When Grayson Cowan came out as transgender in 2015, when he was around 12, his parents were supportive. The family of five, who were living in the Phoenix area at the time, sought and found a community of like-minded peers for support.
But the family became uncomfortable with a political environment in Arizona that at times felt hostile to their beliefs, or even their existence. A neighbor offered them a pamphlet on conversion therapy; Grayson switched schools several times because of bullying.
When an opportunity emerged for the family to move in 2021, the Cowans sought out a place that would be welcoming for all their children. They landed in Boulder County. The kids marveled at the “love is love” signs and the rainbow flags that seemed to be everywhere — even adorning churches.
“It was a whole different culture. We knew this was the place we wanted to be,” said Amanda Cowan, Grayson’s mother. On his first day of school, Grayson connected with gender queer friends. Their neighbors have been welcoming. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive.”
Months after they left, Doug Ducey, then governor of Arizona, signed one law that restricts trans students from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity, and another that limits minors’ access to gender-affirming care.
“I’m so glad we moved when we did,” Cowan said.
A trickle of legislation becomes a torrent
In the past few years, what was initially a trickle of legislation restricting the rights of transgender children and their families has become a torrent. During just the current state legislative sessions, state lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 400 bills nationwide that the American Civil Liberties Union considers to be anti-LGTBQ. They include bills that take aim at gender-affirming care for young people, transgender children’s participation in sports, and their access to bathrooms and books.
Newly passed laws include restrictions on transition-related medical care for minors in Tennessee, South Dakota, Mississippi and Utah. The laws contradict guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups.
Colorado appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Democratic lawmakers recently unveiled legislation intended to protect access to gender-affirming care, as well as abortion, from out-of-state threats. A bill introduced by Republican lawmakers, which would have banned students from participating in sports teams that didn’t correspond with their sex assigned at birth, failed easily in the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature.
Colorado’s anti-discrimination policies and access to care have already made it a refuge for some families who feel targeted elsewhere. A place that was once boycotted as the “Hate State” for its anti-LGBTQIA+ policies has become a bright spot on the map for the families of transgender children who are seeking care and safety.
“We have a tendency to talk about the negative side of this, but the beauty of this community—there’s so much love and joy and connection,” said Nadine Bridges, executive director of One Colorado, an organization that advocates for LGBTQIA+ equality. “There are a lot of folks in community who are doing wonderful things—check-ins, get-togethers, making sure our young people are seeing positive messages and kindness.”
On vacation, Bridges ran into another family who had just moved from Texas to Colorado for more or less the same reasons the Cowans did, and have found the difference to be “night and day.”
At the same time, though, transgender young people and their families in Colorado say they’re unsettled by the rhetoric that has propped up the wave of anti-trans laws in other states. The talking points that paint health care providers and parents of transgender children as child abusers, and transgender people as threats, have impacts here, too.
“The national rhetoric has trickled down to all states,” Bridges said. She pointed to the Archdiocese of Denver’s memorandum to Catholic schools guiding them not to accept transgender students or teachers as one example of local harm. The firing of a librarian in Weld County after she planned programs that taught LGBTQIA+ history to teens was another, Bridges said.
It trickles down in other ways too, families say. Brittany lives in Denver with her husband and two kids. Her 6-year-old daughter Naomi loves My Little Pony comic books, her little sister and making art with markers and scrap paper. Brittany says she thinks a lot about how she will talk to Naomi, who is transgender, as she gets older.
“To have to explain to her that some people hate her for simply being who she is, for simply existing—it’s heartbreaking,” says Brittany, who asked to use only her first name to protect her family’s privacy. “Our kids aren’t a threat to anyone.”
In the short term, Brittany worries about traveling to other states. In Texas, where some of her relatives live, Gov. Greg Abbott last year directed child welfare agencies to investigate the parents of some transgender children for child abuse. In the long term, she thinks about the limits that might be placed on her daughter when she reaches adulthood, in terms of where she can study, live and work.
For some children who are old enough to pay attention, the current climate is a source of anxiety. Even within the state, they perceive some places to be safer than others.
“The Boulder bubble is real,” said Grayson, who lives in it.
The November 2022 mass shooting at Club Q, a former sanctuary for LGBTQIA+ young people in Colorado Springs, was a reminder of the risk of violent attacks targeting trans people.
