From the parking lot of the launch control center on Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Robin Witt watched the Orion spacecraft leave earth on the most powerful rocket ever built. It was 1:47 am, and the engine spat a ferocious plume of fire that lit up the night sky as if it were day. The thunderous roar reverberated through her shoes from miles away. Witt, an electrical engineer, had helped launch that craft for Artemis 1, an uncrewed mission around the moon. She speaks of the experience with awe.
“That was my dream–that is my dream,” she said. “That was the greatest moment in my life… Nothing I've ever seen before–and probably ever will see again–will compare to that moment.”
The launch happened about six months before she quit her job at a company that contracts for NASA. Next year, when astronauts land on the moon for the first time since 1972, Robin won’t be there to see it. She will be living in Chicago.
She’d decided to leave because of anti-transgender laws that she saw as a part of a precipitous fall into authoritarian politics in Florida.
“It’s changed night and day,” she said. “It’s so drastic, it’s almost funny, in a dark way. Last year, I was talking about wanting to support the next launch and doing all that. And now, I can’t leave fast enough.”
Robin had arrived home from her final day of work thirty minutes before speaking to The Stranger. In less than a month, she would drive to Chicago alone while her partner stayed behind in Orlando until the sale on their house was finalized. It would be their first significant amount of time apart in 12 years. The couple met on their first day of college at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They didn’t date until senior year, like the stars in romantic comedies who didn’t realize the right person was with them from the start.
Robin had lived in Florida almost all her life. She was in elementary school when her father retired from the Air Force and the family settled in a small town in Okaloosa County called Crestview, which is located on the Florida panhandle near Pensacola. Floridians once referred to Crestview as the state's icebox because of its colder winters and relatively high elevation in a hot, flat state–but Robin never saw snowfall there. The low only hits about 41 in December.
Her dreams of space exploration began in Crestview, watching Star Trek: Enterprise with her dad. The mystery of science fascinated Robin. She wanted to ask questions nobody had been able to answer.
Earlier that day, Robin explained to her coworkers at ERC, which contracts with NASA for engineering work, the reasons why she needed to leave and how the laws in Florida affected her life. A few of them had read news articles about the legislation, but most were completely shocked and unaware of what was happening, she said. Her boss called her one of the best talents the company had hired in years, a compliment that made her cry.
Over the phone, Robin ticked off a lengthy list of mundane activities that would consume the next month, like packing boxes, unclogging gutters, and fixing a broken sprinkler system.
“Well, it doesn’t have power at the moment; I think I know why,” she said. “It’s a problem uniquely suited to my skill set.”
The problem was a dead battery, a much less complicated issue than the ones she faced at her day job. At ERC, she led a team of engineers who designed a weather instrumentation subsystem for the Artemis program. The system monitors and records meteorological data at the launchpad, such as wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and humidity. It can also take high-speed photographs of lightning strikes, which can damage important electrical systems.
The weather off Florida’s Atlantic Coast is temperamental, and engineers used the data day to day. The information helped determine the safety of external work, from people scaling the structure with harnesses to lifting a crane up to the rocket. On the big day, instrument data compiled from the Air Force, Space Force, and from Robin’s system helped to determine a weather “go, no go” for launch.
The wrong weather can be catastrophic for a rocket. The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart over earth and killed all seven people onboard in 1986 because sub-freezing temperatures had damaged a circular gasket in the right solid rocket booster. If weather conditions exceed the operating specifications of any electronics or equipment, engineers need to know so they can either replace that equipment or perform re-qualification tests, Robin said.
She and her partner wanted to move away from Florida at some point to experience living in another part of the US, but they had no intention of leaving any time soon. ERC was a dream job, and Robin was heavily involved in the state’s Democratic politics. Their many friends rounded out a fulfilling life.
The actions of the Florida Legislature began to accelerate their timeline two years ago.
Lawmakers passed an anti-transgender policy in 2021 called the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, a law that banned trans girls from girl’s sports teams and trans boys from boy’s teams. The law remains in effect, but earlier this year a judge reopened a lawsuit that argues the policy is a Title IX violation that discriminates on the basis of sex.
The situation grew worse in 2022, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Bill, better known as “Don’t Say Gay.” That law broadly restricted lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom and empowered parents to sue schools.
Experts say the vague language of the law has wide-ranging implications. For example, if a student with two fathers were to draw a picture of their family and shared that drawing with their K-3 classroom, another parent may have a case if they felt the drawing exposed their child to an inappropriate discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. Judges have thrown out numerous challenges to the law, and this year the Florida Legislature expanded “Don’t Say Gay” to all grades. The measure banned discussion of gender and sexuality until high school. Trans teachers cannot share their pronouns with students, and trans students cannot use pronouns different from their assigned gender at birth.
The laws state legislators passed in 2023, and the severity of their consequences, were the final straw for Robin.
