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People may be moving to Florida in droves, but Troy Liggett and his husband are dreaming of fleeing.
The Sunshine State they’ve called home since 2016 isn’t so sunny anymore, the Fort Lauderdale attorney says. Liggett, an Indiana native, and husband Marco Hernandez, a nurse from Texas, moved to South Florida knowing they’d find a warm welcome from the gay-friendly community.
Now, seven years later, the state government has them not feeling so welcome, Liggett says. And they’re not the only ones.
A lesbian couple he knows has already picked up and moved to Cleveland, mainly to escape from the “crazy, oppressive laws” embraced by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is currently on the campaign trail seeking higher office as president of the free world.
It was DeSantis, a darling of the far right, who coined the phrase “Florida is where woke goes to die.” DeSantis has riled the LGBTQ community with his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and what some consider a politically-motivated attack on drag queens, transgender athletes and transition-related medical care for minors.
Several new state laws affecting the LGBTQ community took effect on July 1.
Doctors can deny care based on their moral, ethical and religious beliefs. Children are now barred from going to drag shows. The use of preferred pronouns is banned in public schools. Another law already in effect forbids gender-affirming health care for transgender minors under 18. That law was recently blocked by a federal judge.
“They say the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill (which bars lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation in K-12 public schools) is about parental rights, but it’s clearly not,” Liggett said. “They’re not trying to protect anybody. They’re trying to shame and oppress people. They’re trying to make people feel unwelcome. It’s clear they don’t want us here, so why should we stay?”
In May, the gay rights advocacy group Equality Florida joined the NAACP and a Latino civil rights organization in issuing travel advisories for Florida warning potential tourists that recent laws and policies championed by DeSantis and state lawmakers are “openly hostile” toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Florida’s burgeoning reputation as a red state has not halted the flow of humanity moving here.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census, Florida ranks No. 1 in total net migration, a number that takes into account how many people are moving in to a state and how many are moving out. Between July 2021 and July 2022, close to 444,500 people moved to Florida and more than 154,700 left during the same time frame.
Florida had an LGBTQ population of 886,000 in 2020, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. Of those, an estimated 95,000 are transgender adults.
No one can say how many of those leaving the state are making their exit due to the perceived crackdown on LGBTQ rights. But activists say they have plenty of anecdotal evidence.
Blue wave, red wave
Many transgender residents have already left, says Lakey Love, founder of the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation.
“We have around 100 members,” Love told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “In the last two years, we’ve lost over half. They’ve already left or they’re on the way out.” Love, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, also fled Florida after receiving death threats.
Love and their partner left Tallahassee for North Carolina in February.
“They smashed the window of my car and destroyed property at my home four times,” Love said. “It got to the point where we were waiting for a Molotov cocktail to come flying through our window.”
Love says they moved to North Carolina because it’s more affordable than transgender-friendly states like California, Oregon, Washington and Vermont.
“The most progressive states are also going to be the most expensive,” Love said. “We have some people going to states that are not sanctuary states but have satellite areas within the state. Others are going where they have family or friends or a welcoming community.”
Not everyone is sad to see LGBTQ residents go.
Former DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, who is now working on his presidential campaign, tweeted a waving hand emoji in response to a survey indicating LGBTQ families are leaving the state.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, the city’s first openly gay mayor, knows people who are saying farewell to Florida once and for all. But he wishes they’d stay.
“I can understand why people would feel threatened,” Trantalis said. “But this is not the time to leave Florida. This is the time to organize and fight back against discriminatory practices being put into law. We need to hang tight and fight for change. Running away is not going to solve the problem.”
Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Steve Glassman, a retired teacher who moved from New York to Florida in 1994 with his husband, says he too tries to talk people into staying.
“If you leave, then they win,” Glassman said. “The goal is to erase us, to make us go away. If you do that, you’ve given them what they wanted.”
‘Race to the bottom’
Glassman has railed from the dais about new state laws he says unnecessarily target the LGBTQ and minority communities.
“Florida is in a race to the bottom and we’re leading, along with Texas,” he said. “But there are quite a few that are in that race with us. What we’re really witnessing today is Anita Bryant on steroids. We thought that was over. Diversity, equity and inclusion are bad words in Florida now. I watched all of that in the 1970s with Anita Bryant. And we grew up and we learned from it. And now the leaders in our state are trying to bring us back to that.”
