No one at the warehouse in Florida knows Hayden is a trans woman. It’s best they don’t.

To stay hidden, she binds her chest. She doesn’t flinch when they say violent things like, “If I found out anyone here was transgender, I’d take them out back and shoot them,” or, “If I found out my boyfriend hooked up with a trans woman, you’d find him hanging from a light pole the next morning.” She doesn’t say anything when they ask her opinion. 

An androgynous dresser most comfortable in Dickies work pants, trail-runners, and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut, Hayden’s dark brown hair falls to her shoulders. For all her present terror, the 25-year-old laughs easily and punctuates her bleak stories with humor. 

The warehouse job is a weekend affliction that helps pay for the nursing program she started this year to fulfill an aspiration of becoming the queer, trans provider she never had. 

Her greatest desire is to help those around her, but right now, she needs help to escape an environment that has grown more threatening in recent months, a change stoked by the record number of anti-trans laws chasing her from her home state.

In the coming months, those laws would profoundly change her life, pushing her to travel across states for hormones and forcing her to make an impossible choice between securing her own safety and being there for a loved one. 

In Hayden’s life, transphobia has crept into once safe places. High school classmates, once live-and-let-live types, now post on Facebook about trans women invading public bathrooms to prey on their wives and children. Even the people who expressed admiration and support for her transition in 2021 seem to be backing away slowly now that she is visibly trans.

Her friends with money or children have already left for blue states. At the end of 2022, two trans friends with a child moved to Minnesota in anticipation of any laws that could affect their custody rights. They gently advised Hayden to do the same.  This summer, after Hayden waved farewell to another couple of friends headed north, someone altered an electronic roadway sign in nearby Lake Nona to read “Kill All Gays.” At school, she is the only trans student she knows of. Her health care–and any threats to it–haven’t come up in classes. 

At the beginning of 2023, she was not paying close attention to the Florida State Legislature, but she was already planning to leave the state in three years after earning a degree. 

Those plans changed one Saturday night in March, when eight or nine friends texted her a link to a video clip of Daily Wire columnist Michael Knowles onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, calling for the eradication of “transgenderism” from public life. 

She felt her guts shift. The casual talks with her partner about leaving the state became urgent and serious. Waiting to finish school felt senseless.

She started reading the 14 laws Florida lawmakers introduced this session and was horrified. Under the Safety in Private Spaces Act, she could not safely use the women’s restroom at her school. Another law prohibited nurse practitioners from prescribing hormones to trans adults and drastically increased liability for doctors who can, which would cause her to lose her access to gender-affirming care. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed both bills into law in May, along with another that allowed for providers to decline care that conflicts with their beliefs and for insurance companies to do the same. 

The death of Robert Eades from ovarian cancer came to mind, she said. More than a dozen doctors worried that treating Eads could damage their reputations, and his cancer had progressed too far before he located a willing doctor (his struggle and death were documented in the award-winning 2001 film Southern Comfort). Hayden would later tell me several people in her life had gotten sick and died from cancer. 

Altogether, it wasn’t the laws themselves but the sheer number of them that scared Hayden the most, the rush to legislate her life. 

“I know my history,” she said. “As with any type of oppression of an entire group of people, it starts with super small stuff: denying people health care, putting them in unsafe living conditions. It always starts with, “Oh, here’s this group of people that’s so infinitesimally small that no one could care what’s happening to them.”

After watching the Knowles clip, Hayden and her partner drew up a firm plan to flee. Colleges in Minnesota looked promising. The nursing programs were good, and the survivalist in her liked the abundance of fresh water and the proximity to a national border. If she could work out the transfer credits, she could get there in 10 months. But her stock of hormones would only last her six months while she searched for a doctor.

The couple started a GoFundMe to help pay for the move, and it took off on Twitter. It was fully funded within hours. She believes that viral luck is the sole reason she’s getting out.

“A lot of trans Floridians, their story isn’t going to end like mine,” she said. “They’re going to need health care here, and they’re not going to be able to receive it.”

A month later in June, Hayden spoke to me on Zoom from her bed, exhausted from taking four classes, working the warehouse job, planning the move, and stress-induced insomnia. 

She’d also been wrestling with demeaning discourse from some of her allies in the trans rights movement. She’d settled on a school in Minneapolis and felt ready to go, but she hated the way out-of-state allies denigrated southern states in general, when total conservative control of state politics was the problem. To her face people told her the country would be better off if Florida fell into the ocean, along with all the hillbillies who live there. 

