She was supposed to be at a party, but instead she was in her pajamas, texting friends and eating Chinese takeout at the Holiday Inn Express in Brooklyn, NY, feeling completely overwhelmed. 

Despite her success in cultivating a thriving online social life as a trans woman, she had little experience being queer in public. After a year of medical transition, she still hadn’t worn a dress or skirt outside of her apartment. Earlier that afternoon, she'd struggled to apply makeup she’d purchased at Sephora, and the thought of immersing herself in a crowd of experienced New York queers totally immobilized her, a woman effervescent enough to name herself Bumblebee.

One day, she would be ready. But not tonight, and that was okay–this trip was not for fun. She had to escape her home state of Texas, where Republicans introduced a record 66 anti-LGBTQ bills this year. 

She had always loved New York, but a rock musical–Lisa Stephen Friday’s autobiographical Trans Am–sold her on moving to the city. Friday’s live-streamed performance from Joe’s Pub in Manhattan reignited her giddy infatuation with the city that comes with being a forever theater kid and a Broadway lover. Plus, she already knew people in New York City, including some trans friends who uplifted her during the tumultuous, awkward days of her early transition, people who did what her largely absent family could not. 

The infectiously optimistic 32-year-old had a talent for making friends and an overly positive social media presence that attracted them. She’s fearless about dropping into someone’s direct messages, which is how she ended up at lunch with Friday and got an invite to the queer bash she couldn’t bring herself to attend. 

“The fact that you could just meet somebody, and they’ll be like, ‘You need to meet this person, then you need to meet this person’—I’m not used to that,” she said. 

Despite her trepidation, the morning after the party, she wore a dress in public for the first time, black with a celestial pattern, and walked to the subway. She discovered that the hem rode up when she sat on the plastic seats, and that men might follow her out the sliding doors. 

She had the quintessential New York experience–$2 pizza, a singalong at a gay piano bar, a drunk subway trip home, and a final panicked realization at JFK Airport that her ticket read “LaGuardia.” 

But after some reflection, the city didn’t live up to the fantasy.

The trip yielded nothing but the knowledge that putting all her eggs in a New York basket could result in failure. Some New York friends flaked on plans or were more inconsiderate in person. The apartments she saw filled before she could even apply.  By her own admission, she didn’t know how to coordinate a big move. In many ways, she was flying on instruments.

The farthest she’d traveled from Austin on her own was Stephenville, TX, more than a two-hour drive north, to study for a semester at Tarleton University and to chase a failed relationship with her first serious girlfriend. When she limped home from another more damaging relationship at 23, her parents sent her to a man-up wilderness excursion camp in St. George, Utah, run by ex-military Mormons who took rich, washed-up deadbeat boys on desert camping trips, a comically poor fit for a dysphoric and depressed transgender woman in the closet with a serial monogamy problem and no real plan.

She drifted on until realizing at 30 that transition was the only way to alleviate her misery; seeing a trans friend in Austin living happily was the final push she needed. She lost friends and most of an already distant family, but she found happiness the moment she started living authentically. 

Not so long after that, Texas began passing laws restricting trans rights. 

She hadn’t given up on New York, but with no apartment prospects, she’d expanded her options to Seattle and Chicago, ruling out sprawly LA. She’d already begun networking in those cities on social media, trying to get a feel for the community without making another pricey trip. She said she would leave as soon as she snagged an apartment in whichever city sounded nice. Given the state politics, she hoped that would be soon.

In 2023, Texas Republicans introduced 66 anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ bills. The four that passed empowered the state to wean every trans kid in Texas off their hormones or puberty blockers and revoke their doctors’ licenses if they continue treatment. They prohibited school libraries from purchasing “sexually explicit” books, a vague definition that could be applied to any book with queer characters and subject matter. One law required public colleges and universities to dismantle all offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which led to the University of Houston closing its LGBTQ resource center. A 2022 directive from Gov. Greg Abbott to begin investigating families with trans children for child abuse is tied up in the appeals process, but the Texas Department of Children and Family Services opened nine investigations before the courts stepped in.

None of these laws prevent Bumblebee from accessing her medical care or using public facilities, but like many trans adults, she doesn’t think Republicans will stop–or want to stop–their campaign at regulating children’s health care. 