Leslie is the mother of two non-binary kids. Like Brittany, she only wanted her first name used in order to protect her family’s privacy. Leslie said the uptick in anti-trans rhetoric nationally has contributed to a hum of fear and anxiety that accompanies her 16-year-old.
“They’re constantly worried about being hate-crimed wherever they go,” said Leslie of her teenage child. “Whenever there’s an attack on trans kids, my kiddo tends to globalize it.”
A few years ago, the family went on a road trip from Colorado to Maine. Leslie’s older child was terrified to get out of the car to use the bathroom.
“At the time, they were 14,” Leslie said. And yet they had received the message that “they are a target, enough to think, ‘Someone at a Cabela’s in Ohio might jump out and grab me.’”
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Some transgender young people say they consider state and local policies and overall safety — both outside of the state and within it — when they are making plans for travel, school or relocation in the future.
Sammy Berman, a junior at Northfield High School in Denver, is a cross-country runner and a strong student. When they think about applying to colleges next year, the policies and environment for non-binary students like them is top of mind. Brigham Young University in Utah is out, despite its strong running program; the institution came under federal investigation last year for its policies toward LGBTQIA+ students. Colorado College in Colorado Springs is a question mark.
“Colorado College is known to be LGBTQ-inclusive,” Sammy said. “But it’s also in Colorado Springs, and after [the shooting at] Club Q, I don’t know if I would want to go there.”
Parents of transgender children in Colorado are taking stock of local environments in their job decisions, too.
Leah, the mother of a non-binary 9-year-old in Denver, said she was recently contacted by a recruiter about a job in Georgia, where legislators are advancing a bill that would restrict gender-affirming care for minors. It was a nonstarter, she said.
“I cannot live in a place where I could be charged with a felony for giving my kid the care they need,” said Leah, who asked that her last name not be shared because of her child’s privacy concerns. “I hope employers are taking note.”
A panic about health care
Colorado families also say that a national panic about transition-related health care, in particular, is fueling misinformation and suspicion in their communities, even from people who might otherwise be supportive.
Brittany, the mother of kindergartener Naomi, said she was asked by an acquaintance at a recent birthday party whether her daughter had had gender-affirming surgery.
“Surgery? For a 6-year-old? No!” she said. “I was so surprised.”
For young children like Brittany’s daughter, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents support children who want to transition socially; it’s mostly about hair, clothes, names and pronouns, in other words.
In some cases, misinformation can be traced directly to Republican lawmakers who are seeking support for their causes.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis falsely asserted last year, for instance, that “they are literally chopping off the private parts of young kids.” DeSantis signed a law last year that bans Florida schools from teaching young kids about gender identity and sexual orientation; opponents called it “Don’t Say Gay or Trans.” Republican lawmakers in the state have recently introduced bills that would expand that law, limit transition-related care for minors, and even provide for courts to take emergency custody of children “at risk of” receiving gender-affirming care, even if they live in other states.
Many transgender young people don’t seek medical treatment, or have any plans to. For 16-year-old Sammy, for instance, transitioning meant the ability to look and dress as they like and use they/them pronouns.
“It was so uncomfortable not being myself, and knowing that the perceptions that people had of me were wrong was so frustrating and painful,” Sammy said. Coming out “felt so freeing. Really incredible.”
For some children who experience gender dysphoria — defined as significant distress related to a gender identity that is different than a person’s sex assigned at birth—physicians recommend puberty blockers. That medication is typically prescribed at the age of 10 or 12 in order to delay the onset of secondary sex characteristics like breasts or a protruding Adam’s apple. Hormone therapy like estrogen or testosterone is sometimes prescribed to teenagers. Gender-affirming surgeries are typically reserved for adults, though some case-by-case exceptions are made for older teens.
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An investigation by the national news agency Reuters found that fewer than 1,400 children nationwide started puberty blockers in 2021. Around 4,200 minors started hormone therapy. Fewer than 300 received “top surgery” or breast removal, and genital surgeries were much less common.
Transgender young people, their families and advocates say the decision to seek medical treatment is a complex one, and access can be difficult. It often involves multiple assessments, care for other mental and physical health issues and consideration of side effects. In Colorado and elsewhere, families have to navigate lengthy wait lists and sometimes considerable travel time to access gender-affirming care.
