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.
We’re Trans Rescue, and what we do is help trans people get out of dangerous places around the world. If you’re reading this site, you’ll know that the number of places we’re concerned about is rising, and we don’t think it’s hyperbolae to say that countries such as the USA and the UK are heading towards some very dark places in which trans people will very soon be in mortal danger. These are our countries of birth, it gives us no pleasure to watch this happening in what should be safe and free places.
Fighting Endless Small Battles Is Wearing Us Down
Every week it seems as though there is a new revelation, an American state criminalises trans healthcare or a US politician calls for our elimination, while a British newspaper stokes a new hate campaign with a bogus scare story. Being a trans activist has become an exhausting process of constantly fighting small battles, and while we may win some the effect of all this fighting is taking its toll.
Watching this happen has become a concern of ours, as we see each one of these battles as a small step down the steep slope towards fascism and we think, genocide. The trans community is wearing itself out fighting a losing battle, and has we think, become too exhausted to see the bigger picture until it becomes too late. It’s chillingly simple: nothing will satisfy them but our complete elimination, and our greatest worry is that they will gain the power they need to do that. Fighting all those small battles isn’t going to stop them, neither is hoarding guns and staying to shoot it out, because when they come for us they will do so with the full force of a militarised state apparatus.
How Bad Does It Have To Get To Convince You?
If humanity has learned one thing from the horrors of 1930s Germany, it is that those who get out early will be the survivors of genocide, not those who leave it too late or who stick around to fight a futile rearguard action. We’ve already outlined the information needed for all budgets to start planing an exit from the USA and the UK, but how bluntly must we state the need to get out of those countries before people accept it as a priority?
We don’t want you to be a name or worse still just a number we repeat at future Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies. Please don’t become one more person we’re trying to save, instead choose to be a survivor able to testify and hold the criminals to account.
Last year we published a piece here entitled “The USA is sliding into fascism. How to get out”. Behind the sensational title lay the worrying truth that we believe that the USA is heading towards a very dark place indeed, and that we would thus urge all American trans people to either get out or make a plan for getting out. But the USA isn’t our only country of concern that has embarked on a path away from being a safe place for trans people.
Next on our list is the United Kingdom, a country which has over the last decade witnessed an explosion of institutionalised transphobic hate speech from within the media and in high-level politics coupled with a Conservative government that has swung progressively towards the far right. We have seen attacks on trans healthcare and particularly that for trans youth, worrying noises around the idea of bathroom bills, and most recently as this is being written the news that the London government will suppress Scottish gender recognition reform and place trans female prisoners in male prisons. Their continued erosion of human rights legislation as well as projected withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights is of particular concern, and given that the transphobes have also infiltrated the opposition parties we expect to still be concerned for the situation of British trans people following the next general election.
Is It Time To Get Out, Or Just To Plan?
Given that the events outlined in the previous paragraph paint such a bleak picture for British democracy, it might seem as though it would be imperative for trans people to leave. For all that though, we’re not quite at the point of advising a quick flight and we are not providing financial support to help British people. If there’s a silver lining in the cloud it’s that on-the-ground safety has not yet reached a crisis point, and despite a worrying increase in reported anti-LGBT hate crime the UK is still largely a safe place in which to be trans when compared to the countries in which we do most of our work. British TV news channels may unquestioningly give a platform to TERFs campaigning for us to be excluded from the Equality Act, but they do not approach the excesses of their American counterparts in platforming armed far-right militias and calling for our lynching.
British passport holders will never be refused access to an airliner merely because of their nationality, as would for example a citizen from a country associated with refugees in the minds of the authorities. Thus we do not immediately anticipate a situation in which the act of leaving would become impossible, as it is for a Syrian or a Yemeni. So for now it’s better to have somewhere to live and some means of income in the UK than it is to be penniless and homeless in another country.
Based on what we’ve said in the last two paragraphs then, we’d advise any UK person considering leaving to plan ahead and do their homework rather than booking a ticket and running without considering what happens next. Start at the very beginning and assess the threat level at which a move would become necessary, and use the intervening time to plan an exit with less need for huge resources. There’s the old analogy that a frog in water that is heated gently enough will not notice the temperature rise and jump out, instead boiling to death. Assessing the threat level means being aware enough to jump out of the water before it becomes too hot, and not being the boiling frog.