Those hillbillies happen to have raised her; she knows what an above ground pool smells like, she said. And, in fact, Florida has–or had–the second-largest population of transgender people in the country: An estimated 94,000 residents, according to a population-based survey from the Williams Institute, a think-tank at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

The sentiment reeked of ignorance, and her dad was proof. Picture a stereotypical redneck, and that’s him, she said grinning. The short, beefy biker from Louisiana who wasn’t afraid to go chest to chest with anyone who harassed his daughter–at restaurants, the gun range, wherever–was a bigot in his youth.

“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve–he was fully that guy,” she said. “He was the full package. Racist, homophobic, transphobic, all of it.”

The caricatures he believed fell away after moving to Florida, where he started working with gay people and people of color. When she came out to him at 18, he was fighting for the same people he’d hated a decade prior. 

He was not a perfect father when she was young. Hayden escaped the home as soon as she could, and he didn’t handle her taking hormones well, but he proudly introduces her as his daughter now. After years of estrangement, they talk once a week. 

As they talked about the laws two weeks ago, he sat aghast on his computer, reading the links she'd read about them. He suggested fleeing the state before she even raised the prospect. 

“I want to ease him into this,” she said. “But as recently as last week, I was saying I'm thinking about Minnesota and I've got a school lined up, and I'm starting to sell stuff off. And he was like, ‘Yeah, please, please. Your safety is number one, like, even if that means I can't reach you as easily.”

Though she defends the state’s honor, and though some of her trans friends feel betrayed and abandoned, Hayden believes an exodus from Florida represents the safest option for her and for all trans people. She’s no good to anyone living in a place where she always has to look over her shoulder. 

She anticipates a need for northern safe houses for people fleeing Florida next year and the years after, and she intends to rent a two-bedroom in Minneapolis to aid others. 

“I want to look back in 20 years and be proud of what I was doing,” she said. “Taking care of myself is a sensible thing to do–and then getting myself into a stable place and offering–if only temporarily–safe harbor from all this is something I’m proud to do.”

In August, Hayden was about to mark her second anniversary of starting hormones, but every local brick-and-mortar clinic she could find had paused or eliminated gender-affirming care.

The search to find a provider to prescribe meds proved unfruitful. An endocrinologist she’d been referred to and had called three months ago still hadn’t responded with an appointment time. 

At this point, the only people she knew with hormones were an ex-girlfriend who had the money and foresight to get an estrogen implant, which can last up to 400 days, and her friend from high school, who was working off his own back-stock of testosterone.

Hayden, once busy calling colleges, was busy ringing up potential providers in bordering states such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. The closest place she could find was in Asheville, North Carolina, a seven-hour drive away. She considered the possibility of procuring estrogen illegally, but she wanted to receive her medicine above-board, as she always had, and she was willing to work for that.

“I thought this nightmare was over, but I’m right back to where I started,” she texted. “I can’t get out of Florida soon enough to avoid potentially being forcibly detransitioned.” 

Over the phone, she walked through her plan to avoid that fate, which involved careful rationing of her last two vials of estrogen. If she reduced her already low weekly dose by .05 milliliters per injection–from 0.15 to 0.1–she could stretch the medication for an additional month into December.

When trans women stop taking feminizing hormones, the discombobulating effects are similar to the hot flashes and night sweats that cisgender women experience during drops in estrogen levels triggered by menopause. As testosterone floods the system, facial hair can resume growth and fat redistributed to the hips and face can melt away, a disturbing prospect. 

Hayden figured the nominal reduction in estrogen wouldn’t cause a significant backslide like a total stoppage could. With no medical provider to consult about this decision, she read medical research to evaluate the safety. She wasn’t going to school for nothing, she said; with the help of Florida Republicans, she became her own first patient.

She considered seeking care through the telehealth service Plume, but it stopped taking new patients in Florida for trans care. Even if that were an option, she’d have to contend with local pharmacists, like the one she fought with to release her last supply of meds in May. 

Before the tech could slide the filled bags of estrogen and spironolactone–a testosterone blocker that’s also commonly prescribed for acne–across the counter, the middle-aged pharmacist stopped her. He launched into a tirade, saying that he didn’t agree with her lifestyle and, given the laws, didn’t want to pick sides or get embroiled in a legal case. 

Hayden was stunned–friends that recently left Florida told her stories like this, but she didn’t believe them. Though Gov. DeSantis had not yet signed the medical conscience law, it did apply to pharmacists, and she suspected the man knew that.

“I was like, ‘Dude, we don’t even know if that shit is law yet,’” she said. “‘You can deny me care if you want and I’ll just get this shit sent to another pharmacy. But right now, you face no repercussions for providing me this medicine–and it is probably the last round of my meds that I’m going to be able to get.’”

The pharmacist relented. The tech, looking embarrassed, handed her the medicine. 