Seven states including Texas have passed laws that bar state-funded Medicaid from covering various trans-related procedures and treatments. In Missouri, Attorney General Andrew Bailey attempted to implement strict barriers on all trans care with consumer protection laws. Terry Schilling, president of the far-right American Principles Project, told the New York Times that his push for youth bans was a precursor to their end-goal of eliminating transition care. Michael Knowles, from a stage at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, called for the elimination of “transgenderism” from public life entirely. Ahead of the next legislative session, South Carolina Republicans introduced a bill that would ban youth care, criminalize trans people for using the bathroom, and restrict Medicaid coverage of trans care to people above the age of 26.

Considering these worrying precedents and political unknowns, Bumblebee felt she had limited time to exit the state safely. Like thousands of other people fleeing anti-trans legislation, she crowdfunded a move she couldn’t otherwise afford. Her vast network of online friends showed her the ropes of campaigning. She raised a few thousand dollars, enough to cover an immediate and expensive New York move that provided a vital financial bridge while she searched for apartments in other cities. She said she would have been stuck in Texas without that money.

In the midst of a national migration, trans people are competing for limited resources. According to GoFundMe, the number of LGBTQ-related fundraisers has shot up in states that introduced anti-trans bills this year. In Texas, people started 245% more LGBTQ-related GoFundMes in the first half of 2023 compared to the first half of 2022.

Many of the trans people Bumblebee knows in Austin are committed to staying and fighting the legislation. Even if she felt safe in that fight, she has little motivation to stay and many reasons to leave, beyond the laws.

At this point, she only speaks to a few friends she knew from before her transition. Rachel, who lives in St. Louis, and the ex-girlfriend she continued living with after the two broke up just as the pandemic hit. Staying together as friends saved money. 

As for her family, Bumblebee felt she never belonged with them.

Her father, a former anesthesiologist who went into private practice, lost interest in their relationship when she was in high school, around the time she thinks he noticed her feminine behavior. As a child, he encouraged her love of animatronics. Together, they built a bird they programmed with audio from Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. He still doesn’t know Bumblebee is trans. She still texts her mother, but their relationship is clumsy. “They always looked at me as a defective product,” she said.

Despite her and her brother both being adopted from different families at birth, he never struggled to maintain a relationship with their parents. In their eyes, she was the rudderless kid they sent to a nature camp who became a trans woman they didn’t understand, while he was the weed-selling high school troublemaker turned military man. She’s only met his two children once, and her divorced parents, who are now grandparents, are wild about them. The family continues to grow without her to witness it.

The identity of Bumblebee’s birth parents has always been secret. In her early twenties, she fantasized about meeting her biological family, hoping some natural connection could explain the disconnection she experiences with her adoptive parents. She learned their names during a fight with her mother and came to regret learning the truth. Her father was troubled; her mother was not a nice person. She liked her biological brother best, and they see one another sometimes. But there was no revelation. Her brother gets along with his biological family. 

Bumblebee’s uncle, an influential punk rock musician, is the only truly supportive family she has. Her love of Weird Al, Evil Dead, and punk music all came from him. But he’s busy with music and a program where he helps people maintain their sobriety.

In the months of waiting to find a city, concerned friends would confront Bumblebee about living too online, but the diligent networking serves as her insurance. Over the years, her experiences have taught her that “family” is not the people she’s related to but the people who show up. 

With total sincerity, she told me that The Muppets introduced her to a workable model of a chosen family at a young age, teaching her that you can find love and comfort in an odd group that just wants to see one another succeed. 

“I have people in my life who have pushed me. Supported me. Helped me. Motivated me in order to make this move happen. They tell me it's okay on the rough days,” she said. 

In October, Bumblebee said she was moving to Philadelphia–a city she hadn’t mentioned during our calls before–in less than 20 days. It was a weird accident.

Philadelphia hadn’t been on her radar at all until a summer fling, who was another trans woman in Austin, suggested they could leave Texas for Philly together. She wasn’t particularly excited about the idea until she started to notice the similarities with New York, like piano bars and cabaret. She hopped on Lex, a personals app that evolved into a community bulletin board (and an open diary for those who push the monthly posting limit), to peruse ads in Philadelphia and noticed there were plenty of transplants. 

The relationship and the plans fizzled after a couple months, but the idea stuck in her head. It was a day-trip from New York, but it was less overwhelming. She thought she could either love it, or it could be a stepping stone to NYC if she could build up a tolerance to the city. Girlfriend or not, she was moving there, and she had a solid plan by October.