“At some point I’m not going to just be able to be in public like a regular person,” she said.
The day before Robin spoke to The Stranger in May, DeSantis had signed SB 254, a law that restricted transgender health care for children and adults. Under the law, some children already receiving hormones or puberty blockers may be grandfathered in, but new minor patients could not receive treatment. A federal judge blocked enforcement of the law for three trans children at the center of a class action lawsuit but refused to temporarily block provisions that make accessing adult care more difficult.
Under SB 254, nurse practitioners are unable to practice gender-affirming care in the state of Florida, and adult patients who receive care from doctors are required to sign state-approved informed-consent paperwork. These forms claim that evidence-based practices supported by every major medical organization in the United States are “speculative” and based on “limited, poor-quality research.”
After the law went into effect, Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida stopped taking any new patients seeking hormone replacement therapy.
Robin predicted she’d lose access to her medication because of a provision in the law that expanded civil liability for providers who offer trans medical services. Patients can now sue 20 years after a gender-affirming care procedure or the cessation of a trans-related treatment.
What she didn’t expect was never to receive a call back, and to have her many attempts at making appointments through the University of Central Florida Health’s online portal canceled. She never heard from her doctor again. UCF Health maintains information about trans health services on its website, but a spokesperson did not say if it was still offering care to adults. The spokesperson would not discuss patient care for HIPAA reasons.
A so-called medical conscience bill, SB 1580, allows insurance companies, doctors, nurses, and other health care workers to refuse coverage or treatment for non-emergency medical services that conflict with their religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. In other words, the law is a free pass to discriminate, or opens wide the door to that possibility.
There’s also a bathroom law called the Safety in Private Spaces Act. Trans people in Florida cannot legally use bathrooms, or other facilities “designed for the opposite-sex” in public buildings and all schools. If an authority figure asks a trans person to leave, then they must comply or else they can face misdemeanor trespassing charges. Under the law, educational institutions must establish disciplinary procedures for trans students who refuse to leave a bathroom when asked. Staff who violate the law are subject to a professional conduction violation.
The state government owns a lot of property, including educational facilities, correctional facilities, airports, parks, conference centers, and beaches.
Robin explained that when Beyoncé played the county-owned Camping World Stadium in Orlando this August, no trans person in attendance could safely use the bathroom there.
The laws prompted LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign to issue statewide travel advisories to queer people who are considering a visit to Florida. Canada issued a similar advisory for its LGBTQ+ citizens for the US overall, citing the restrictive statutes in states like Florida.
Erin Reed, a trans activist and writer who tracks anti-trans legislation, created a new “do not travel” category on her widely read Anti-Trans Legislative Risk Map. Florida is the sole state colored dark red with black stripes.
Robin had the ability to speak out as interim vice president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus.
She first got involved in politics in January 2020 as a volunteer for the Elizabeth Warren campaign. After the primary kicked off, she joined the Rainbow Democrats of Orange County, the Orlando chapter of the state caucus, where she would serve a full term as secretary and volunteer for state Senators such as Anna Eskamani, Carlos Guillermo Smith, and US Rep. Maxwell Frost.
As the State began passing anti-trans bills, Robin testified before the Florida Board of Education and the Florida Board of Medicine–the fifteen-member, Governor-appointed medical board that has embraced positions on trans medicine in conflict with the international standards for trans care.
In March, Robin and 200 volunteers from Equality Florida bounced from committee to committee to meet with state Republicans and Democrats in Tallahassee to discuss the pending legislation. Last April, she wrote an editorial for the Orlando Sentinel denouncing the Florida Department of Health’s non-binding guidance advising against trans care for youth.
Meanwhile, the transgender people in her life, and the cis parents with transgender children, uprooted their lives and fled for safety. No one outside of the community seemed to recognize how acutely targeted trans people were, she said.
“It drives me insane,” she said. “Cis people, whether they’re gay or not, are going about their lives like it’s not that big of a deal–like it’s just another political issue, when people are going to die from this. You’re trying to get them to understand that–and even if they understand in the moment–getting them to take action on that is like pulling teeth. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope because it’s not going to stop.”
DeSantis is using the national attention on his anti-trans policies to fuel his presidential bid; he's played it as a primary reason to support him.
In June, DeSantis’s campaign shared a bizarre, anti-gay attack ad that it did not create. The ad criticized Donald Trump’s support for LGBTQ people who like Donald Trump, and it featured a dorky montage of news headlines about the anti-trans bills that roll over movie clips from American Psycho and Wolf of Wall Street, all set to soundbites of newscasters criticizing DeSantis’s laws for threatening trans existence. DeSantis defended the ad on a podcast in an interview with Tomi Lahren. At the first GOP presidential primary debate, he bragged about eliminating “gender ideology” in Florida schools. Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that DeSantis paid the former collegiate swimmer and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines nearly $12,000 for political consulting. Gaines emerged as a right-wing media figure last year, after she swam against the first trans woman to win a NCAA Division I championship in any sport.