Negative encounters like that have become more common this year, Hayden said. The most aggressive confrontations have taken place on the bus, which she takes to and from class. Like misbehaving children, several men have pulled at her hair from behind. One man tried to cut her hair with a pair of workman’s shears. A man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat once stood up and blurted something about DeSantis getting rid of the “transgendered.”

This is why she carries a knife she shouldn’t carry. This is why she sleeps with a (safely stored) gun. 

Given the energy in Florida, a long drive to North Carolina seemed like the most reasonable option. 

In September, Hayden sounded winded on the phone. The fourteen-hour round-trip to Asheville disrupted her normal rhythms, which were already disrupted thanks to a new warehouse shift Friday nights after school. Oh, and her father was diagnosed with cancer and will probably die, she added in a casual tone. 

She grew up expecting something bad like that to happen. Her father’s tenuous health was an open subject in her childhood, and it takes no medical training to know that a man who relies on 12 stents to hold open his arteries could drop dead of a seventh heart attack at any moment, even if he is just 56 years old.  

Though the news didn’t resonate the day he told her about his prognosis, she was nonfunctional the week after. In her youth, the two had no connection. But now that he’s “working on not being an asshole,” he’s dying.

“I'm really worried that I'm going to move up north and that's when he's going to go,” she said. “It feels stupid now, after everything.”

If he were anybody else, she’d find comfort in the prospect of treatment. But his fragile heart condition makes doctors worry that chemotherapy or radiation could kill him. Her life was moving so fast and so chaotically that she described her father’s mortal illness blandly as “par for the course.” Something good had to happen soon, she hoped aloud. 

That good thing wasn’t North Carolina, at least not initially. 

Astoundingly, though she saw a doctor who wrote a prescription, Hayden did not return from Asheville with two vials of estrogen. The pharmacy was out of stock, and she was due back in class before the shipment could arrive the next day. Because of Florida’s new laws, the Asheville pharmacists and provider had no idea if they could legally send the script down south.

The uncertainty was soul crushing. She thought she’d prepared for everything before she embarked on the journey. On her initial phone call to the clinic, she read from an overly detailed, handwritten page of her own medical record complete with dosages, the date of her last script, allergies–anything potentially relevant for patient intake. In the margins of the paper, she’d scribbled every consideration: How would she transport the medication home? What would happen if the provider couldn’t see her or prescribe her meds? 

She took the page to the appointment, which was on a Tuesday, which meant she and her partner would leave late Monday night, after class. (The appointment caused her to miss two classes, and one professor who was aware of her plight docked her grade for the absence.)

At about 2 am the night they left, they stopped at a gas station in North Carolina. In the car, Hayden tied up her hair to make her appear as masculine as possible and entered the men’s restroom; not her first choice, but the safer option to avoid hostility. A man walked into the restroom and jumped when he saw her. He shuffled into the stall, muttering about “trannies.”

In the morning, Hayden and her partner hiked to a waterfall. She remembered feeling the spray as she ventured down to the rocks near the base. The force of water and air was so powerful it nearly knocked off her hat. She removed the tie binding her hair and it fell.

“It was the first time that whole trip I wasn't thinking about anything, the first time my mind was just blank,” she said. “It seems to do that every time I’m in nature.”

Hayden expected picketers and screaming outside the clinic, but it was unnervingly quiet. A trans person handled her intake, the first trans medical worker of any kind ever to treat her. What her care required was not a mystery to anyone in this clinic, an example of the treatment she wanted to come standard in the future. 

She could feel her presence made an impression on the staff, as if she made real the punishing power of Florida’s laws. As she explained why she’d come, going so far as to read portions of the health care ban aloud, she said the nurse practitioner buried her head in her hands, saying she had no clue. In North Carolina, legislators have banned hormones and puberty blockers for youth, but they had not yet touched adult access to gender-affirming care. 

The nurse practitioner, unsure of what could happen if she sent the script to Florida, sent it to a local pharmacy that would not have estrogen until the next day. They told her they’d send it to Florida, but it hadn’t arrived a week after she’d returned from her trip. Hayden was unsure why. Her last vial of estrogen would run out in early December. 

“I still don’t have my estrogen in hand,” she said. “I can fucking feel it on my fingertips and I can’t reach it.”

During the appointment, she learned her full prescribed dose was half of what she should be taking at this stage of her transition. Even so, she won’t take the increased dose until she’s safely out of Florida. More medicine meant more time, the most valuable resource she had. All the bodily changes she’d desperately wanted could wait a little longer.  

The Asheville ordeal and the revelation of her father’s cancer sank her into a torpor. A swirling anxiety kept her from sleep. Having the meds will help alleviate some stress, but that problem somewhat paled in comparison to the murky path ahead. After spending a significant chunk of her life trying and failing to leave Florida for good, she was now standing at the precipice and feeling unprepared to jump. 