“We didn’t go in on a Monday and get testosterone on a Tuesday,” Cowan said of her family’s experience seeking care for Grayson in Phoenix. Their insurance covered a lot of the medical treatment Grayson eventually received, but that isn’t always the case. “We definitely recognized that we were lucky.”
Grayson, who is now 17, said that people who don’t know transgender children don’t understand the hoops they have to jump through to get gender-affirming care, or how it affects them when access is under threat. Ahead of the 2020 election, the teenager started stockpiling expired vials of testosterone in fear that he might be deprived of it.
The top surgery he had in Phoenix was later banned.
“When you’re in the state where your rights are in play, you start to realize how little control you have over your body, as a child,” Grayson said. He’s glad to be growing up. “I’m about to turn 18, so I’m about to age out of this danger zone, where you’re constantly at risk of losing your access to health care, your access to sports, your access to bathrooms.”
Leslie said the gender-affirming care that her child has received in Colorado has been critical to their well-being.
“We are extremely grateful knowing we can address their dysphoria,” Leslie said. “If we were in Texas or Tennessee, we would probably be in the camp of a family that had to move.”
Still, families express concern that the disappearance of care options in other states could threaten access here and make wait times longer for care that is often time-sensitive. Some providers that provide transition-related care for children in Colorado have stopped publicizing it, which could make it harder for families to access care when they need it.
Rep. Brianna Titone, a Democrat who represents Jefferson County in the state legislature, is co-sponsoring a bill aimed at shielding providers of gender-affirming care and their patients from being criminally charged or otherwise penalized by laws restricting care in other states.
The surge of anti-trans policies is a concern for Coloradans on a number of levels, said Titone, who is the state’s first openly transgender legislator.
“Just because we have good policies here in Colorado doesn’t mean that people feel safe seeing these policies pass in other states,” she said in an interview. “There are just so many [such policies] right now, and some of them are just really, really egregiously dangerous.”
Titone said she personally worries about having to travel to other states where she couldn’t use the bathroom, and about anti-drag legislation so broadly written that it could be interpreted as banning transgender people from existing publicly. “There’s a lot of nervous anxiety about this wave of hateful stuff that is coming down now,” she said. “Where is it going to stop?”
That’s particularly true as civil rights for transgender people face threats on the federal level as well, said Titone. “A lot of people understand that the final say is the Supreme Court.”
Trans kids are finding political voice
For Sammy Berman, all of this is a reason to raise their voice. In February, the high school cross-country runner testified against the Colorado legislation that would have restricted transgender students from playing on teams that align with their gender identity.
“Trans kids should have the right to participate in school sports as who they are,” they told the committee.
There aren’t that many opportunities for transgender and non-binary students to play sports and be welcomed doing it. As a result, according to a Human Rights Campaign Foundation report Berman cited for the committee, only 12% to 14% of transgender and gender-expansive youth participate in sports, compared with 68% of youth in general.
“This statistic is devastating, because this means that so many trans and gender-expansive youth miss out on the incredible experience of participating in school sports,” the high schooler told legislators.
Sammy said they specifically sought out cross country because the boys and girls are on the same team; most other sports don’t work like that. Their coaches and teammates were supportive when Sammy came out, creating an environment for them to thrive, build friendships, persevere and work towards goals.
“When you run as a team, you are all working really, really hard together for months on end,” Sammy said. “And then you do something great.”
They’d like to see their activism accomplish similar goals.
Grayson is now a senior in high school. He’s busy with classes and with drum line, a winter marching band activity that only includes percussion.
Moving here was a huge relief, he said. Nobody has called him an anti-queer slur since moving here; he used to hear them every day. Nobody bothers him when he uses the bathroom; he used to get intrusive questions every day.
“If I hadn’t left Arizona when I did, I don’t think I would have survived high school,” Grayson said.
At the same time, he feels guilty for the queer friends he left behind, especially the ones who don’t have supportive families — which was most of them, he said. And he feels jealous of his queer friends who grew up here, surrounded by support, with the space to grow, explore their identities and be kids without being thrown into survival mode.
“While moving here comes with a lot of happiness and a lot of celebration, it also comes with a lot of grief,” Grayson said. “You spend so long being traumatized, in the dark, and then you learn that you could have been on this side the whole time.”
Freelance reporter Kristin Jones wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and also funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on March 20, 2023, and can be read in Spanish at collective.coloradotrust.org/es.