In Fargo, North Dakota, a group of transgender people are plotting their escape from the state’s anti-trans laws.
“Everyone is really scared right now. A lot of us are afraid of getting our rights or identities ripped away,” Zara Crystal, 20, said of the slate of anti-trans bills proposed in North Dakota this year. “I want to help as many people as I can.”
Crystal is part of the newly formed nonprofit TRANSport, a group which aims to help transgender people leave the United States and relocate to more LGBT-friendly nations. The nonprofit aims to aid trans people with their transitions, as well as provide advice and financial support for those who wish to move abroad.
Crystal herself plans to move to Sweden, but not before devoting the next two years to helping other trans people in North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota who are looking for a way out. Although the group is only a few months old, they’ve received interest from about 30 people, according to VICE. The group’s founder, Rynn Azerial Willgohs, 50, told VICE she is considering seeking asylum in Iceland.
For Crystal and Willgohs their home state of North Dakota is leading the way so far this year for anti-LGBT legislation, and may become the first state to pass a bill limiting transgender rights in 2023.
Last year’s legislative season saw a record-breaking number of anti-LGBT bills filed across the country, many aimed at restricting the lives of trans youth. But 2023 is shaping up to be even worse for trans rights, with over 100 anti-trans bills already filed across 23 states so far, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker.
In North Dakota at least seven anti-transgender rights bills are currently proposed, according to the Transformation Projects, which give an insight into the kind of legislation conservatives will be pushing this year. These include a bill that would prevent transgender girls in public schools from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity, two bills that would ban gender-affirming medical care for minors, and another that prohibits books about “gender identity” in public libraries.
One piece of proposed legislation most worrying Crystal is an anti-drag show House bill that would make it a crime for “male or female impersonators” to perform “within the line of vision of someone under eighteen.” Although the bill does not explicitly mention trans people, it’s wording is vague enough that Crystal believes it could be used to prosecute trans people for simply existing in public spaces.
“If we are caught out dancing in public, or we are accused of dancing in public, or just being in public in general, there could be serious consequences,” she says. “Some of us could be charged with sex crimes. That could be the end of a lot of people’s lives.”
North Dakota’s state house, which has a Republican supermajority, passed a bill last week that mandates that birth certificates in the state must record an infant’s sex as male or female, and defines sex as “organs, chromosomes, and hormone profile present at birth.” The bill will now continue to the Senate.
Bills restricting changes to birth certificates can have serious consequences for transgender people, says researcher Erin Reed, who tracks anti-trans legislation on her blog.
“This bill on its face would essentially write discrimination into state law in North Dakota,” she says.
The bill would prevent transgender people born in the state from ever having documents that match their gender, leading to issues every time they are asked to present it.
“They’ll find that their birth certificate is the one thing they can’t change,” Reed says.
There have been flickers of hope for the North Dakota LGBT community. A Senate bill that would have forced government employees, including teachers, to misgender trans people, or face a fine of $1,500 for using their correct pronouns, did not pass out of committee. However, the chair indicated similar bills are coming.
“I am glad to see its recommendation, but the larger committee discussion still involves the ‘rights’ of people not to call others by their preferred pronouns,” said Kristin Nelson, co-founder of Fargo-based Project RAI, an organization that supports queer and trans youth and their families.
While this bill has been defeated for now, there is more legislation proposed in the state Senate that would prohibit government entities from requiring their employees to use individual’s “preferred pronouns” and ban public schools from adopting any policy or classroom “recognizing expressed gender.”
“It’s a dark space right now here in North Dakota. And we’re trying to take it day by day,” Nelson says.
The slate of anti-trans bills proposed in North Dakota are not outliers, says Reed. Many Republican-majority state houses are pursuing similar legislation. Tennessee has already enacted a restrictive birth certificate law like the one under discussion in North Dakota, and lawmakers have also proposed another to ban gender-affirming health care for minors. Similar bills are proposed in Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina.
Bills banning gender-affirming health care are dangerous for children who are receiving treatment, Reed says, as it forces them to stop immediately and undergo rapid medical detransitioning.
And states are not only targeting health care for transgender youth. A Senate bill filed in Oklahoma takes aim at transgender adults, aiming to ban health-care providers from giving gender-affirming care to individuals up to the age of 26.
“We knew 2023 was going to be bad. What we didn’t expect, and what surprised me a little bit, was that the anti-trans candidates didn’t sweep. They didn’t have a good election,” says Reed. “And yet they’ve doubled down during the legislative cycle.”
Nelson agrees, saying the volume of testimony from conservative areas of North Dakota submitted in opposition to anti-trans bills shows that this legislation lacks support in the state.
“Greater North Dakota does not believe these things,” Nelson says. “This is not who we are.”
On Tuesday night, Crystal, Nelson and other transgender, queer people, and allies gathered at a community event organized by Project RAI, held at a local Fargo synagogue.
Crystal gave a speech about how the local LGBT community can respond to “negative legislation” permeating in state government.
“There are 13 of these bills. Each one of them attacking a different part of queer life,” she said. “They are attempting to erase this out of the public space and they are attempting a hands-off approach at ending queer life by means of forcing us to suicide.”
Crystal encouraged members of the community to figure out ways to leave the state or country, if necessary.
“I’m here to ask only that you hold up your fellow community members. Whether you’re a queer person, an ally or even just questioning—you need to hold up the community in this time of need,” Crystal said.
A queer middle schooler spoke up about his experiences, Nelson said.
“His message was that he’s not a scary person, that he’s a really good person if you get to know him,” Nelson says. “That kid moved the room to tears, everyone was crying.”
She wonders how Republican lawmakers, like her local representative Jonathan Casper, can support bills targeting trans youth. She says she thinks that must have never met a young transgender person.
“If you did, creating bills like this against them, I just think you wouldn’t be able to do it,” Nelson says.