Taking Refuge: Transgender Newcomers Find Safety, Services and Community in Vermont | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Taking Refuge: Transgender Newcomers Find Safety, Services and Community in Vermont

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Published November 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Felix - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Felix

Kate and Drew Streip never planned to leave Chattanooga. The young couple — born-and-bred Tennesseans — were raising their three children in Streip's childhood home in a hip, close-knit neighborhood they cherished, within easy reach of their extended family.

But when Tennessee passed a law in March prohibiting gender-affirming medical care for transgender children, the Streips bid farewell to their beloved state. Their son Sam, 11, is transgender. Remaining in Chattanooga was not an option.

"I remember, the day it passed, I watched the live stream and was just sobbing while making dinner," Kate said of the new law. "It would not only mean that Sam couldn't get puberty blockers but also that he couldn't receive gender-affirming therapy."

Three months later, the family of five arrived in Vermont, a state they had visited only once. They had no family or friends waiting in South Burlington, but Sam, they hoped, could grow up as himself.

The Streips have joined an influx of transgender people and their families drawn to Vermont by the promise of relative safety, crucial services and what they view as the state's reputation for tolerance. Newcomers say they left their home states because of the national surge in hatred aimed at transgender people as well as the passage of laws that restrict gender-affirming care. Vermont's emerging role as a haven stems in large part from its laws offering formal protections to LGBTQ+ residents, the array of support services available in the Green Mountains and a health care system that is seen as accommodating to transgender people.

No one knows exactly how large this surge of newcomers is, and few organizations serve only trans people. But Out in the Open, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit that provides resources for LGBTQ+ people in rural areas, says it has doubled its capacity to meet the growing demand. The University of Vermont Medical Center's Transgender Youth Program, which has gained notice for providing support, resources and referrals, has also doubled in size. So far this year, the program has served at least five families who moved to Vermont.

Outright Vermont, a statewide nonprofit that supports young LGBTQ+ people, had a waiting list of more than 100 families — many from out of state — for its Camp Outright, a "summer camp with a queer twist," when it opened enrollment in spring 2023.

"We're hearing from people thinking of moving here all the time," said HB Lozito, executive director of Out in the Open. "A lot of them are parents who want — as any parent does — to offer the best kind of support and care for their kids."

For all of Vermont's vaunted openness, though, publicized episodes of hostility to transgender residents and an acute shortage of affordable housing complicate the calculus for those seeking refuge here. Many are making the move anyway, seeking to escape more hostile environments.

In the past two years, a number of Republican-led states have approved restrictions on gender-affirming medical care, bathroom access and sports participation for transgender children and teens. This year alone, 17 states have enacted bans or significant new restrictions on some or all gender-affirming care for minors. Advocates and physicians say those restrictions can damage the mental health of trans teens, increasing their risk of suicide.

By contrast, Vermont is consistently ranked by researchers and news outlets as one of the best states to live in as an LGBTQ+ person. According to an analysis by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, Vermont has the seventh-highest percentage of LGBTQ+ people in the nation and the second-highest percentage of same-sex couples.

The state has a long history of relative acceptance. In 2000, Vermont became the first state to introduce civil unions for same-sex couples, though the law spurred a "Take Back Vermont" protest campaign. Vermont was the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2009. Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed a series of shield bills into law, safeguarding doctors who offer, and patients who receive, reproductive health care — including abortions and gender-affirming care.

The Streips have lived in Vermont for only five months but are already settled in. On a Thursday in October, the family's South Burlington home was decked out with Halloween decorations. Sam has joined his school's Queer Straight Alliance.

"It just feels like Vermont is set up with people like us in mind," Kate said. "Of course, hate exists everywhere. But having a place that is set up to be less tolerant of that hate makes raising [a trans child] a lot more doable."

Seven Days spent time with a number of people who have come to Vermont for refuge. Here are the stories of four of them.




Live With DJ Turkey Joe

The Walker Family
Richie Walker - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Richie Walker

It was noon on a Friday, and DJ Turkey Joe — otherwise known as Richie Walker — had the mic at WGDR, central Vermont's community radio station.

"Thanks to everyone who supports WGDR," the teenager offered with the easy assurance of a seasoned DJ. "For a 17-year-old queer kid coming from Texas, breaking a 10K fundraising goal for an independent radio station was never on my radar," he said. "It's not about survival anymore. It's about community, it's about passion, and it's about good music."

With that, he eased into Brian Eno's "St. Elmo's Fire."