While resolute in her decision, she’s prone to fits of self-doubt. After all, she was only able to leave because of the generosity of hundreds of people. I reminded her that running from legislation wasn’t exactly a privilege.

“Privilege to be an internal refugee,” she joked. “I love it.”

Her home and the company of her partner provide a sanctuary for her to cultivate “the little flickering lights” of remaining joy in her life, she said. Little escapist things kept her sane, like watching every Muppet movie with her partner, and rewatching Arcane, an animated series set in the fictional League of Legends game universe, a show she promised was better than it sounded. They select more shows with queer characters, something they didn’t used to care about before the anti-trans laws started coming down. For three amazing nights, the two immersed themselves in the world of Stray, a video game about a cat lost in a decaying cybercity. With the chaos of the world outside, they try to maintain a predictable schedule and a regular dinnertime. 

“I feel young and incredibly ancient, and beaten down at the same time” she said. “I know that when I get there, I still want to help people. I haven’t lost sight of that–I just want to take a really fucking long nap and maybe, for a minute, forget that any of this happened.”

Boxing is helping her process those feelings. It’s the first combat sport she’s tried, and the pummeling is burning off excess emotional energy. Exerting herself as much as possible without injury, she’s honed her body obsessively with a five-day-per-week routine to steel her core muscles. A lot of her world was internal now, she said. 

In an ideal situation, she’d be flourishing in this second year of her transition. She rarely finds moments to appreciate her body for becoming what she needs it to be, but she still finds herself marveling at a transformation so few people will ever experience reverberating through every cell in her body. On a call, she gushed about emerging love handles. She’d do herself a great disservice if she allowed rage to swallow her up.

“The one thing that the people who hate us, whether they are just random people on the street, or politicians pushing these laws–the one thing they don’t want us to do is start liking ourselves,” she said. 

“Finding beauty in the trans experience is a direct act of defiance in the face of every person in every system of power that actively tries to suppress us,” she added. “I think that this whole situation has been as much about finding that joy, where I can be about learning to love myself in the middle of all this, as it has been about surviving.”

On Halloween, Hayden texted to say she got her vial after weeks of trying. 

On a call the week before Thanksgiving, she said she did not travel to North Carolina for it. Her provider sent the script to Florida–and while the pharmacist could’ve said no, this time they didn’t. 

She wanted to dance like a schoolgirl, even in front of six strangers. She didn’t, but she hadn’t felt so excited for anything in a long time.

The bag remained unopened until she arrived home, when she began her thorough examination, checking if the seal was broken, if the dose was incorrect, if the medicine was expired, expecting a last hiccup. Everything was correct. For two days she didn’t believe it was real.

“It went right, for once,” she said. “I feel more at ease, I have more real estate to think about other shit.”

She’ll be able to stretch the medication until March. If she leaves the state on schedule, then she’ll be okay. It may be a pain in the ass to run around trying to find medication in the middle of a move in a brand new city, but she feels like she can handle anything.

As she reveled in her own tenacity, her dad started having trouble remembering things. A week ago, Hayden and her partner drove out to Orlando to see him. Wanting to do some “yee-haw shit” before they left, they stopped at Gatorland, a theme park where you can zip-line over gators, shine lights on gators at night, watch gators eat, and pet the small ones.

They met her dad for dinner at a steakhouse, and sitting there with a gun on his hip, she could tell he didn’t know who or where he was.

In a moment alone, while her partner was in the bathroom, she mentioned offhand how she’d lost her access to hormones in the state. They’d talked about the same thing two days ago, and from the way he looked at her, he didn't even know she was taking hormones. 

“The law DeSantis passed,” she reminded him. 

“Oh yeah,” he replied.

“Your memory is going, huh?” she said. 

“Yeah,” he said. “It feels like I’m becoming less and less capable of doing anything on my own.” 

“Well, you can’t have that gun on you if you’ve been forgetting things,” she said. 

“I’m not that fucking old,” he shot back.

Hayden said he’ll need full-time care pretty soon, and she’s not going to be around to help her stepmother, who has a full-time job. 

As for her own future, she sees a sizable living space in the north country. It doesn’t have to be a pretty, comfy house as she’d prefer–an apartment is fine, as long as she has her partner and their dogs to share it with. She’ll have enough money from nursing to afford boxing lessons and gardening tools. She imagines a couple places she can find a community. She wants to bust out for Pride events, to feel the same electricity in the air as she felt before the pandemic, to feel that peace wash over her in the crowd. Picturing herself, she wants to feel like she’s an asset to the people around her, and to get to a point where it’s safe to exist and not feel like a freak, where her transness is an afterthought. Where life is about expansion, love, and compassion. 

And she wants an in-unit washer and dryer, goddamnit.