Isobel described Austin, Texas as the kind of city where everyone always talks about leaving. After spending most of her life there, she’d considered a change of scenery, too, but now didn’t feel like the time.
Her once long-distance partner, Chenoah, had moved to Austin from Vermont a little more than a year ago, and they shared a one-bedroom house with barely enough room for two people. Isobel had her eye on a grad school. It was a charmed life, she said.
On Saturday, March 4, 2023, Isobel and Chenoah were fixing a flat bike tire on their way to a party when men hollered transphobic slurs from a passing pickup truck.
They brushed off the harassment, but a realization struck Isobel after they arrived at the gathering. She and Chenoah were the only trans people there.
Most of her trans friends, who would have been at the party, had since moved away to cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other coastal cities with vibrant queer scenes and unaffordable apartments. The trans people of color in Isobel’s life left first, followed by her white trans friends. Texas politics, which were never exactly welcoming, had become inhospitable for all of them in the last 18 months.
As Isobel pondered this realization, hundreds of miles away, in National Harbor, Maryland, conservative commentator Michael Knowles began to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“There can be no middle ground in dealing with transgenderism,” the Daily Wire commentator said to a smattering of applause. “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
Isobel saw the clip on Twitter a few hours later as she removed her makeup in the bathroom mirror. She walked into her bedroom and threw herself on the bed, the pressure bursting inside her. She stared at the ceiling for hours; sometimes crying, sometimes thinking about Weimar-era Germany, a liberal period after World War I before the country fell to fascism in the early 1930s. It’s not a perfect analogy at all, she said, but it made her consider how in her lifetime the United States had grown more accepting of trans and queer people.
That period seemed to be coming to a scary end, she thought. It wasn’t just the video–Texas lawmakers went all-in on trans issues this year. Before the session ended, they introduced 66 bills to limit trans health care, participation in schools sports, and civil rights.
“My 2015 to 2020 were fucking great,” she said. “I got harassed. I got cat-called. I have had friends be assaulted for being trans, I’ve been threatened for being trans, but overall I felt safe and I felt comfortable, even in Texas… We got to have ten really beautiful years and, like, the party’s over.”
Isobel doesn’t remember if she or Chenoah brought up Knowles’s speech the next morning, but there was no debate over what they’d do next.
“We were like, ‘Okay, well, grad school doesn’t fucking matter anymore,” she said. “That was the moment where it switched from having something to go toward to having something to get away from.”
Two months later, the couple started a GoFundMe to raise funds for a move to Portland, Oregon, writing that “with the continued anti-trans legislation being proposed in Texas, this move needs to happen now.”
They estimated the journey would cost $8,000, an amount they couldn’t pay for on their own. Isobel worked manufacturing and operations at a home goods business and made a fluctuating income of about $1,300 a month, and Chenoah manages two chronic illnesses–Type 1 diabetes and debilitating migraines. These fatiguing conditions make consistent, full-time work difficult for them. In March, they had recently left a rewarding social work job for a clothing boutique because of the former’s demands on their body.
When The Stranger spoke to Isobel in May, her fundraiser was on target, thanks to a few minorly Twitter-famous friends who shared a link. The listed donations range from $500 to $5. Isobel said the latter contributions likely came from broke people just like her.
In the trans community, fundraising serves as a common salve for the economic reality of trans life. Even when trans people don’t have much to give, there’s an ethos to give what they can, because they know they may be in the same situation someday soon.
“When I'm on Tumblr, when I'm on Twitter, I see mutual aid posts come across my dash—whenever I can, I give like five bucks or whatever,” she said. “For most of us, that's all we have. We have each other and that's it.”
Numerous studies show a web of factors best summed up as social discrimination result in higher poverty rates for queer people compared to cis, heterosexual people; within the queer community, those rates vary widely when accounting for factors like race, age, and, in Chenoah’s case, disability, according to data collected by the Williams Institute, a think-tank at the University of California in Los Angeles.
So it’s no surprise when, to escape the tidal wave of more than 500 anti-trans bills crashing on the United States, transgender people turn to the same crowdsource funding platforms they've used to afford transition-related medical care and to survive personal catastrophes. But Isobel is still surprised that people have chosen to help her.
