As a Brit who travels to and from mainland Europe on a regular basis, there’s something of a sobering reminder to be found beneath your feet as you walk around European towns and cities. Every now and then you’ll see a small brass plaque in the pavement, with a name, some dates, and sometimes a place name on it. These are the so-called stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, memorials for the victims of the Holocaust in front of their former homes, and each one bears the name of a Jew or other victim.
Brits and Americans are taught about the Holocaust, in schools, through the testimonies of survivors, and through television and film. Many of us had grandparents who fought or otherwise served in the second world war, and among those were a significant number who saw its effects for themselves. But it didn’t happen at home in the UK or America, so for those of us born long after it happened it still remains difficult to comprehend.
In considering the people whose names appear on those stumbling stones, the horror of it all becomes far more immediate than it does when watching a historical documentary. It happened here on this quiet street in a prosperous town, this is not the place of horror far to the east which we’ve been taught to associate with the Holocaust. By the time the Nazis rounded up their victims it was far too late for anybody in Germany or the occupied countries to protest, and of those courageous people who did take action to save Jews from capture, many were themselves caught and sent to their deaths.
The question that’s probably in the minds of most people when struggling to comprehend the Holocaust is this: How could it have happened? The answer doesn’t come in the final act of the victims being rounded up and exterminated, but years earlier. In the relentless Nazi propaganda which polarised an entire population to see Jews as subhuman, but also in the refusal of so many people to understand what was happening. The message from the numbers of Jewish refugees sounding the alarm bells throughout the 1930s was largely ignored, because people preferred instead to believe that it couldn’t be that bad. You are left wondering, how many of the victims of the Holocaust could have been saved, had the countries outside Germany done more about the plight of German Jews in the 1930s?
Given the above it’s not difficult to draw parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the actions of the right wing of US politics here in the 2020s. The demonisation of transgender people in right-wing American media has been ceaseless, and the legislative programme of Republican state lawmakers has demonstrated their resolve to wipe us out in their territories. They are chillingly open about their plans for us under a future Republican presidency, in which near-dictatorial powers would be seized at a federal level to override lawmakers in Democratic so-called safe states. Meanwhile, as in the 1930s, those not directly involved either within America or in other countries choose to ignore the plight of American transgender people, either because they don’t believe it will happen that way, or because they simply don’t care.
So this is why we’re sounding the alarm for trans Americans. There is no magic time machine with which we can go back to 1931 and warn about the Holocaust, but there is still time for transgender Americans to get out. When this is all over, we would prefer not to carry the guilt of having stood idly by while it was happening.
Though our operations over the last year have had a focus in the developing world, the situation closer to home for us in countries such as the USA has been of significant concern. An inevitable descent into some form of fascism seems all-too-possible, and since we trans people are the scapegoat of the moment it’s not difficult to see where this is going. In case any Americans remain in doubt we’d like to direct them to the Heritage Foundation’s 2025 blueprint for a newly elected Republican president. Entitled “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise”, it sets out a chilling path in which a president gains near-dictatorial powers through abuse of the federal system backed up by a supreme court packed with their yes-men. They can then criminalise being transgender at the federal level and erase us from society, effectively making any “safe states” irrelevant.
Over the past year then, we’ve urged people to not wait for that end, but to get out while they still can. Our biggest concern is that if it’s all left to the last minute as a newly-elected far-right President prepares for his inauguration, only the wealthy trans people will succeed in escaping and the rest will be left for the Republicans to come after. Unlike many of our passengers who will be denied access to international travel based simply on their nationality, transgender Americans still have one of the most powerful passports in the world. They have options, something that will disappear abruptly when they are criminalised and their documentation is invalidated.
The Only Luxury You Have Is A Bit Of Time
The trouble is, we can only keep saying this and urging people to plan their exit, we can’t airlift every individual trans American to safety as we simply don’t have the resources. We’ve taken some grief for this, as people shoot the messenger rather than listening to the message. It comes down to this, getting out in some form is not out of reach when you have the luxury of time, but as the time becomes more limited, so does the chance of escaping.
As a first step, if you haven’t already, get yourself a passport. Only 37% of Americans have one, don’t be one of the 63% who are stuck in a fascist society with no way out. It costs $130, which we know isn’t a sum everyone will have handy, but here’s where the time comes in. You have the luxury of time, use some of it to get that cash together. When it’s the document that will save your life, isn’t it worth some sacrifices to save for it?