The political divide splitting America between red and blue states does have people looking to move to a place where they will find people and laws who are culturally and politically aligned, said Charles Zelden, a political science professor at Nova Southeastern University.
A similar phenomenon took place when Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation following the Civil War. The laws marginalized Black Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs and get an education. Those who tried to defy Jim Crow laws — many of which stayed on the books until 1968 — faced arrest, fines and sometimes fatal violence.
“Black residents were leaving states to get away from Jim Crow laws,” Zelden said. “People will leave when they don’t feel welcome. Others try and fight and try to change society to the way they want it to be.”
Today, leaders in some states oppose the rise of marriage equality and minority rights and women’s rights.
“A portion of society is saying, ‘We don’t like this,’” Zelden said. “And therefore we will do what we can using the power of the law to change things back to the way things were back in the 1950s. These fights are not going to go away anytime in the near future. But who wins is a question of motivation. It’s really a question of who shows up at the next election and the elections after that. It’s a process of defining America.”
Marc Paige and his husband have called Fort Lauderdale home for 20 years. But they’ll soon be saying goodbye.
“We sold our house,” Paige said. “We are moving Sunday or Monday. It’s bittersweet. We’re leaving behind a lot of people we love. But I’m excited to live in a state where people of color, where Jews, gay people, trans people are valued. And there’s a governor there who welcomes us.”
Paige and his husband are close friends with four other couples who are also leaving Florida in the dust.
“They are all leaving within the next two months for Delaware,” he said. “They have roots there and I have roots in New England. We’re going back to our roots, to a safer place, to a place where the state doesn’t come up with more ways to insult us and marginalize us. We’re running away from the Christian nationalists who are running Florida now. I salute those who are staying and fighting. But I’m 65 years old. I’ve done this fight before. I don’t need the negativity. And I’m sure DeSantis is very happy people like me are leaving.”
Cindy Goyette and wife Michelle Lach are selling their Fort Lauderdale home and moving to a new home in Baltimore.
Goyette ticked off the reasons Florida has lost its appeal, including the skyrocketing hike in the cost of living, hurricane threats, high water bills and maddening gridlock. But at the top of the list was the state’s darkening political climate. It’s hard to ignore the unwelcome mat plunked down for an already vulnerable LGBTQ community.
“The level of hatred coming out of leaders’ mouths and the animosity directed toward anyone who is not a white Anglo Saxon male is disturbing,” Goyette said. “Everyone I speak to knows someone who is leaving Florida.”
Goyette and her wife, both private chefs ready to retire, settled on Baltimore.
“We wanted a big city with good food, good museums, professional sports, excellent health care,” Goyette said. “And we wanted to be in a blue state. People like to live among people who are like them, whether it’s your ethnicity or race. People tend to flock to an area when it’s welcoming.”
Not going anywhere
Political activist Carvelle Estriplet, a trans woman who lives in Wilton Manors, says she isn’t going anywhere.
“I am staying,” said Estriplet, a deputy director with the LGBTQ political club Dolphin Democrats. “I’m staying because I want to change this attitude. I’m staying here and I’m standing up for our rights in this state. We’re not going to be bullied by a governor with all these hateful laws. It’s not just LGBTQ. It’s also immigrants. It’s draconian. I’m not going to be run out of town.”
But Estriplet says she has friends who are heading to what they consider kinder, gentler states.
“I’ve heard people say they’re just going to find a blue state,” she said. “Massachusetts and Vermont. Liberal states. We’re backsliding, reversing in time. It seems like we’re going backward to the 1950s. Rebirth of bigotry.”
Todd Delmay, President of the Dolphin Democrats, says he isn’t about to leave his home in Hollywood, where he lives with his husband and son. But he understands why some might want to get out now.
“I think everybody has to make a decision for themselves,” Delmay said. “It can be scary in the moment. But there’s hope to be found in the people who are staying. And there’s hope to be found in the losses at the courts. There’s always a little bit of hope. We’ve made a life for ourselves in Hollywood. This is our home. This is our home. We just keep fighting.”
Liggett and his husband are done fighting. They’ve already traveled to Vermont three times in search of a new home.
“I feel like the laws of Florida are stacked against us,” he said. “It’s so oppressive, you can’t win.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan