Roberto Che Espinoza had been thinking about leaving Tennessee after the 2024 election, but in June they noticed that the state attorney general was seeking medical records on gender-affirming medical care, which Espinoza, a nonbinary transgender man, said included their own records.
“Being on any kind of list … I knew after the release of those records that this is not good,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza had already been alerted to a threatening anti-LGBTQ social media post featuring their photo that they said was shared by Proud Boys, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group. Their wife, who is queer and has lived in the state for 20 years, became concerned for Espinoza’s safety.
As the political climate in Tennessee continues to worsen for LGBTQ people — and rapidly so — the couple are no longer waiting. Espinoza, an ordained Baptist clergyperson, activist and educator, and wife are leaving Nashville in August for a state on the East Coast.
“We see the toll that it’s taken on our emotional and physical and mental health and we’re terrified,” Espinoza said.
As anti-LGBTQ laws spread across Tennessee and the rest of the country, many LGBTQ people and their families are assessing whether they should move to a state with a more LGBTQ-friendly political climate. These choices can hurt the economic stability of queer people and their loved ones. But research and surveys suggest that the relocations may also harm the state and local economies that lose LGBTQ people — and benefit those that gain them. LGBTQ people and their families shared with States Newsroom that they’re relocating or considering relocating to Colorado, Virginia, California, Michigan, Washington, and Oregon, where they see better legal protections.
I think that the people that are leaving are leaving a hole in the fabric, and I’m not sure it’s going to be quite evident at first. But all of the people that I know that are moving are deeply engaged in their chosen communities.
– Kristen Chapman, a queer artist based in Nashville
Wells Fargo released a report in June on the effect LGBTQ people have on state economies. It found that real state gross product was positively correlated with higher concentrations of LGBTQ people between 2010 and 2019. This suggests state economies with higher concentrations of LGBTQ people grew faster in this period than they would have without greater proportions of LGBTQ people, authors of the report explained. Researchers suggested that this could be because LGBTQ people tend to be younger and more highly educated than the average American and are more entrepreneurial.
The researchers added: “In our view … the diversity that LGBT individuals bring to a community may help it to achieve ‘economic creativity’ and therefore stronger rates of economic growth.”
Todd Sears, CEO and co-founder of Out Leadership, an LGBTQ business advisory, said he spoke to Wells Fargo economists and said the report aligns with a lot of the research OutLeadership has done.
“It’s one, not surprising. Two, obviously having data to prove it makes the conversation a whole lot easier to have and hopefully more impactful,” he said.
Sears said that for years, economists and sociologists, such as Richard Florida, who wrote “The Rise of the Creative Class,” have said that diversity is linked to economic creativity. Sears said it may take time for states to see evidence of how anti-LGBTQ laws have impacted their economies but that the departure of LGBTQ people and their families will have an effect.
“These states are going to see all these economic consequences and start to say, wait, what do we do? Why did we do this? How did this help our state? … The impact that will have on trans youth who are the most vulnerable youth in our country is significant and it’s unfortunate that they are going to be the ones who really suffer,” he said.
At least 70 anti-LGBTQ laws were enacted this year, with 15 of those laws targeting gender-affirming care for transgender youth and seven allowing or requiring the misgendering of trans kids at school, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s May analysis of this legislation. States have also passed anti-LGBTQ bills limiting how LGBTQ people can be mentioned in school curricula and criminalizing some drag performances.
The Movement Advancement Project, which keeps record of anti-LGBTQ policies across the U.S., gave a negative policy tally to 13 states for their anti-LGBTQ policies, most of which were concentrated in the southern U.S. Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, and Montana belong to this group and Ohio, West Virginia, and Indiana had low policy tallies.
Anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence occurs across the country regardless of each state’s policies. Trans people, particularly Black trans women, are also killed in states with less hostile political climates. In July, a Michigan hair salon stated through Facebook that it refuses to serve transgender and nonbinary patrons. The Movement Advancement Project gave Michigan a fair policy tally.
