AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lauren Rodriguez has a limit of 20 boxes to pack up everything that matters most to her ahead of a big move from the Austin area next month. One already contains dozens of figurines she collected since childhood, which she said will help make where she’s headed next feel much more like home.

“I’m excited, but I’ve got a million little things to do between now and then,” Rodriguez said from the short-term rental where she’s staying temporarily outside of Austin.

Last year she talked to KXAN about putting what she called her “dream home” on the market, and someone finally bought it in April. The sale is allowing her to leave Texas, perhaps for good, and reunite with her transgender son, Greyson. While sitting on the bed in her cramped rental, she scrolled to a picture on her phone showing her son before he boarded a flight in February.

“This is at the Austin airport when I dropped him off to go to New Zealand,” Rodriguez said, looking at her phone. “I asked for a last photo in Texas because he’s never coming back, and this is what I got.”

That day Greyson flew more than 7,000 miles from home to New Zealand so that he could begin nursing school and a new life far from the political fights happening at the Texas Capitol. The time difference between Austin and New Zealand is 17 hours, yet Greyson took time on his weekend to talk about how differently he felt just stepping off the plane there.

“As soon as I just got out of the airport, it felt just so much better to not feel in danger anymore,” Greyson said.

He and his mother began planning their move internationally in 2022 after spending years trekking to the statehouse in Austin, where they would testify and protest against bills that would restrict everything from the kind of health care he could receive to the types of sports teams he could play on here. Rodriguez said they simply had enough.

“We started going to the legislature and fighting in 2019. It wasn’t that bad. 2021 was pretty bad. This session was even worse than 2021,” she said. “They’re gunning for the trans community, and they’re doing pretty hardcore going [after] them. So it’s kind of like I need to get out while we can.”

Rodriguez said New Zealand appealed to her family because of the country’s friendlier policies toward queer and trans people. For example a law passed in 2021 there that made it easier for people to change the sex on their birth certificates, according to The Guardian. It’s now been three months since he arrived in New Zealand, and Greyson said he feels “no hostility” because everyone “wants to get to know you and doesn’t care who you are.”

“I feel just so much better, happier, safer,” Greyson said. “I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I felt in Texas until I got here. I mean, I knew I felt uncomfortable. I knew I didn’t feel safe, but once I got here, I realized how bad it was. It just feels so nice to kind of finally feel comfortable and feel safe and feel like I’m not constantly in danger.”

Even though Greyson left the country months ago, Rodriguez still took time to keep going to the Capitol this session, where she joined other families and LGBTQ+ advocates to fight against legislation like Senate Bill 14. Despite their activism on top of the pushback from many Democratic lawmakers, both the House and Senate approved that proposal this week, which sets it up now for Gov. Greg Abbott to sign it into law. The legislation bans any transgender Texan younger than 18 from receiving puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapies or surgeries to aid in their transition. It would also require trans youth who are already getting this care to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” manner — one of the revisions added during the House debate.

Additionally, on Wednesday, 10 Democrats joined every Republican in the Texas House voting for Senate Bill 15, which would require transgender athletes to only compete on collegiate sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth. Supporters argue the legislation is about creating fairness for women’s sports in particular. It’s an expansion of a law that passed during the 2021 legislative session.

Even from thousands of miles away, seeing these bills pass one after the other this year makes Greyson feel even more assured in his family’s decision to leave.

“It definitely reinforces that I made the right choice, but I also worry about my friends who are still there,” he said. “I just worry about anyone who’s still there. It’s only going to get worse, I feel. I was right: when I left, I said it was only going to get worse. That’s why we were leaving, and it did get worse. In the time I’ve left, it did manage to get worse. I feel like it’s just going to continue to go that way until something changes. I’m just not sure what needs to change.”

Rodriguez said she has friends with younger children who either moved out of Texas already or are now planning to leave, too. She hopes state leaders will consider the effect their decisions are having on families.

“It’s really hard to afford to move. It’s really hard to leave everyone you love behind — jobs you love, houses that you love,” she said. “Not everybody is lucky enough to leave, so there’s lots of people who can’t afford that move, who have to stay for a myriad of reasons. I don’t know — just stop picking on our kids, like they just want to be kids. Why can’t we just let people be. Just let them be.”

Advice for other families

Greyson offered some bleak advice for parents who remain in Texas with their transgender kids. He first suggested for them to consider keeping their identities hidden as the best form of protection, but he also said they should do what he did and move.

“If you can get to a safe state, I would suggest doing that, and if you can leave the country, I’d definitely suggest doing that — whatever you can do,” Greyson said. “But if you can’t even leave the state, hide it. If your kid is open and out, switch schools. If you can move to a different town to where people don’t know because the less people that don’t know, the safer they are.”

Greyson Rodriguez joined KXAN’s Will DuPree for an interview from New Zealand on May 19, 2023. (KXAN photo/Will DuPree)

He said he doesn’t like sharing such grim advice, but going somewhere else has made a huge difference for him in the short time he’s been gone.

“Texas is where I grew up. I don’t love the fact that I left my home, but it just wasn’t safe,” Greyson said. “We tried for several years to change things, going to testify, but it just kept getting worse. I think my family at least is very out of hope. We’ve run out of hope that things will change in time before people start getting seriously hurt — more than they already are.”

His mother plans to start a graduate program this summer once she gets to New Zealand. She spoke to those who may see what she’s doing to leave the country entirely as a dramatic step, but she points to this legislative session in Texas to show why she remains concerned about where policy discussions progress from here. She is also worried that a national policy shift could squash transgender protections that some states passed recently.

“What’s next? Like, I don’t know where they’re going to stop,” she said, “but I frankly don’t want to be here to find out either.”