Richie, a transgender transplant in Barre, appears to be thriving. The punkish, effervescent teen hosts an offbeat radio show with loyal listeners ("You're DJ Turkey Joe?" an acquaintance once asked, incredulously). He has a group of friends who "actually do things," Richie said with pride, adjusting glasses that frame eyes accented with shimmery eye shadow. "They sell art out of buses, and they're crazy, and they all know each other." Homeschooled, he's set to graduate from high school later this year.

But life wasn't always sunny. For years while living in the Houston area, Richie — who was assigned female at birth — had life-ending thoughts following his realization that he was transgender. "When I told my dad, I was crying," Richie recalled. "I was 13. It was late at night, and I was sobbing. I couldn't get the words out. I was ashamed. I couldn't look at myself."

Faced with a struggling child, Richie's parents found a therapist who could help Richie process his feelings. They made sure to say out loud that they loved him. And they allowed Richie, who was being taught at home, to explore his gender identity in public.

But as the political climate in Texas changed, so did the family's sense of safety. "Our friends, our neighbors and our community were looking at us like we were deviants," said Fara Walker, Richie's mother. In 2022, when a Texas law took effect barring transgender minors from access to puberty blockers and other gender-related care, Fara felt she had to move her family someplace where Richie could start hormone therapy.

"He needed gender-affirming care, for sure," Fara said. "And we needed to not go to jail for that."

So Fara and her husband, Chris, spent their evenings on the internet, researching the best states for transgender people and for escaping the worst effects of climate change. "It just kept shining back on Vermont," she recalled.

In February 2022, the couple purchased a house in Barre, sight unseen. The family loaded their car with two cats and a dog and drove north. They arrived in the depths of winter and found that their new home had no heat, bad plumbing and major electrical issues.

Now, almost two years later, things are improving. The house has been fixed up, and the family is settling into the community.

"Vermont more or less saved my life," said Richie, who started hormone therapy shortly after arriving. For Fara, relocating to Vermont has been a relief. "I feel like I can breathe, knowing that my child is not going to kill himself," she said.

The move has not been without challenges. On his first day at Spaulding High School in Barre, Richie said he overheard homophobic remarks and students making rape jokes. He didn't return, and Fara went back to homeschooling him. There have been smaller adjustments, as well. The family miss ready access to Tex-Mex food and are uneasy with the racial homogeneity of the state.

But Richie maintains that this new chapter — which finds him comfortable, chirpy and, above all, free of suicidal thoughts — is a happy one because of the community he's found in Vermont. "I've never had a circle where I know people and they respect me and trust me and they don't sneer at me," he said.

Richie met a number of his new friends through informal queer networks in central Vermont. He's sold stuffed animal sculptures at the Queer Arts Festival, a relatively new and popular grassroots event for the state's LGBTQ+ artists. This summer's festival, held in Plainfield, boasted more than 50 vendors and more than 1,500 attendees.

Transgender newcomers point to the availability of year-round resources as well. Outright Vermont, the statewide nonprofit, offers an assortment of support groups, including ones geared to parents supporting trans young people, another for non-white trans youth and one for children under 12 who are exploring their gender identity. The nonprofit also coordinates more than 100 gender and sexuality alliances for students in schools across the state.

In southern Vermont, offerings by Out in the Open, the Brattleboro-based nonprofit, include support groups and a program that ensures LGBTQ+ people in rural areas have access to safe and supportive health care. It also runs a Trans Femme Chill Club, one of the only groups in the state catering specifically to transfeminine people — those who seek to present as predominantly feminine — of all ages.

"For people who move here to know that they don't have to reinvent the wheel, that they can just come here and plug in and find immediate acceptance, understanding and peer connection, that's pretty huge," said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright.

Several transgender newcomers said the visibility of organizations such as Outright, Out in the Open and Pride Center of Vermont helped them choose the Green Mountains.

For Richie, finding a queer community means more than gaining friends who understand his experience. It has allowed him to picture a long life as a transgender person. While working at Farmers to You, an online farm-to-table grocer based in Berlin, he became fast friends with an older transgender man.

"He's this trans guy with gray hair," Richie said, sounding amazed. "I never saw anyone like him in Texas."




'What Vermont Provided for Us Was Hope'

The Lucero family
Jessica Lucero  with her parents, Bill and Tina - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Jessica Lucero with her parents, Bill and Tina

For some recent arrivals, refuge can take the form of having a box to check.

