News (USA)

How New Mexico quietly became a refugee state for trans people

A trans man holds a trans Pride flag
Photo: Shutterstock

Over the last year, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Utah — four states bordering New Mexico — have all banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Meanwhile, New Mexico passed two laws ensuring that such care will remain legal statewide and that no government entities will ever help another state prosecute someone who obtains or provides that care.

As a result, New Mexico is quickly becoming a refugee state for those escaping their state’s anti-trans policies. That creates a unique challenge for the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico (TGRCNM). The Albuquerque-based center is the state’s only brick-and-mortar center run by trans people, for trans people.

“We’re geographically situated in between states that are struggling with treating people like human beings and allowing folks to have the bodily autonomy to take care of themselves in whatever way suits them best,” TGRCNM’s executive director T. Michael Trimm tells LGBTQ Nation. “So folks are fleeing here in droves.”

It’s difficult to quantify how many trans people have migrated to avoid trans healthcare bans. At least 17 states nationwide have passed laws restricting or banning such care for minors. Other states have also recently passed laws denying trans people restroom access, sports teams, and pronouns matching their gender identities.

While Republican legislators claim such laws are necessary to protect children from “indoctrination” and harm, opponents accuse the GOP of inserting itself between families and doctors as part of its larger culture war on queer people, leaving some no choice but to flee their home states.

New Mexico’s laws mimic those of California, Minnesota, and other “sanctuary states” which promise to protect the right to gender-affirming healthcare for youth and their families. As a result, out-of-state immigrants have increasingly sought help at TGRCNM, turning the Center into a sort of “trans Ellis Island,” Trimm says, referring to the New York center in the early 1900s that processed European immigrants and refugees.

The influx is challenging the TGRCNM to meet additional people’s needs in an already under-resourced state, Trimm adds.

Statistics suggest that trans newcomers may suffer from higher rates of poverty, familial rejection, workplace discrimination, and other oppressions that result in increased houselessness, food insecurity, and poor healthcare. As such, some newcomers may need a lot of assistance to establish new lives.

While many larger cities in surrounding states have LGBTQ+ centers with programs to help trans folks, the nearest centers focusing solely on trans people are located in Missouri and California, both over 800 miles away, leaving TGRCNM as the only nearby option for untold numbers of trans people seeking support.

“We do not feel equipped to handle the needs of these folks,” Adrien Lawyer, TGRCNM’s co-founder tells LGBTQ Nation. Trimm adds, “This is incredibly overwhelming and has continued to stretch the limits of our capacity.”

A room inside the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico
A room inside the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico. Credit: TRCNM

The TGRCNM already offers “direct services” for trans people in need, including a drop-in center three days a week that provides showers, washers and dryers, prepared meals, an open donation clothes closet, a computer lab, a lending library, and workers who can help people access food benefits, healthcare (including STI testing, needle-exchange, and mental health counselors), legal services, as well as housing and employment assistance.

The center also offers statewide services, including assisting with name changes on government ID documents, providing trans body shaping items (like binders and gaffes), an online directory and referral for trans-friendly healthcare providers, a support program for incarcerated trans people, and also nine weekly in-person and online support groups for trans people of color, children, parents, partners, and others who live inside and outside of the state.

“We have grown so much since we started in 2007, but one of our challenges remains finding and sustaining the funding to do the statewide work that we set out to do here,” Lawyer says.

Trimm agrees.

“New Mexico isn’t the most resourced state, yet we are offering the most protections for folks,” he says. “Funding would allow us to further serve the people already in our state, who may be unintentionally harmed by the influx of [transgender and non-conforming] refugees who come to the state, occupying housing, which raises market rent for everyone.”

Lawyer says TGRCNM’s immediate mission is “to not let people die here in our local community,” but he adds that the Center doesn’t just “want to just be trying to patch up people’s bullet holes with band-aids all the time” either. The Center wants to keep shifting the state’s culture towards valuing trans lives.

Doing this requires progressive legislation to ensure that trans people will be able to thrive in peace throughout the state. Recently passed legislation has made New Mexico “the safest state in the country for LGBTQ people,” according to Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico.

