Ember Zelch would rather give up a $10,000 college scholarship than stay in Ohio.
The 18-year-old was one of 150 students who won a scholarship in 2021 as part of Ohio Vax-2-School, a statewide contest aimed at boosting COVID-19 vaccination rates among younger Ohioans.
Zelch, however, is leaving that money on the table because she doesn’t feel welcome in Ohio as a transgender woman.
“The whole state is just tainted for her,” Ember’s mom Minna Zelch said. “It just seems like she’s not wanted, she’s not welcome. And why would she ever come back here? She would rather take on debt than stay in the state.”
Doctors wouldn’t be able to give puberty blockers and hormone therapy to trans youth, transgender students would be forced to use the bathroom and locker room that aligns with their sex at birth and trans athletes wouldn’t be able to participate in women’s sports if these various anti-trans bills pass through the Republican-controlled Ohio Statehouse.
OCJ talked to three families of transgender students who are considering potentially leaving or want to leave Ohio because of anti-transgender legislation.
And it’s not just Ohio. Transgender youth across the country are being forced to wrestle with where they are going to live as conservative states enact bills targeting transgender youth.
Jeanne Ogden, founding director of Trans Allies of Ohio, said she expects transgender youth and adults to leave Ohio. Her own 23-year-old transgender daughter has been stalked and threatened.
“Who wants to live in a state like that?” Ogden said. “She’ll most likely be moving out of state. I might go with her. I don’t want to live in a state where my daughter feels afraid.”
There have been more than 220 bills introduced nationwide specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people, and 15 laws have been enacted banning gender affirming care for transgender youth, according to the Human Rights Campaign year-to-date snapshot from May 23.
The Burkle family doesn’t want to leave Ohio, but it’s an option they are considering.
Their 10-year-old daughter Astrid has socially transitioned and wants puberty blockers when the time comes.
“I am terrified of how my body would change and how my mental health would be impacted if I were forced to experience that change,” Astrid wrote earlier this year in opponent testimony.
The Cleveland area family has a team of doctors and psychologists who are working with Astrid that could refer her for puberty blockers, but Ohio legislators are trying to prevent doctors from giving puberty blockers and hormone therapy as part of House Bill 68, which recently passed the House.
“Our choices are either to seek care from another state and travel significant distances to get that care, or to move out of state to get that care,” Astrid’s mom Alicia said. “Or put her through that. And that’s not an option for us.”
Alicia has looked at some other jobs that are either completely remote or located in states like California, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. Their family has also researched potentially getting health insurance that would allow them to travel out of state for medical care, but HB 68 isn’t the only bill they are closely monitoring.
They also have their eyes on House Bill 183, which would ban transgender students from being able to use the bathroom and locker room that aligns with their gender identity.
“That could make it unsafe for Astrid to just go to school and just live a normal life,” Alicia said. “That could force us to look to actually just leave completely.”
However, the Burkle family has many hurdles to consider when it comes to potentially leaving Ohio.
Alicia’s husband is in the Pennsylvania National Guard and it’s unclear how a possible move would affect his military career. He is currently deployed and Alicia is waiting for him to return so they can discuss these things together.
Their 15-year-old Abs is involved in the Cleveland Orchestra and Astrid is involved in the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Preparatory Chorus — something they would have to give up if they were to move.
“That’s just really devastating to them as well,” Alicia said. “Our whole lives would be completely uprooted.”
Abs and Astrid’s grandparents moved around the corner from them a few years ago, so they can easily walk over to their house.
“We already don’t have a lot of family,” Alicia said. “And so now we’re talking about having to leave them behind because they don’t want to move again.”
Not able to leave Ohio
Kat Scaglione not only wishes she could move out of Ohio, she wants to leave the United States because of anti-trans laws and legislation. But she is unable to leave because of her children’s visitation agreement.
“We’re not in a position to leave the state,” Scaglione, who lives in the greater Cleveland area, said.
She has a 14-year-old transgender daughter, a 13-year-old cisgender son and a 9-year-old transgender daughter.
“I always wonder, so if (the puberty blockers ban) passes what do we do? What are my kids supposed to do?” she said. “It’s definitely concerning. My kids have a lot of anxiety right now.”
“It still sends an atrocious message.”
Ember wants the rest of her Cleveland area family to move out of state, but Minna said the rest of the family plans on staying in Ohio for now since they have a younger child still in high school.
“But after that, my husband and I are looking at each other, and we’re wondering if we should stay, frankly, because in part, we’re not sure if it’ll be a safe place for Ember to return to,” Minna said. “If Ohio becomes a place where it’s not safe for our kid to come see us, then we might have to seriously consider leaving.”
Ember came out as transgender when she was 13 and has had years of gender affirming care — including three years on female hormones. Because she is 18, the proposed ban on giving puberty blockers to trans youth wouldn’t apply to her, but it’s still worrisome.
“It still sends an atrocious message,” Minna said.
Ember was able to play girls’ softball after taking estrogen for a year, making her one of a handful of transgender high school female athletes to play sports in Ohio.
“I learned that at that time I was the only trans female athlete approved to play on a girls’ high school team in the entire state,” Ember said in her testimony in front of the Ohio House Higher Education Committee on April 19.
“I couldn’t help but feel as though the legislation was a personal attack on me directly. I could not figure out why my elected officials hated me so much that they were willing to pass a law preventing me, and a handful of people like me, from doing something every other kid gets to do.”
“What infuriates me the most is so many of these legislators who are pushing this don’t care that there are actual living human beings whose lives are being completely uprooted, destroyed and disrupted because of their actions,” Minna said.
Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on Twitter.
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