So you’re getting a passport, what now? Your whole life should become an exercise in planning for a future as an immigrant somewhere else. What are your skills, what do you have to offer another country who might take you? Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to work in finance or computer programming to emigrate, a huge number of countries have skill shortages in much more mundane areas. If you can’t find one of those visas there are digital nomad visas, or even ancestry visas if Grandad came from the old country. We can’t hold your hand here, you will need to become an avid student of international visas. Every country’s immigration department has a website listing what’s on offer, and it’s up to you to spend your time trawling through them.
Having started looking, what skills can you learn? Can you come up with a location-independent way to earn a living? How many languages can you speak? Anglophones tend to be bad at learning other languages, so it’s an easy way to give yourself an edge. Sometimes visas even hinge on speaking the language, as an example Japan has one for agricultural workers which requires a high standard of Japanese. We know from our own experience here at Trans Rescue that language learning is hellishly difficult, but with apps such as Duolingo being only a download away at least it’s never been easier to start.
Here’s the bottom line then. Only the most blinkered of individuals could claim that there’s no threat of America lurching over the brink into fascism, or that trans people wouldn’t be first against the wall in that eventuality. There’s no credible future in somehow seeing off the military industrial complex of a fascist government with an AR-15 popgun, so your best chance of avoiding the inevitable is to get out. Time is running out for that to happen, so the earlier you take action the better your chances of survival. We can offer basic advice and we’ve done our best to share as much as we can here, but we can’t hold your hand through the whole process.
That’s up to you.
Header image: Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, ‘Unite the Right’ rally, 12 August 2017. Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0.
In October 2018 the New York Times published a leaked HHS memo, a plan to “eliminate transgender identity”. Since then, even with the end of the Trump administration, anti-trans hate has steadily ramped up, and in the last few days a US Supreme Court decision overturned Roe v. Wade. American trans people seem to be seeing the writing on the wall. We’ve received many inquiries about fleeing the US in the last week.
We divide the world into safe countries, dangerous countries, and “countries of new concern”, countries where conditions for trans people were once somewhat hospitable, or at least on a path to progress, but are now in decline, often as part of a larger slide into fascism, such as Brazil, Poland. Hungary, the UK, and, yes, the USA.
At Trans Rescue we try to help trans people in countries like these, who may have never before considered fleeing their countries of origin, but now are seriously contemplating doing so and do not know what their options are.
This post is some advice for trans people in the USA, their families and partners.
This advice is based on our own experience with helping others migrate, with our knowledge of the international migration system, and to some extent our own experience (the writer is a trans US Citizen who emigrated to India in 2018, then the Netherlands in 2019). It is not legal advice, and we are not attorneys.
Don’t Despair, But Be Prepared For Sacrifice
We are painfully aware that advice like “deal with the custody arrangement keeping you in Georgia” and “have money” are very easy to say and very hard to do.
But we want to avoid a council of despair. Doing nothing is not a solution. Every day we deal with people in a LOT more trouble than you are in.
Distinguish between what you are planning to do – which might involve considerable sacrifice – and what you need to do right now – which could be simply to make plans.
And be prepared for sacrifice. There are many depressing stories of Jewish families who didn’t emigrate before the Holocaust because “dad had just gotten a promotion”, or “we had just purchased a piano”.
A few steps down on the economic scale, don’t feel like you can do nothing towards leaving because you’re barely making ends meet. If you have a passport, in the extreme case you can take a backpack and head North over the border. If you have a passport that is, and have prepared.
In doing that preparation you might have to lose treasured possessions to pay for a passport or other necessities. You might even be committing yourself to homelessness. But doing that work is a necessity because if you put your plan into action, then things have deteriorated to the point where the alternative is death.
Decide On A Model Of The Danger
The first step in planning your move is to sit down and decide what you personally think could happen. Here are some possibilities:
Street level violence becomes overwhelming. Yahoos graduate from yelling at us to attacking us in broad daylight.
Street discrimination reaches a point where it becomes difficult to have a normal life. Keeping a job, renting an apartment, or going to a restaurant become difficult.
Our existence is outlawed. Cross dressing and impersonation statutes are brought back. Restroom laws with draconian penalties are enacted. Lawrence v Texas is reversed (it depended on Roe v Wade) and sodomy laws suddenly are enforceable.
