Anya Zoledziowski Vice January 10, 2023
Rynn Azerial Willgohs, a 50-year-old transgender woman, has been rapidly researching ways to flee the United States. She’s from the U.S., but with physical attacks against transgender and nonbinary people on the rise and lawmakers targeting transgender people with increasingly draconian legislation that criminalizes their very existence, Willgohs is worried.
The national landscape, accompanied by some of her own personal experiences, has made a future in the U.S. feel untenable for Willgohs. In March 2021, when Willgohs had just started her transition, she was traveling across the state for work when she decided to stop at a public bathroom. A man followed her inside and pushed her up against a wall. “I thought he was going to choke me to death,” she told VICE News. Today, she mostly feels safe in Fargo, North Dakota, where she lives, but she’s careful in rural areas. And when she leaves the state, she often doesn’t feel safe at all.
“There’s like 30 states right now I wouldn’t even drive through,” Willgohs said.
Her own experiences, and the increasingly hostile national climate, inspired Willgohs to start TRANSport, a budding non-profit that seeks to help trans people transition, navigate bureaucratic mazes, and ultimately finance their journeys as they flee the country.
Willgohs is considering claiming asylum in Iceland, a country she visited last summer and considers more accepting—and safer—than the U.S. And she felt like being trans was a “non-issue” while there. Though there’s currently a lack of clarity around whether it’s even possible for trangender U.S. citizens to claim asylum elsewhere—and an expert told VICE News it’s unlikely—the devolving situation in the U.S. has inspired people like Willgohs to try.
“All you need to do is look at the news and see how bad it’s going to get in the country,” Willgohs said. “We’re accused of being pedophiles and of grooming children. We’re being accused of being a social contagion that makes every child think they are in the queer community. That’s the farthest from the truth.”
“All you need to do is look at the news and see how bad it’s going to get in the country. We’re accused of being pedophiles and of grooming children. We’re being accused of being a social contagion.”
Willgohs first considered leaving the United States entirely in the summer of 2022, shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned. She was on vacation in Iceland when the decision came down, and people who knew her as an advocate started calling her to express their concerns that the Supreme Court would target LGBTQ rights next. (Those concerns were warranted: In his concurring opinion in Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas welcomed legal challenges to marriage equality and other privacy-based rights, prompting the passage of federal marriage protections in December 2022.)
It was while she was fielding those phone calls that Willgohs stumbled on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ guidelines on refugee status based on sexual and gender orientation.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is crazy,” Willgohs remembered thinking. “I can actually declare asylum just because I’m trans?’”
She’s currently reaching out to LGBTQ organizations in European countries to learn more about the options that exist for her and the people she hopes to help flee.
Though TRANSport doesn’t have an official roster of clients yet, they have only just begun working and plan on accepting applications soon. Willgohs added that she’d like to start accepting applications for clients soon. “Hopefully we start taking applications toward the end of February and help people get the ball rolling to make the leap across the ocean,” she said, adding that anyone who benefits from TRANSport services will also be asked to support future clients.
About 30 people—about six locally in and near North Dakota and others peppered across the U.S.—have already reached out to the group since local media first reported on them, including a single gay man who is immigrating to the Netherlands and offered to marry an American so that they’d be able to relocate with him, Willgohs said. For now, TRANSport will primarily serve trans people in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, but Willgohs said she’d either like to expand the group, or see similar organizations pop up elsewhere.
“Given what we’re seeing in terms of states proposing more and more harsh laws that target trans people as well as violence that we’re seeing in our communities, it doesn’t surprise me that people will seek other places and other countries,” Erin Reed, a trans activist and researcher, told VICE News.
Willgohs’ work has inspired others as well. Shortly after Willgohs arrived at her decision, her colleague, Zara Crystal, told Willgohs that she was also weighing her future in the U.S. and expressed interest in relocating to Sweden. “Ever since I can remember, I never felt safe, comfortable, or at home in this country,” Crystal told VICE News. She now helps run TRANSport, and is considering leaving the U.S. at the end of 2024.
The 20-year-old came out as trans as a teenager, but, like Willgohs, Crystal was forced into conversion therapy. Her parents eventually gave her an ultimatum: If she transitioned, they’d cut her off. Crystal’s parents have forbidden her from speaking to her siblings until they turn 18.
“We’re just riding out and hoping for the best and preparing for the worst at this point. A lot of people that I know are at least making plans to leave just in case stuff goes down,” Crystal said of marginalized people, including LGBTQ people. Crystal said Fargo is relatively safe compared to other regions in the state. But still, she’s experienced frightening discrimination, including death threats. Somebody also recently tried to run her over with their car, Crystal said.
The last few years have been marked by a dramatic uptick in anti-trans hate in the United States. In 2022 alone, more than 171 anti-trans bills—and more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills—were introduced across the U.S. They’ve already begun in 2023 as well, with a bill proposed in Oklahoma that would ban gender-affirming care for people under 26. On top of all this, anti-trans political attacks have been propped up by anti-trans rhetoric on the far right—and in some cases, by respected media outlets. All this has set up a backdrop for violence, and in November, 2022, a mass shooting at Colorado Springs gay nightclub Club Q that left five people dead, including two trans people. Trans activists have even argued that the onslaught amounts to genocide.
Trans people are more than four times more likely than their cis peers to be the victims of violence, including rape and aggravated assault, and Black and brown trans people are at an even higher risk. Trans people are also more likely to suffer fatal violence, something the Human Rights Campaign has been tracking since 2013.