Outside of the Governor’s office, transphobia has become a default position for Florida lawmakers, Robin said. In April, when the State House passed its bathroom ban, Rep. Webster Barnaby pledged his support and said it was “like we have mutants living among us on planet earth.” He called the trans people who spoke against the ban “demons and imps” that “parade before us and pretend that [they] are part of this world.” (He offered an apology later that week: “I would like to apologize to the trans community for referring to you as demons,” but he later tweeted that he stood by his comments and his apology.) Also in April, Rep. Randy Fine called trans health care for kids mutilation while defending the bill he cosponsored to ban it. When she testified in Tallahassee before the Senate Health Policy Committee meeting on the health care ban, Robin told lawmakers she might need to travel as far as Virginia if the bill passed. She remembered several disinterested senators scrolling on their phones as she spoke.
Robin recalled the construction sign outside Orlando, altered to read “Kill All Gays,” in early May.
“It feels like I’m being chased out,” she said. “Everything that’s happening, it makes me afraid for my life. It makes me afraid for my friends’ lives. I feel grief, just an incalculable level of grief.”
On June 9, Robin left Florida intending to reach Chicago by the 10th.
The first stop at a state-owned rest stop bathroom filled her with dread. Logically, she knew nothing had changed; nobody had even noticed her.
The bathroom bill wouldn’t kick in for three weeks, but soon police could arrest her for being there. The new level of state enforcement terrified her more than the potential for violence ever had.
Lawmakers in every state she passed through to reach Illinois–Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana–passed anti-trans legislation this year; 21 bills restricting LGBTQ rights if you count them all. She didn’t feel safe until she entered the city.
The basic rhythm of her life in Chicago is the same–she goes to work, comes home, makes dinner. She and her partner are catching up on Succession, “because we’re woefully behind,” and visiting museums.
She’s not consumed by state laws or by what her Governor said today. She smiles more. She laughs more. She’s excited to explore her neighborhood. In Florida, the stress caused daily panic attacks. For the first time in years, she’s enjoying life.
“Florida was surviving,” she said. “Here, I’m living. I could even be thriving, but I think I haven’t lived here long enough.”
Robin said she is not interested in Democratic party politics anymore–the flight from Florida changed her relationship with every level of government. Trying to change the Democratic party from the inside was, in hindsight, “not a good idea.” In her experience, the politicians who care about trans people never do well in Florida, and standard Dems are abandoning trans people because they consider the rights issue too incendiary. She had to play politics on Florida’s terms; she was almost afraid to express her distaste for the system–and for capitalism–too loudly.
After the move, Robin doesn’t feel the need to restrain herself anymore. She can wholeheartedly support the ideas she believes in and not worry as much about influencing politicians.
“I don’t believe that the Democratic party, who I spent so much of my time working with, are quote ‘the good guys,’” she said. “I don’t think I’ve believed that for a long time. I see them as people who want to uphold and keep power, but in a different way that is not abruptly fascist …All respect to the people who still think it’ll work, but I don’t think it’s gonna work.”
The pain from leaving the Artemis project is not raw like it was in May. It’s a “big change, but not particularly emotional.” Saying goodbye to Orlando, however, was hard.
Her final weeks in Florida involved a lot of dinner plans. Robin and her partner ate at all of their favorite date spots, such as Kabooki, a sushi restaurant where they went to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, and Domu, where they have cashew butter wings and the best ramen she’d ever eaten. Her boss came to their home for a quiet farewell meal, which felt like closure. Coworkers came by. They all got drunk. It was great.
“We left the door open for them visiting us in Chicago, or–” she paused. “Well, maybe not going to Florida, but them coming to Chicago. Or hanging out somewhere else maybe once every few years.”
In the first few weeks, Robin struggled with something like survivor's guilt for escaping a state where so many trans people remain trapped and struggling.
She has worked through the feeling slowly, and she is building a new, healing life with new friends. Leaving Florida feels less like a choice now and more like a banishment sentence handed down by a few people who decided she shouldn’t have health care or use bathrooms at the airport.
“I’m going to miss all my friends and family, but I want to be safe,” she said.
Still, Robin felt like she was leaving the state at the wrong time, in the middle of a big moment. She feared people would judge her, especially her activist friends, but she said they didn’t.
There were too many of those friends to invite over to her house before she left, so she planned a night to surf bars in Orlando. By the time she had to head out, the crowd ended up at the gay bar, District Dive.
“What I liked most about that evening is the party kept going,” she said. “That felt almost metaphorical, like, the world’s not ending just because I’m moving. The party is still going.”
It felt good, not great, to walk away. The bowl of pho afterward helped.