Our documents are invalidated – e.g. a state or the federal government may declare that only documents in our “biological sex” are valid. Holding a document in one’s real gender might become fraud.
Trans people who are parents are declared unfit. Our children are taken away.
Affirmative care for trans children becomes illegal or cause to remove the parent’s custody.
We are declared mentally incompetent as a pretext to round us up, a start to concentration camps.
We are just rounded up, our existence made illegal. There is a night where many trans people have the knock at the door.
Our citizenship status is revoked (this is what Hitler did to the Jews).
As you plan, think about both how likely a scenario is, and the consequences. Don’t dismiss events simply because they’re unlikely. Instead, look at both. I have car insurance, even though I don’t expect to be in an accident today, because the consequences of an accident could be severe, accidents do happen, and car insurance is reasonably cheap. You’re 82% likely to be just fine after playing Russian Roulette, but I don’t recommend it.
Another question to ask yourself is what you expect to happen overseas. Americans are known worldwide for being insular. Our country is large and isolated. But you’ll need to consider what you think will be happening in places you’re considering going. Many Jews fled Germany to places like Belgium, only to later be engulfed.
Finally, how long do you imagine you’ll be gone? Is this emigrating forever, never to see the waving wheat fields of Kansas again? Or is it a long vacation while the fires sweep over the country?
Leaving Versus Emigrating
Lets look first as just ‘leaving’ – physically getting out of the country for a while- either being on a long vacation or working remotely, without obtaining a work permit in another country.
Fortunately, as far as visas, getting out of the USA is easy. An American passport will get you a tourist visa to any of the countries marked in green with no visa or with only a formality (an e-visa or visa on arrival).
And once you’re out, you can at least prepare to permanently leave from a safe place.
If your model of what you need for your own safety is only to be out of the US for a relatively short time, then you just need to be prepared to go. Here’s a checklist of what you need to prepare:
Get a passport. It’s less relevant that it’s in your deadname than that you have a passport. If your passport is going to expire in the next 2-4 years, renew it.
Get a Covid vaccination certificate. You will not be allowed on an aircraft without one.
Have enough money saved to show you can support yourself for 90 days in the country you’re going to (discussed below).
Have enough money for a round trip ticket to your destination. You won’t be allowed into the destination without one. Technically, you need an ‘onward flight’ – so if your bug out plan is 90 days in country A, then 90 in B, an itinerary USA — A — B — USA is fine.
Clear up anything that would keep you stuck in the US, such as child custody issues or criminal complaints. If you are trapped by disability payments, you can perhaps ‘live’ in one place while spending your time in another.
Make plans to deal with your ageing parents. Have a frank discussion with your partner. An emotional bond that keeps you in the US will be no less a bond than being on parole.
Stop being insular. We’ve had passengers in truly dangerous situations – wanted by the police, with a price on their heads – reluctant to go to places where they’d be perfectly safe because they have fallen prey to negative stereotypes. Not all the world outside Europe and the US is a crime ridden hellhole. You may never have traveled before. Accept that this is going to be an adventure, and know that, while scary, it’s something many people have done. Watching happy YouTube videos of people traveling the world or living as expats can help.
When you fly, don’t carry anything that indicates you intend to look for work (resumes, work clothes, tools). Scrub such items and incriminating discussions from your phone and laptop (customs can, and will, demand you unlock them and then will look through them, including your social media accounts). Don’t post about leaving on your social media. Store your data in the cloud and retrieve it on the other end.
Tourist visas are either 30 or 90 days. If you plan on being gone longer than that, but not so long that you need to work, you can often go to country A, then go to country B as little as overnight, then back to country A.
Many folks say to us that they don’t have the money to leave.
You’re going to need $160 for a passport. Bluntly, yes, you’re an adult, you can raise it somehow.
After that, don’t feel you’re stuck because you’re broke. The majority of immigrants in the world are penniless people fleeing war, persecution, or poverty. You can reach the Canadian border somehow.
Now let’s look at what money you’ll need for a reasonable ‘leave’ scenario.
Besides, well, needing to live, you need to show you have funds to be allowed into the country (or even onto the plane). This means you might want your 90 day ‘vacation’ to be in a country where things are cheap. And you might be happy camping or living like a local, but customs might want to see enough for you to live like a tourist anyway. You’ll need to research prices and visa regulations where you plan on going.