It’s because things have gotten so bad—and getting worse—that TRANSport was established in the first place. TRANSport, which started as a Facebook page, gained its non-profit status in November, meaning the group can now accept donations, Willgohs said. The group aspires to collect enough to help people navigate bureaucracy and access funds to legally change their gender on government documents ahead of travel, as well as apply for passports before then paying for flights to get them overseas. Willgohs also hopes to research healthcare systems and job opportunities in other countries and form partnerships with European LGBTQ groups so that people don’t feel stranded if and when they relocate.
“I wish TRANSport didn’t have to be a thing. I wish that we didn’t live in a country where our rights are regularly debated in our government,” said Lillian Guetter, president of Fargo Pride Collective and TRANSport collaborator. “But I’m glad Rynn has stepped up and made these big moves for us.”
“I wish TRANSport didn’t have to be a thing. I wish that we didn’t live in a country where our rights are regularly debated in our government.”
The UN guidelines around LGBTQ asylum claimants are broad: The term “persecution…can be considered to involve serious human rights violations, including a threat to life or freedom as well as other kinds of serious harm.” Physical, psychological, and sexual violence are listed as threats that “would generally meet the threshold level required to establish persecution.” The guidelines also say that a person doesn’t need to have a history of persecution to potentially qualify for asylum.
Despite these guidelines, many countries in Europe have come under fire for failing to welcome LGBTQ migrants, and in 2017, when the European Union tried to tally the number of LGBTQ migrants seeking asylum, not a single member country was able to give an exact tally, which makes it difficult to determine whether countries are honoring UN guidelines. Sweden has welcomed some LGBTQ asylum seekers, in part because local advocacy groups fought in 2006 to update Swedish law so that fear of persecution as a result of gender identity and/or sexual orientation would explicitly be included within the definition of “refugee.” But Iceland, while known for its LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, has reportedly opted not to welcome LGBTQ refugees.
And it’s unlikely that trans people from the U.S. will successfully claim asylum in countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Germany. “European cases, when it comes to trans cases, are generally very strict… asylum is really a high-bar process,” Nora Noralla, a human rights researcher based in Berlin, told VICE News. “It’s not hard for [Americans] to come to Europe… If any trans Americans want to come they have a lot of options. They don’t need to apply for asylum.”
There are LGBTQ people fleeing countries where people generally have significantly fewer rights than in the U.S. and they’re the ones who will be prioritized, Noralla said. “It’s still a first world country and strongest economy in the world. You still have rule of law, you still have human rights mechanisms,” Noralla said of the U.S. She added that refugee systems are designed for people who have no option but to flee their homeland altogether.
Noralla noted that U.S. citizens who want to flee states hostile to trans people, like Texas and Florida, can still theoretically relocate to blue states. “To apply for asylum you need to prove that the entire country isn’t safe for you,” Noralla said. “You need to prove this is a federal policy.”
In countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, trans people don’t have the same options, Noralla added. And by trying to claim asylum, U.S. citizens could further burden refugee systems in Europe that are already overwhelmed, Noralla said.
“European systems are already very crowded, very busy, very ill-funded, very backlogged, and they are designed to be the last refuge—literally—for people who have no other options in life,” Noralla said. “Americans do not fit that definition.”
Instead, Noralla pointed to other pathways, including freelance visas and studying abroad, as options for people who want to leave the U.S. (Willgohs told VICE News she’s looking into applying for an Icelandic work visa.)
“I know things are bad in the U.S. with increasing anti-trans legislation and anti-trans attitudes increasing,” Noralla told VICE News. “But that does not make them eligible for asylum and I hope they do not apply for asylum.”
“I know things are bad in the U.S. with increasing anti-trans legislation and anti-trans attitudes increasing. But that does not make them eligible for asylum and I hope they do not apply for asylum.”
Reed said she knows of some people, including trans influencers, who’ve relocated to Canada, but she said she’s unsure under what conditions. Despite this uncertainty, TRANSport is gathering funds and preparing to help trans Americans leave, a sign of how desperate the situation has become for some.
Even if some people can’t move successfully, Willgohs said, it’s a win if TRANSport is able to support some people through their transitions—by teaching people how to change their legal names and pronouns, for example.
And as the national picture worsens for transgender Americans, LGBTQ asylum seekers from other parts of the world are still trying to come to the country. According to the Transgender Law Center, transgender migrants have been granted asylum in the U.S. for belonging to a “particular social group” that is persecuted or at risk of persecution. Between 2007 and 2017, about 4,400 LGBTQ people sought asylum in the U.S. because of the way their gender or sexual orientation were being targeted, NBC reported. The Trump administration rolled back rights for asylum seekers, in part making it more difficult for women and LGBTQ people, but President Joe Biden canceled those limits on asylum eligibility in 2021.
Some U.S. states have indeed enacted policies to help make trans people safe. In 2022, California became the first sanctuary state for transgender people fleeing notoriously anti-trans states when and if they can afford it. But for some, it feels like a stopgap.
“A lot of people might be looking at the landscape that we’re currently sitting in and asking themselves, ‘If I move now, will this just be a temporary thing that protects me or will this be a longer-term move?’” said Reed, the trans activist. “Whenever we see places like Iceland or Canada and Sweden protecting their transgender population, I think that there’s definitely a drive to say, ‘let’s just leave this entirely and go somewhere where we know we’re going to be safe for a very long time.’”