Tina Lucero, an Oklahoma native and primary caregiver for her 22-year-old daughter who has autism and muscular dystrophy, felt trepidation at the start of a recent doctor's visit in Barre when she explained that Jessica was transgender.

"And the nurse replied: 'I've got a box for that. I can check that,'" Tina recalled, with evident relief. "And I was like, 'Oh, wow. That's actually not an option where we used to live.'"

In Oklahoma, Jessica, who relies on a ventilator, had lost her disability benefits out of the blue. Tina spent hundreds of hours vainly advocating to have them restored. She suspects bias was at work, though she lacks hard evidence. "They knew she was trans," Tina said. "I can't say for sure that was the reason, but it sure felt that way."

And accessing gender-affirming care seemed out of the picture. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, signed a bill into law this year that makes it a felony for health care workers to provide children with gender-transition medical care. A previous version of the measure would have barred gender-affirming medical care to patients younger than 26 years old. That worried Tina.

In other ways, too, Oklahoma felt unsafe, she said. When Jessica was in eighth grade, Tina received a call from her daughter's school saying two boys were overheard in the bathroom threatening to kill her. "When I got to the school, [the administrators] said nothing about how the boys were wrong," Tina recalled. "It was, 'Well, Jessica shouldn't be putting makeup on.'"

But it was the death of their eldest daughter, Savannah, from a rare heart condition that finally pushed Tina and her husband, Bill, to leave the state.

Tina remembered deciding: "My job now is to make sure my other daughter is as happy as she can be and [can] live her best life."

Still in mourning over a death they attributed mainly to shortcomings in the health care system, the couple began searching for a destination where LGBTQ+ rights are protected and health care is accessible and affordable, especially for trans people. Jessica contributed to the search, spending hours reading articles and gathering statistics.

Vermont stood out. Over the past decade, the state has emerged as a leader in the field of LGBTQ+-friendly health care. Under Vermont law, for example, gender-affirming care must be covered under any insurance plans offered in the state.

For specialized gender care for youths, patients and their families typically turn to either the UVM Medical Center or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, just over the border in New Hampshire. Only one surgery office in Vermont offers "top surgery" to patients 16 and over, who must have parental permission and meet "significant requirements from the surgeon," according to Erica Gibson, medical director of the UVM Transgender Youth Program. Generally, surgeons won't perform "bottom surgery" on patients under 18, she said.

But Vermont boasts a growing network of primary-care providers who have been trained to work with LGBTQ+ patients.

Through a remote training program coordinated by UVM's Larner College of Medicine, rural physicians have learned how to address transgender patients using gender-neutral language during routine checkups and how to prescribe hormone replacement drugs. One private practice, Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital in Townshend, has created its own LGBTQ+ care program. The hospital has trained its doctors in everything from gender-neutral primary care, such as offering gynecological services to all patients, to alcohol- and substance-use treatment tailored to LGBTQ+ clients.

Although there are still gaps in what's available — especially in the Northeast Kingdom and in mental health — Vermont offers relatively inclusive health care, those in the field say.

"I would venture to guess that people are a bit more gender-affirming in the state than in some other states," Gibson said. "Medical students and residents really want to learn about [transgender care] and be able to provide it."

Gibson's clinic — which expanded its capacity this year to meet a growing waiting list of patients — has served several families who flew into Vermont from states with anti-trans laws.

"We're all sort of anticipating seeing more out-of-state political refugees," said Anja Jokela, a physician at UVM Medical Center and coordinator of a statewide gender-affirming care working group, which includes 30 providers.

That promise of better health care for their daughter led Tina and Bill Lucero to spend more than two years saving money to make the move to Vermont. "We cut down to bare bones," Tina said. "We did it to get our child to safety."

As motivation, the family would gather at night to watch a video produced by Barre Area Development — an economic development nonprofit — that featured a queer couple. "I remember thinking, Gosh, look how happy they are. Look how welcomed they are," Tina said. "What Vermont provided for us was hope."

In March, Bill found a job as a special education teacher in Barre, and five months later, the family moved into a two-bedroom apartment nearby. Jessica got on the waiting lists of a number of doctors, some of them warning that it might be a year before she'd be seen. But within two months, she qualified for disability benefits.

"That's something that I worked on for over two years in Oklahoma and never could do," Tina said. "My whole personality has improved. It's just a relief knowing that when I leave, someone's not going to beat the crap out of my daughter, or worse."

Jessica seems pleased with the move as well: "I haven't felt unsafe here, and that's a very good sign."