“When it's other people, it's like, yeah, of course, why wouldn't I? I got five bucks,” she said. “But then I see a $5 donation from a name that neither me nor my partner recognizes. It's like, why would anyone give us $5?”
The exact number of fundraisers started by transgender people and their families in the United States is unknown, but statistics from GoFundMe show a dramatic year-over-year increase of fundraisers in states that passed anti-trans legislation in 2023.
In Missouri, which passed laws including a ban on gender-affirming care for children and teens, there was a 225% increase in transgender and LGBTQ-related fundraisers in the first half of 2023 compared to the first half of 2022. Texas saw a 245% surge in fundraisers during the same period.
In Florida, GoFundMe recorded an astounding 1,725% increase in fundraisers in the first half of this year compared to 2022, according to the company.
Not every single one of these fundraisers covers moving costs, but the dramatic increase in fundraisers coincides with the rise of anti-trans laws. A simple Google search reveals hundreds of desperate fundraisers just like Isobel’s, many of which have not come close to reaching their goal.
The controversial trans policies Texas lawmakers introduced this session brought hundreds to mass protests at the Capitol Building. Two weeks before Isobel first spoke to The Stranger, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers had arrested one LGBTQ+ rights activist and forcibly removed others protesting the most severe anti-trans bill passed in the state this session, a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.
During the tumult from the laws, Isobel began to experience a new level of hostility on the street, from dirty looks to street harassment. One night, men on bikes tailed her for six blocks on a bike ride home.
The general public can understand the effect of these laws–her life would certainly be harder without hormones. But they don’t understand that the intensity of this debate changes her daily experience in the world, even in a blue city like Austin. She worries the rhetoric and focus on the trans community will inspire violence.
“I’m not worried about the legislators,” she said. “I’m worried about the dude two blocks over from me, who has all sorts of MAGA shit all over his car. The laws affect me and do real harm to my people. But I’m scared of being personally assaulted by a stranger who sees the trans flag on my house.”
Still, the laws are severe.
Senate Bill 14 went into effect in September despite a legal challenge from the ACLU of Texas and other advocacy groups on behalf of families and doctors. The law bans the use of puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy to treat trans children. Any doctors who provide this care to minors could have their license revoked. Unlike a similar trans health care ban in Florida, no trans children already on hormones can be grandfathered into continued treatment.
The Legislature also passed a book ban, House Bill 900, that requires book-sellers to rate the sexual content in books sold to schools. Under the law, libraries cannot purchase books the sellers rated as “sexually explicit.” A Federal judge blocked the law.
“So many of the titles that are getting brought down by this particular law are ones that have to do—especially with gender identity—but LGBTQ identities as a whole,” said Ash Hall, the policy and advocacy strategist on LGBTQIA+ rights for the ACLU of Texas.
Senate Bill 17, which takes effect Jan 1, bans mandatory diversity training on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and it requires all public colleges and universities to close their offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Researchers at two conservative think-tanks–The Manhattan Institute and The Goldwater Institute–inspired the model language for the bill. Failed 2018 Seattle City Council candidate Chris Rufo, the conservative activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, co-authored the model language.
In response to the law’s passage, the University of Houston shut down its LGBTQ center this past summer, and the social media pages for Texas Tech’s Office of LGBTQ Education & Engagement have disappeared or gone silent.
“People are so eager to not get in trouble with the Legislature and with the State that we're seeing the effects now,” Hall said. “The thing that's maybe a silver lining is Rice University, which is private, they're opening up their center and their resources to pretty much all students in the area who have lost their resources.”
Still languishing in the appeals process is a directive from Texas Governor Greg Abbott to investigate the parents of trans children for child abuse. A lawsuit from the ACLU and Lambda Legal, filed on behalf of the parents of trans children, resulted in a temporary federal injunction. The lawsuit outlined potential harms, including the story of a 16-year-old trans boy who attempted suicide the day Gov. Abbott issued the directive.
