This post was written by NCTE member Ellie DesPrez.
Eight months ago, I made a new friend; three months ago, she moved to a safer state.
We met at an emergency volunteer night at the headquarters of Missouri’s statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. Missouri’s legislative majority, fueled by a now debunked, incendiary attack on the transgender clinic at Washington University’s Children’s Hospital, had just turned their anti-trans rhetoric up to high. The flames burned my family and me.
At the volunteer night, my husband and I were asked to write and anonymously share our story of loving a trans person. Now I know the name for this action: narrative advocacy. My husband and I both teach English; we know stories matter; we got right to work.
I met my new friend that night, then saw her again the next week outside a St. Louis County Council meeting. As we waited for the council chambers to open, I asked her about her family’s plans. She said, “We’re pretty sure we’re moving in the summer.” But she was still fighting. That night, we were among over 50 people who signed up to testify in favor of the County’s resolution in support of the availability of expert gender-affirming care in our region (it passed!).
My friend is a pastor, a wife, and the mother of two daughters, one of whom is trans. A great listener and a self-declared introvert, my friend traveled to our state capitol in Jefferson City—four hours round trip—some dozen times this spring to speak about her child and her family and to beg the legislature not to pass a gender-affirming health care ban that would force her family to leave their beloved home (the care ban passed).
My husband and I are empty-nesters now. Our younger child, who is trans, graduated from college last May. A few months before, when they were home for spring break, I asked them where they might want to go after graduation. “Somewhere where I’ll have human rights,” they said, resigned. The cruel and counterfactual claims of the majority in our state legislature have sent a clear message to our child: your rights aren’t safe here.
I know adult children often settle far away from their parents; I did. But it grieves and infuriates me that, as of now, our state is leaving our new adult child no reasonable choice but to leave their home state and put down roots elsewhere.
At the end of June, we said goodbye to our new friend and her sweet family. We were honored to host them in our empty nest as they emptied out their former dream house, closed on the sale of it, and made final preparations for their two-day drive north. The state has left them no choice. “I just want my daughter to have a childhood,” my friend had told me some weeks before. In Missouri, their family has the support of their communities at school, at church, and in loving circles of friends. They will still need to rebuild careers and support systems in a new state that protects their child’s human rights. And amidst the disruption, they know they are lucky they can make this move. They worry about trans people and families left behind.
Similar stories are echoing across the nation in this increasingly well-documented humanitarian crisis. Whether your state has passed anti-trans legislation in the last two years or not, the cruel language of the anti-trans movement has threatened, and will continue to threaten, the mental and physical safety of gender diverse students you work with. As English teachers we have seen attacks on queer-inclusive stories and policies amplify for several years. Now we know for sure that the attacks were on queer personhood—and trans personhood especially—all along.
Those attacks have scorched the nation. In April 2021, Arkansas became the first state to ban gender-affirming health care for trans youth when that state’s legislature overrode Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the ban. As of September 2023, twenty-one states have banned best-practice medical care for trans youth and some are restricting gender-affirming care for adults. In Missouri, for example, the health care ban that purported to be about youth also blocks access to gender-affirming care for adults who are insured through Missouri’s Medicaid program and limits appropriate care for incarcerated individuals.
Meanwhile, fifteen other states have passed protections for trans people. In recent months federal judges in multiple states have deemed trans health care bans unconstitutional and blocked their going into effect. Not so in Missouri, where, just before the care ban was to go into effect, a judge declined to block it. Subsequently, this fall, citing an unsustainable liability burden created by the law, the two major research-university-based health systems providing gender-affirming health care for youth in Missouri have curtailed that care even from those teens already receiving care who had thought their care would continue under a grandfather clause. The resulting distress for affected teens and families is hard to overstate.
In the end, regardless of legislative outcomes, discriminatory and hateful language flowing freely and publicly from adult authority figures continues to spew toxin into the air LGBTQ+ kids, adults, and families have to breathe.
In The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People, one in three LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation, and two in three said that hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ people at school made their mental health a lot worse.
As a teacher, how can I be a true ally to kids, families, and colleagues whose identities are under sustained public attack? How do I help build sanctuaries? These are questions I’ll ask as the new school year approaches. And then I’ll ask them again and again.
It was a blessing for my husband and me to be able to share our home with my friend and her family for their last three days in town last June. As my friend packed the last load of laundry, her older daughter beat me handily at Set twice but didn’t gloat a bit. As my husband served the younger sister a bowl of Lucky Charms, she sang us songs from Frozen. Under a haze of Canadian wildfire smoke on one of the hottest days of the year, my husband and I stood on our front steps and waved goodbye to a younger version of ourselves, a version that might also have had to uproot everything had this pall fallen across the conscience of our statehouse—and all who are making political pawns of trans kids—just a few years earlier, when our kid was still a kid.
After 20 hours, the smoke had partially cleared and our friends arrived in their new city. They stayed with their chosen family, “perfect grandparents,” until their rental house opened up. The picture my friend texted me the morning after their arrival showed her daughters playing in a green backyard. The sun was shining on them. They had space to run.
Ellie DesPrez teaches English at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri. She is a coauthor of NCTE’s Statement on Gender and Language (2018) and NCTE’s Guidelines on Affirming Gender Diversity Through ELA Curriculum and Pedagogy (2021).
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.