When Jessica's health has permitted, Tina has taken her to LGBTQ+ events, including the Pride Seder at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington. The family isn't Jewish, but the chance to be in a queer-friendly community motivated mother and daughter to make the hour's drive to attend.

Because of her health, Jessica is often drowsy during the day, leading to an irregular sleep schedule. Late at night, while her family is asleep, she likes to write horror stories. She's currently on her 12th book, one of which is self-published.

Although the family can't afford to buy a home, the Luceros say they're glad to be here. Tina is prodding her best friend in Oklahoma to make the same move. The friend's son thinks he might be gay, and both women are worried about his safety.

For Jessica, the move has brought a sense of hope after the family's despair. "My gender reassignment surgery is now closer than ever," she said. "And there are no words to describe how happy that makes me."




A Rural Oasis

Felix

For weeks in 2020, Felix received emails from an anonymous sender threatening to kill him. As soon as he blocked the address, the messages came again from a different account. They terrified him with their homophobic language and bluntly worded threats focused on his transgender identity.

Felix, who lived in Utah and worked for a national animal rescue group, suspected a former coworker, but his complaints to higher-ups at the organization went nowhere.

"I had thoughts like, If I walk my dog at night, someone could just drag me into a ditch," Felix, 38, recalled. "I was like, What am I doing here?"

The moment to act came on a morning when he woke up to find blood and feces smeared on the windshield of the converted bus in which he was living. "I need to get out of here," he remembered deciding. His time in Utah was up.

Felix studied maps of climate change, COVID-19 rates and voting histories to determine which state appeared the safest and most trans-friendly. Vermont was the clear winner.

Browsing online, he happened upon a listing for a plot of land in central Vermont. The property came with an A-frame tiny house with a woodstove and a sleeping loft. That same day, Felix set out for Vermont in his bus.

"I remember driving into Vermont and being amazed by everything I saw. [Black Lives Matter] flags and trans flags just hanging out on the side of the barn in the middle of nowhere in these deep rural areas," he said. "It filled me with a lot of hope and joy."

Although big cities have long served as safe havens for gay and transgender people, Felix and other transgender migrants say part of Vermont's appeal is its rural character and sense of small-town closeness.

After a tour of the property, Felix purchased the plot and started building a life in the countryside. A self-described introvert and "building nerd," Felix found new friends by taking classes in woodworking and tiny-house construction. He enrolled in a course in sourdough at Bethel University — an annual by-the-people, for-the-people series of classes in Bethel — and got a part-time job in the field of outdoor recreation. Eventually, he started hosting small gatherings and construction classes on his property, where he had built several small structures and three-season dwellings.

On a stroll around his property one fall afternoon, he sported sparkly eyeglasses, and an obligatory Vermont flannel jacket padded his slim frame. His pup, Santa, wore her own matching flannel. The self-taught jack-of-all-trades showed off the bus he is converting into his new abode. Felix hopes to turn the A-frame in which he is currently living into a place for friends or collaborators to stay.

Over the summer, Felix held movie nights for queer people in a rustic mini-library he built. He has hosted classes in basic carpentry geared toward local people of color and LGBTQ+ residents. The classes, Felix said, were big successes, drawing surprisingly large attendance.

But life in the Green Mountains has not been all rainbows and butterflies, he made clear.

Felix, who is a person of color, says he's experienced moments of racism — offhand comments, name-calling — and more than a few times has overheard remarks disparaging transgender people by locals who didn't know he was trans.

"Vermont is definitely not the perfect liberal utopia that everyone outside makes it out to be," he said. "There's still racism; there's still transphobia. All kinds of problems still exist here." Citing concern for his safety in a geographically isolated area, Felix asked that only his first name be used in this story and that other identifying information about him be withheld.

In interviews, other transgender newcomers told of experiencing similar hostility, even if mostly veiled.

At times, tensions over the presence of transgender people in Vermont have burst into open view. Last year, a 29-year-old transgender woman was stabbed to death in Morristown. While it is unclear whether the victim's gender identity was the motive, an online petition gathered more than 9,000 signatures urging that the suspect be charged with a hate crime.

A few months later, a 14-year-old transgender student at Randolph Union High School became the subject of a controversy that received some national attention, spurred by her presence in the girls' locker room.

Earlier this year, Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee chose to forfeit a girls' basketball game rather than play against a team from Long Trail School in Dorset that included a transgender player.

Still, Felix said he feels safer in Vermont than he has anywhere before. "I felt tangibly unsafe in rural Utah, and the lack of a queer community made that experience even scarier and more isolating," he said.