There is no current legal challenge to Senate Bill 15, a bill that banned trans athletes from competing on collegiate sports teams, building upon last year’s ban on transgender children in high school sports.
Before this year, Isobel wasn’t one to let transness encumber her daily life. She performed spoken word pieces once a month and regularly visited a local climbing gym. She hung out with a large group of friends built over three decades of living in mostly the same place–there was always somewhere to go and someone to see.
She started making excuses to stay in a few months ago. Sometimes, she knew right away fear was guiding those decisions, but other times she wouldn’t realize it was a factor until hours later, watching a movie at home. This week she plans to remove the trans pride patch from the back of her favorite jacket and then stitch it on the front.
“If anyone happens to react negatively to it, at least they’re facing me,” she said.
Isobel wants to make the most of Austin while she still can. She’s written a bucket list of everything she’d like to do with Chenoah before their move, such as seeing a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse and swimming at Barton Springs, a three-acre public springwater pool with topless sunbathers and freezing cold water. She loved camping at Pedernales Falls State Park in the hill country, and wanted to share the experience with Chenoah. After thirty years here, she still hasn’t seen the million-and-a-half Mexican free-tailed bats fly from underneath the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge into the sunset. The smile in her voice fades as she reaches the end of the list, weighed down by what she describes as a profound heaviness since launching this plan into action with the GoFundMe.
“I don’t want to fucking do this, or, should I say, I don’t want to have to do this,” she said. “When you’ve been in a city for a long time, you don’t think about how many little moments make up your love for it–how many different places and people there are that make up your relationship to it.”
Isobel dropped out of high school at 17 after unsuccessfully coming out as trans to her family. Like most Americans, her well-intentioned parents had little to no awareness of trans people, and they were unwilling to let their child change her name or take hormones.
After stepping back into the closet, she floated through the next decade in a cognitive haze. She developed a drug addiction to numb the emotional pain of living an existence that felt wrong on a molecular level, and she worked odd jobs or didn’t work. Even after she got sober, her life seemed “absent of meaning.” When she came out as trans again at 27, she reconnected with friends she hadn’t spoken to in ten years, and she ran into others on the street who did not recognize her. A future seemed possible for the first time.
“It is the year that divides who I am now, to the past self,” Isobel said.
The final donations toward their goal came from Isobel’s aunt and a security guard from Argentina who saw Isobel playing the Pokémon clone Cassette Beasts on a stream with her friends. The guard is now a regular viewer.
Isobel wanted to share the news with Chenoah in person, but they, of course, already knew when Isobel returned home a little before midnight. Chenoah is a planner, the kind of person who is all packed a week before a weekend trip. Isobel is the spontaneous type, who would rather arrange a place to stay after her plane landed–an approach that works, but not well, she acknowledged.
The $8,000 they raised was more money than they’d ever had at one time, apart from a small inheritance Isobel received in her early 20s. It felt almost scary to have the life-changing sum so far in advance, because it could vanish easily if something bad were to happen, Isobel said.
“I know from being someone who’s regularly behind on our bills, it’s actually not that much money,” she said. “It’s that weird duality that you’re forced to confront. This isn’t ‘fuck you’ money.”
As it would turn out, a bad thing did happen. Isobel needed emergency dental work after chipping a tooth on a popcorn kernel. A day later she developed an intense pain in her wrist and elbow. She couldn’t do her job with one hand. After six weeks of physical therapy, she could cook and clean again, but she only made around $500 during that time–barely enough to cover her needs, and hundreds short of the rent and electricity bill. They had no option but to take from their GoFundMe and reassess how cheaply they could move.
Isobel and Chenoah were no longer looking for a Portland apartment for two, as they’d convinced their friend Liz to come with them. Until the move, she stayed on Isobel’s couch in a cozy house for two. There’s little elbow room, but Isobel doesn’t mind–her favorite-ever living situation was a three-bedroom punk house with six roommates.
“That’s why people make communities, right?” she said. “There’s more people to take the slack when someone stumbles and someone falls. It took away a piece of the fear I didn’t really know I was experiencing… For people like us, stability is really hard to come by.”