When estimating the cost to live in a country, remember that with a tourist visa you may not be able to rent an apartment. In some countries it’s impossible without a permanent residence card. And you’ll be a foreigner, so when you tire of the local cuisine you’ll want ingredients from the expensive foreign food store, and not know many of the local tricks that make life cheaper.
Expatistan has a useful cost of living calculator to compare the expense of different places worldwide.. Take not only the overall value, but read through the individual prices – sometimes you’ll discover rent is expensive but other expenses are not, or sometimes a single item (often the cost of a car) is skewing the data. And sometimes there isn’t much data.
If you’re lucky enough to have a career you can do remotely, you may not need to truly ’emigrate’ to stay away longer than you can live without an income. Just keep your US bank account active and deposit your income into it like normal. You can ‘live’ in the US without physically being there. Thousands of US retirees already live in Mexico under such an arrangement.
If your threat model includes the US suddenly invalidating your passport, then you want to be abroad, not trapped inside.
Finally, don’t be last. A lot of cis people will be leaving, too, and as the ranks of American refugees swell, the “easy” places such as Canada will become less, rather than more, welcoming.
Emigrating takes time, money, and effort. As the jaws close, it will become harder and harder to get out. If you lose your job because you’re trans, you may suddenly not be able to afford to emigrate, for example. Get out earlier than you think you need to.
The other option is to obtain permission to work in a foreign country and move there permanently.
If you have salable skills, this can be as simple as going to your destination ahead of time on a tourist visa and passing resumes. You may have to sell yourself well or offer to compensate the firm for the substantive hassle of dealing with a work visa.
If you have substantial savings, almost any country will make you a citizen if you invest. The amount is usually around 250,000 dollars, and purchasing real estate is a common choice of investment.
If the Netherlands is your chosen destination you can come and operate a business as long as you keep 5000 Euros on deposit in a Dutch bank, under the “Dutch American Friendship Treaty”. While you won’t be able to work as an employee, you can take contracts for your business. Plan an additional 2500 euros in fees and legal expenses to set this up.
Another option, if you can work remotely, is a ‘digital nomad’ or ‘rentista‘ visa. These are a recognition that there are many people who can earn money in one country while living in another.
These visas allow the visitor to remain long term (up to 5 years in many cases) and to do such things as rent an apartment, have utilities, and make use of the public health care system. In return, the visitor is earning income from outside the country and spending it inside the country.
The biggest stumbling block to a digital nomad visa is often the income requirement. Some countries demand the applicant show they have a recurring income source of over a certain amount. This rather short sighted rule is often inconsistent with how freelancers actually work. A 3D artist might have a very steady income, but it’s different clients in different months. Many freelancers find a substantive portion of their actual income isn’t usable for this requirement due to the ‘recurring’ clause.
Finally, you might hit the jackpot if grandad came from the old country. Can you claim citizenship somewhere? Many European countries will grant citizenship to close descendants of their citizens, so it’s worth scrutinizing that family tree.
Aslyum? Not So Fast
You may be yelling, “I’ll show them! I’m going to claim asylum!”. Sadly if you’re a US citizen then that is to all intents and purposes not an option. The US and most of the other countries where you might be interested in claiming asylum in have treaties in which the two governments each agree that the other is generally safe, and that, exceptional circumstances not withstanding (which are SO exceptional that it is very unlikely they will apply to you), it’s safe to return people to the other one.
Most such agreements also limit asylum seekers to only one country in the treaty. For example, the “Dublin Accords” treaty says asylum seekers must seek asylum in the country where they first enter the EU. You can’t apply in Italy, be turned down, then apply in Germany.
If you’re an American planning on filing an asylum claim and you think that yours might be an exceptional case, then you should of course contact an attorney. Beyond this, you should contact organizations like the Transgender Law Center, as such a case would be likely to establish precedent for all transgender Americans. Don’t be forever known as the person whose attempt to subvert the system for yourself closed the door permanently for everyone else.
Now It’s Time For You To Act
It’s clear American politics is heading toward a dark place. There is still a window of opportunity for transgender Americans to place themselves out of harm’s way. We’ve tried to lay out some options in this article and as events unfold we’ll do our best to share any further resources as we have them. Below is a sign up for our newsletter. Sign up to stay informed. If we have enough signups we’ll organize a webinar to answer questions.