This year alone, New Mexico passed House Bill 207, which added gender identity to anti-discrimination and hate crime laws; House Bill 31, which made it easier for trans people to legally change their names; House Bill 7, which forbids anyone from restricting access to reproductive and gender-affirming health care; and Senate Bill 13 is a “shield law” that forbids the government from assisting with any out-of-state investigations into people who provide or receive such care.

The latter two laws are especially important since Texas and other states have threatened to prosecute doctors and parents for “child abuse” if they help kids access such care. Similar laws also threaten anyone who assists in obtaining an abortion.

Martinez says New Mexico’s trans-inclusive laws passed thanks to a strong, cooperative coalition consisting of Equality New Mexico, the TRCNM, local Planned Parenthood affiliates, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the reproductive justice organization Bold Futures New Mexico, the healthcare access advocacy group Strong Families New Mexico, and a “ton of other groups.”

The coalition’s organizations regularly communicate with each other every day, he says. Throughout the year, they make sure one another’s issues are represented at meetings with community and political leaders across the vast state. Each organization also uses its pre-existing relationships with legislators to educate lawmakers about one another’s key issues, gradually introducing leaders to lawmakers over time.

These groups all share a common enemy, Martinez notes: conservatives who hate LGBTQ+ people — they’re the same ones who want to dictate people’s medical decisions, he says. As such, it made sense for the coalition members to support healthcare legislation that bundled abortion access with access for gender-affirming care.

“These are the only two health care procedures being criminalized,” Martinez says. “At the end of the day in New Mexico, either you believe that a patient can make decisions about their health care and their body or you don’t. And if you believe that, then you must believe it about everything.”

“Liberation is bodily autonomy, and bodily autonomy is the same regardless of whose body it is and what decisions you’re trying to make,” he continues. “The ability to decide whether or not I take hormones to transition my gender is equally as important as the decision I or my partner or sibling may make about having or not having children…. [It’s] the same level of bodily autonomy as being able to sue the cops when they harm you [or] violate your civil rights… which is the same as being able to make an adult decision about using cannabis.”

Under this reasoning, the coalition has helped pass other progressive laws, including ones that will enable residents to purchase a state health insurance option, enable cannabis entrepreneurs of color to benefit first from legalized sales, remove “qualified immunity” protections from abusive cops, and repeal older anti-abortion and anti-sodomy laws. Martinez doesn’t see these all as individual policy changes so much as the victories of a movement that has been successful on multiple fronts.

Granted, New Mexico’s Democratic-leaning electorate differentiates it from other states in ways that could make this strategy difficult to replicate elsewhere. New Mexico has a pro-LGBTQ+ governor, Michelle Lynn Lujan Grisham (D), and its legislature has been controlled by Democrats for almost all of the last 30 years. Its population of just over two million — 30% of which is non-white, including 21 indigenous sovereign nations — has helped Democratic presidential candidates win seven of the last eight elections.

But Martinez says the state’s progressive victories at least disprove the idea that religious people of color are among the most conservative. “It has proven to be incredibly untrue amongst Hispanic, Latino, and indigenous Catholics across the country,” he says.

“People in New Mexico have been learning how to live with people of different cultural and religious values and backgrounds for 200 years,” he adds. “And at the end of the day, our values have always been that we love accept and affirm our neighbors, even when we don’t understand or agree with.”

He encourages advocacy organizations in larger states not to operate from a territorial and scarcity model, one that sees other progressive causes as a potential drain on an organization’s resources or influence. In New Mexico, he says, progressive groups inquire about one another’s legislation, asking how each can help apply equal pressure on legislators over a wide range of issues. Over the years, such coalition building has made it so that New Mexican lawmakers don’t pursue bad laws, he says.

It’s likely that the state’s trans protections will eventually be legally challenged by conservatives either inside or outside of its borders. But Martinez remains confident that the laws will withstand legal challenges, especially with a broad coalition supporting them.

“We’re not doing something radically new by protecting trans people,” he says. “We’re doing what we’ve always done, which is protect people from hatred and discrimination because that’s a New Mexican value.”

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Target moves Pride displays after “violent” customer backlash

Previous article

Man beats up 86-year-old woman with dementia because he thought she was transgender

Next article