On Independence Day, Isobel instead celebrated her friend Damon’s birthday with a spirited roman candle fight in the backyard. She didn’t think about leaving until the end of the party. In bed that night, a quiet grief washed over her as she stared at the ceiling again.
“It ceases to be this fun adventure when you think about it as displacement, ya know?” she said.
When I call Isobel again, we’re in the same time zone. She’s three hours south in Portland, OR, living in an apartment still littered with boxes.
Her new neighborhood in Southeast Portland is somewhat dangerous–the other night, the cops came knocking to ask about a murder in the area–but the neighbors are nice and the city is a hell of a lot less hostile than Texas. The “background radiation” of transphobia is nearly undetectable here, Isobel said. A dykey trans woman with tattooed arms and a punk vest just doesn’t raise eyebrows in Portland. No more dirty looks, not even when dressed in black-and-white ghost makeup for a screening of 1963’s The Haunting.
“On the street, in the theater, like at no point did anyone give us a second look,” she said. “It’s just easier.”
Isobel has started graduate school, and she is paying $600 a month for tuition on a payment plan at Reed College. Money is still scarce, though. A grant to fund a long-distance position at Isobel’s old job fell through, but living in Portland is less expensive than she feared.
“There were a couple of times when money got really, really tight,” she said in October. “We have experienced a little food insecurity, but like that shit happened in Austin all the time. There are resources here that I feel like I have access to you know–Reed has a food pantry. So my financial situation is worse than it was in Austin and also it's cheaper.”
Back in Austin, Isobel never did see the bats fly out from underneath the bridge. In fact, most of Isobel's bucket list went unchecked. The injuries to her hand and teeth, and a lack of time and money made activities like camping impractical, and actually doing everything one last time would’ve made the reality of leaving home seem more present, a feeling she avoided when possible. When a bat landed on a tree at her going-away party, she called it even.
Her friend gifted her a copy of Slacker on VHS, and they screened it on a borrowed projector: it's not just the ultimate Richard Linklater movie, it’s the ultimate Austin movie, too, about one day from the vantage point of the city’s weirdos and 30-something bohemians.
After the movie, Isobel and her friends stepped outside to paint a spare piece of ply taken from the climbing wall Isobel had constructed and then later scrapped. She’s going to slap on a coat of varnish on it before hanging the panel on her new living room wall.
The move to Portland cost them $5,000 more than they’d first budgeted, and it all felt like it was going to all fall apart until the last moment.
One week before leaving, Isobel attended a grand opening of We Luv Video, a collective effort to resurrect beloved video store I Luv Video as a nonprofit after the store closed during the pandemic.
Walking the aisles, she recognized DVDs that snapped her right back to the lockdown era, when she concocted a far-from-complete and impossible plan to watch all 120,000 films in the library–one of many things she’d never do in Austin. She ran out of the store and sat on the sidewalk to cry. When Chenoah came to comfort her, Isobel asked, “What if we didn’t go?”
Two days before the drive, the starter of their Nissan Cube, nicknamed Tiffany, began failing, only kicking the engine every third try or so. Roommate Liz took a plane to Seattle.
Tiffany’s front driver's-side tire blew on I-10, 50 miles from anywhere but closest to Fort Stockton. The tire didn’t fit in the cabin, packed deep with luggage and rabbits, so they ditched it on the side of the road and limped on a spare to a garage, its front window decorated with a Thin Blue Line decal and the name of every Dallas Cowboys quarterback since 1960.
An hour later, the mechanic called to say tires need wheels, so the next morning they rented a car with broken AC for $70 from a man who confoundingly called Austin the “Saudi Arabia of Texas” and fetched it from the brown grass off an access road, dancing and singing all the way back to Fort Stockton in a 105 degree dry heat. The empty motel refused to extend their stay for two hours, so they paid for the night and left at 3 pm.
As Chenoah pulled out of the motel parking lot, Isobel read the acceptance letter to Reed College in her inbox. She’s searched herself for signs of regret and hasn’t found any.
Two days after they arrived in Portland, Tiffany died, but Isobel got her running again.