Felix has big plans for his 11 wooded acres, which he hopes to turn into a queer sanctuary where LGBTQ+ people can learn to build useful things or stay for residencies. The outlines are still a bit fuzzy, but he's gotten encouragement from a recent Samara Fund grant from the Vermont Community Foundation to lead a free "electrical wiring 101" class for queer residents and people of color.

"Vermont has shown me that it goes beyond just a feeling of safety. The queer community here is a great source of joy and inspiration," Felix said. "I have never felt it as strongly as I do now."




'We Worried for Their Safety'

The Negrón and Melendez family
Adriana Negrón, Eduardo Melendez and their children at home in Brattleboro - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Adriana Negrón, Eduardo Melendez and their children at home in Brattleboro

When the pandemic forced the three children of Adriana Negrón and Eduardo Melendez to attend school virtually, the couple noticed that their oldest child, Adrian, suddenly seemed much more at ease.

Then 7, Adrian, who was assigned male at birth, started wearing their sister's clothing around the house and would sport a hair bow during Zoom classes. Adrian, who now uses they/them pronouns, said they didn't feel exactly like a girl or a boy. Without the social pressure of a public-school environment, which Eduardo said included religious indoctrination, the child seemed happier. The couple worried, though, about Adrian's future in Puerto Rico, where Melendez says bullying is rampant and often goes unchecked.

"They didn't have the language at the time to explain to us what was happening," said Negrón, who started to suspect that their child was nonbinary. "My husband and I were scared. On one hand, we felt like we should let them be who they are, but on the other hand, we worried for their safety."

Negrón and Melendez were born and raised in Puerto Rico but already had talked about moving. Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, and power outages persisted years later. Now, faced with a child who was exploring their gender identity, the couple gave more serious consideration to the idea of leaving the island.

"Puerto Rico is not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people, especially in the rural area where we were living," Negrón said. "There's a lot of things that pushed us, but at the end of the day, our biggest motivator was our child."

Like Felix, the couple sought a rural state that would be kind to LGBTQ+ people as a place to raise their three young children.

The couple saved all the money they received from COVID-19 stimulus payments, then relocated to Brattleboro in 2021. At the time, Melendez was making just $8 an hour working for a marketing company in Puerto Rico. "We put all of our eggs in one basket," he remembered.

In Brattleboro, Adrian noticed Pride flags everywhere downtown. In school, teachers made sure that Adrian was addressed by the correct pronouns. And Adrian, now 11, started visiting a doctor at Grace Cottage, where they received age-appropriate, gender-affirming care. For now, that means simply discussing future options.

The parents noticed a lift in Adrian's demeanor. "It was kind of like this weight was lifted off of their shoulders," said Negrón, who credits the open-mindedness of the Brattleboro community.

The family has faced struggles in Vermont, too. For close to a year, they could not find affordable childcare, forcing them to live on Melendez's pay alone. There have also been moments of discomfort as non-white Vermonters: an occasional infantilizing tone or uninformed question about Puerto Rico. They still worry about Adrian's safety. "It's very difficult raising a nonbinary and BIPOC kid," Melendez said.

But in the most difficult moments, neighbors have shown up again and again.

When they first arrived, members of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation — with whom the couple was in touch before moving — showed Negrón and Melendez the best coffee shops and restaurants in town. When Negrón contracted COVID-19 while pregnant with her fourth child, neighbors brought groceries. And when she gave birth, those same neighbors organized a meal train that kept up for two weeks.

"During this time, there is a lot of uncertainty," Negrón said. "But I am very certain about who my community and my neighbors are and what they stand for. I know that they are not going to let my child down."

In what the couple sees as perhaps the most generous gesture, their landlady —inspired by their story — offered to sell her house to them directly, ensuring the family a future in Brattleboro amid a severe shortage of affordable housing.

"Vermont is a little lighthouse of hope for a lot of people, and I wish there was more housing for more people like us to be able to actually make the move," Negrón said.

The couple dream of watching all four of their children graduate from Brattleboro Union High School and eventually growing old in the Green Mountain State.

For now, they're pleased with smaller victories. Since moving, Adrian has come out as nonbinary and seems confident wearing the clothes that make them feel themselves — sometimes clothing designed for girls, sometimes for boys. They love writing and reading and have good friends.

Negrón has noticed, as well, that her child has shed an old nervous habit of digging their fingernails into their skin. It's the kind of change that perhaps only a parent would detect. She sees it as a sign that Adrian is comfortable, at last.

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