That month she secured an apartment with another trans woman, sharing one quadrant of a Victorian row home in West Philly for exactly $726 a month. She had a job lined up working security for a mutual aid collective that runs queer dance parties. Her friend Rachel agreed to drive from her home in St. Louis to help transport Bumblebee and her things to Philadelphia, free of charge. Bumblebee had to stuff everything she owned into seven feet of space between the backseat and the trunk. She was gleeful.

“I have never been to Philly–I have no idea what I’m moving into, but I know what my room looks like,” she said, describing a windowless room with the bottom of a staircase lopping off the top right corner of the closet ceiling.

She started chatting with people online and getting advice about living there, mostly warnings to not date too many people too fast. The size of the city is deceiving; everybody knows everybody, she’s been told. (If that’s true, all she wants to be known for is her positive attitude, she said.)

With the move imminent, she started stepping out in Austin more, taking practice runs for Philly. She attended a lesbian party wearing the same celestial dress she wore in New York. She met someone. They kissed and more. She started having a good time, but she was ready to finally go. 

Safety was still a big concern, as was the threat of even harsher laws, but knowing the precise date she planned to leave Texas for good was a tremendous relief.

“For me, coming out as trans was such a big fucking life deal, especially with my relationship with my family and them not being super accepting,” she said. “In my previous life, I was such a socialite–meeting a lot of people and making a lot of connections. Anywhere I go, I feel like I’m always running into people who knew me pre-transition… I might sound a little less scared right now because I have a place and I have arrived. I’m getting out of here. I don’t have to be scared right now.”

The Bass Pro Shop Pyramid in Memphis made the move feel real.

In November, Rachel arrived to find a panicked Bumblebee loaded up with more stuff than could fit into a minivan. Even after ordering Bumblebee around like a drill sergeant, the packing took hours and they had to ditch the futon she slept on. In exchange, they listened to Rachel’s hockey podcasts, hockey games, and hockey YouTube videos the whole way there. (She’s in a fantasy league.)

After stopping in Greenville, Texas for the night, they crossed into Arkansas. Rolling over the Mississippi into Tennessee and then seeing that gleaming glass pyramid felt cathartic. When they finally arrived in Philly, it only took an hour to load out. Bumblebee was alone and intimidated by her surroundings.

From her apartment in Philadelphia two weeks later, Bumblebee said she believed she’d made a horrible mistake at first. The job fell through; living in a congested urban space spiked her nervous system. Used to big skies and wide open spaces, the tightly packed neighborhood felt claustrophobic with its row homes jutting from the street and shops and bodegas on every corner. But after a few days, the relief set in. 

She did not miss Texas.

Before leaving, she came out to her dad over Tex-Mex at Eldorado Cafe. All he said was that Republicans don’t really care if you’re whatever, as long as you don’t try to come up and kiss us in bars and try to teach kids about trans stuff–they didn’t need to hear it. He deadnamed and misgendered her for the remainder of the conversation. The last thing he did was hand her a parting gift of $200. It was hard. She doesn’t think she’ll ever see him again.

Her mom, who corrects herself when she says the wrong name or pronouns, bought Bumblebee a mattress when she found out the futon didn’t fit in the car. They won’t ever talk much, but Bumblebee said she knows her mom doesn’t want her to fail. She loves her; she doesn’t want to lose her.

As she transitioned and grew more sure of herself, the ex-girlfriend she lived with started to want a relationship with Bumblebee again, but she wasn’t interested and had already begun distancing herself as she focused on her future outside Texas. It ended with a painful ungluing, and Bumblebee is still trying to figure out what role they’ll play in each other's lives from now on. There was a reason they knew each other for seven years, she said.

She’s still learning to navigate her new, cramped home in West Philadelphia. To catch her breath, she hangs out in Center City. The skyscrapers and wide streets are familiar.

Searching for a job when she expected one is stressful, but she is just happy being out of Texas. She said she gets hit on a lot and she’s enjoying the attention.

“It’s a whole different world,” she said. “I haven’t been able to stress about anything–I’m always having some fun new experiences.”

Over the phone, she tells me that she’ll be late for a date if she doesn’t get ready. We hung up. A few days later she told me the date went great except for one snafu–the woman’s puppy had chewed her driver’s license to pieces. 

Securing a replacement would prove to be a hassle with no mail from her current address, and she’d need ID to find a job. But like everything that’s happened this year, she was able to laugh it off, telling me that these sorts of situations make her more of a cat person. 

Besides, a new ID with a new photo in a new state, like this new life, will hopefully be a better fit.