of the impact Abbott’s leadership is having on the families of trans youth 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 to trans people, Laird said.
In 2021, Texas considered more than 50 bills targeting transgender people, more than any other state, and only one became law: a bill banning trans student-athletes from playing on the school sports team that ranks with their gender identity. The next legislative session begins in January, and Republican lawmakers have already reintroduced several of the bills that failed last year.
Laird plans to continue advocating for the rights of trans people in Texas from her current home in Colorado.
“That’s a commitment that Noah and I made when we left,” he said. “This is our home. We have been pushed and we will continue to fight, no matter where we live, for the state because we know that what happens in Texas has a huge influence on the entire country and we have to stay in the fight.”
A ‘staggering’ number
Since Abbott’s leadership, the Department of Family and Protective Services has received 15 reports of parents providing gender-affirming care to their minor children, Director of Communications Patrick Crimmins said in an email Friday. Of those, it opened 14 investigations. Ten are closed and four are still active, he said.
Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas and other civil rights groups have filed two lawsuits, one in March and one in June. In the first lawsuit, filed on behalf of a family under investigation and a psychologist who is a mandatory reporter, the Texas Supreme Court upheld a limited injunction that only blocked the plaintiffs’ investigation.
In the second lawsuit, filed on behalf of three families under investigation and PFLAG National, a nonprofit group that supports LGBTQ families, a judge issued two separate injunctions. blocking investigations about the three families and also all other new research about PFLAG members. The Department of Family and Protective Services can still conduct investigations on non-member families.
Paxton appealed both cases, but the appeals courts 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 coming under investigation and those who fear being reported has been “devastating.”
“The cost to mental health, especially, of all this that is happening is staggering,” he said.
Although it’s hard to track how many families have been affected in some way, the ACLU of Texas and other advocacy groups created a website for families of trans youth in the state so they can stay up to date on investigations and find attorneys. Klosterboer said that since July, the website has received several thousand hits.
He said he also knows of students who chose to stay home from school in the spring.
“These were students who were already facing a lot of challenges in school being trans and facing discrimination or bullying, and then the threat that DFPS might pull them out of class and investigate them just added another trauma to their life and something that worried them. Klosterboer said.
He added that Laird and Noah are far from the only ones to leave the state; he knows several. At least three other families with trans children have also said in interviews that they have moved.
The investigations, combined with the ban on trans athletes, send “a really damaging message to trans youth and their families that they are not welcome in Texas, even when they have received a lot of support from friends, coaches, teammates, others, he said Klosterboer.
‘Living in these two extremes’
Laird said that she and Noah have been incredibly happy in Denver. Noah is thriving at her school, which she says is very inclusive of LGBTQ youth.
Noah said he skateboards and bikes often and he and his mom spend a lot of time looking for good food.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Even the Pride flags everywhere make me feel really safe. It’s much more tolerant.”
Yet, Laird said, living in Denver has been like “living at these two extremes.”
“We are very happy here,” he said. “And then at the same time, we have this kind of co-existing reality of extreme sadness. We are homesick, we miss our family, we miss our friends, we miss our TexMex,” he said jokingly.
He 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 participate in the next legislative session.
Republican lawmakers 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 ban 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 the Alabama and Arkansas measures from taking effect.
Gin Pham, communications and outreach manager for the Texas Transgender Education Network, said advocates have been fighting anti-trans legislation since at least 2017, when the state first began considering a bill that would have barred transgender people use public toilets. 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 big cities in the state and organizing weekend events for trans people and their loved ones.
“We’ve really been able to bring the community together to really address what happened this year, but we’re also looking forward to next year,” Pham said.
Laird said she is preparing for the worst during the upcoming legislative session, but ultimately hopes she and Noah can return to Texas. She said leaving felt like defeat.
“My immediate feeling as we were leaving is that I am being kicked out of my house, and I feel like there is nothing I can do about it,” she said.
But then, about halfway through the trip, something changed in her, she said, because as they drove away from home and deeper into New Mexico, she saw a distinct sense of relief wash over Noah.
“And that’s it,” he said. “That’s the point, is to get to a place where I can just be Noah, not this political battleground.”