Tennessee, which has a Republican governor and a legislature controlled by Republicans, enacted many anti-LGBTQ bills over the past few years, including bans on trans students playing sports on the team of their gender and on gender-affirming medical care.
A May 2023 Data for Progress survey of more than 1,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. showed that 27% of LGBTQ adults have considered leaving their state because of anti-LGBTQ legislation, particularly transgender people at 43%. Eight percent of LGBTQ people aged 18 to 24 said they’d already moved and 9% of LGBTQ people 65 years and older did. In response to Florida’s “Don’t say gay and trans” bill, 56% of LGBTQ parents had considered moving out of the state and 16% already had taken steps to move out of Florida, according to a June 2023 report from the University of California, Los Angeles’ Williams Institute.
Kristen Chapman, a queer artist based in Nashville is planning on leaving Nashville at the end of this month to ensure that her 15 year-old transgender daughter can continue receiving gender-affirming care. Chapman is relocating to Virginia. She said she thinks Nashville will be impacted by the loss of creative labor and healthcare industry workers.
“I think that the people that are leaving are leaving a hole in the fabric and I’m not sure it’s going to be quite evident at first,” she said. “But all of the people that I know that are moving are deeply engaged in their chosen communities. They’re not people who isolate and they’re also all creative, particularly here in Nashville where the livelihood of the city depends on creative labor.”
John Cooper, the mayor of Nashville, tweeted in 2021 that he was concerned about the “threat” that anti-LGBTQ bills “pose to the community and economy.”
When it comes to her family’s economic stability, Chapman said there are still many unknowns.
“I’m interviewing for jobs right now. I’m in that you jump off a cliff and you hope the net appears kind of situation,” she said.
Relocating for a future
Zofia Zagalsky, a 25 year-old trans woman, is a student at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. She said she’s considering leaving the state after she finishes her graduate program. She’s not sure where she’d go, but said California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Wisconsin are among the possibilities.
“The dead honest truth is I’ve never wanted to leave Tennessee,” she said. “This is my home. This is where I was born. This is where I’ve learned to live my life. That’s where I was raised … I love Tennessee.”
But the discrimination against and harassment of LGBTQ people is stressful, she said.
“I hear constantly people wanting to leave, people wanting to get out, because nobody wants to live like that. Nobody wants to age themselves faster because they have to listen to people screaming at them,” she said.
Katie Laird, whose son Noah is transgender, moved some of the family out of Texas to Colorado a year ago for a less hostile political environment. Her husband still has to live in Texas for work, but she is able to do her work as a consultant for nonprofits and civic organizations from Colorado. Dual city living has caused financial strain but she said Noah is thriving there. Laird said that she’s seen more visible representation of LGBTQ people in the workplace.
“The fact that he can have these very visible examples of trans people, queer people, non-binary people in the workforce, whether it’s at the doctor’s office, at the DMV, like him being able to witness everyday people living their everyday lives…even that has helped boost his hope for his future,” she said.
She said Noah, who is 16, has thought about working in healthcare.
Many LGBTQ people States Newsroom spoke to are confident that states have lost something from their departure. MD Sitzes, communications manager for Equality Ohio, said they and their wife moved to Ohio in 2020 partly to be closer to Sitzes’ mother, whom Sitzes had reconciled with after she forced Sitzes to move out as a teen. Since their mother is a person with paraplegia, it was easier for their young children to see her if they lived nearby, Sitzes said. But the anti-LGBTQ climate in Ohio became too intense for the family to continue living there, they said. Sitzes said that at one point, they were contemplating suicide for the first time since they were in their early 20s. The family moved out of Ohio last year and lived in Portugal for a while before moving to the Bay area. They said that Ohio and other states are losing economically when they encourage homogeneity.
“[Diversity] brings perspective and the loss of that perspective is so damaging for the economy,” Sitzes said. “When people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to move there and then they’re not going to send their kids there … I know that diversity brings creativity. I know that it builds a stronger economy because I’ve lived in those economies and worked in those economies.”