Putting The Wheels In Motion
Perhaps the easiest way to start your plan is to talk to the people around you about your need to get out. Your partner or family for example should be prepared for your plans, and understand their necessity. If it reaches a point at which you have to make the move then by doing this early you will have already ensured that those around you do not become impediments. Remember, the cis people around you will not be the ones under threat.
The next most easy piece of preparation is to ensure that you have the appropriate documentation. A passport is the obvious one, as is a COVID vaccine certification. Make sure you renew your British passport.
Further to that, look at your family tree. Do you have grandparents from another safe country, and can you apply for that passport? If so you’ve won the jackpot, because there’s your way out.
With those easy steps out of the way, it’s evident that whatever path you take will require some financing as well as careful planning. The good news here is two-fold: not all paths are as unaffordable as you think they are, and for now you have the luxury of time in which to start planning the monetary side as well as the details of your move. Saving money is hard, especially on a low income, but if you can find any way to do so, put it into action.
Then, and perhaps most importantly, you should think about what happens once you have left the UK. How are you going to live, how are you going to support yourself? Are your skills transportable, would you be able to get a job somewhere else? Great news if you’re an in-demand software developer, but not necessarily cause for despair if you’re unsure how you’d manage this. You have the luxury of some time, use it to learn what you can. Consider everything, from something you can sell on Fiverr upwards, and try to develop it into something while you’re still in the UK. If nothing else, improving your employability works in the UK too.
Now you have no ties, you’ve got a financial plan, and you’re busy honing a skill. You’re ready to decide on where you’re going. At this point, we have two pieces of advice. Be realistic, and be prepared to discard your preconceptions.
Why “Be realistic”? The trans rumour mill is a great source of disinformation and half-truths, so it’s very easy to fall into unrealistic beliefs as to what might work. Probably the example we hear most often is that a Brit would be able to claim asylum in another country, something which sadly is not the case. Perhaps it has its roots in racist British popular media coverage of asylum seekers, in which it is portrayed as an easy process which any ne’er-do-well from another country can just turn up and receive their free benefits. In fact, the asylum system exists for the aid of people in far more desperate situations than that of British trans people, and destination countries are without exception very picky about who they will grant it to. There are mutual safety treaties between the UK and the countries you are probably thinking about, so for example if you were to turn up in an EU country and try to claim asylum your claim would be dismissed simply because there is a defined presumption that the UK is a safe place. Much as we would like it to be different, UK trans people don’t have any special status, so trying an asylum claim would certainly result in your swift return. Worse, it could even endanger future claims when matters are worse for UK trans people, by establishing a legal precedent. So be realistic, don’t try edge cases which will certainly fail.
Next, we said “Be prepared to discard your preconceptions”. This is something we encounter on a daily basis from people in far worse situations than you are in. As an example we had a passenger in a troubled Middle Eastern country who was hiding from the police as a trans person and would have certainly been killed if arrested. We had the ability to get them to our safe house in Kenya but there was next-to-no chance that their passport would be accepted on a flight to Europe. They refused point-blank to go to Kenya, citing beliefs about African countries which we can only describe as rooted in racism. The reality of a Kenya in which it’s possible for a group of trans people to live in safety was too far a leap for their preconceptions, and they could not go there. The point for you to take on board here is that we all have preconceptions about other parts of the world, and sometimes they’re based on half-truths or outright falsehood. When considering destinations you’ll all have a list of places you’ll consider “safe”, but be prepared to consider the unexpected. For example, was Argentina on your list? Look up the legal status of trans people in that country, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Where Can You Go?
By now, we think you should have some idea of the steps you should take as you consider a move. You’ll know that it’s possible, you’ll have some ideas of how you’ll go forward, and you’re prepared to consider the wider world on its merits. It’s now time to talk about the question we’re usually asked first. Where can you go?
For someone looking at leaving the UK it might be odd to start instead by talking about not getting out, but moving within the country. But since it’s the easiest option of all it’s worth talking about. At this point you have to pull out your crystal ball and make a bet with yourself about what constitutional changes are likely to happen to the country in the aftermath of a very rocky Brexit road. We’re a country of constituent nations, and only a fool wouldn’t recognise that there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be a country of fewer constituent nations before too long. It’s ironic that the constitutional crisis which might end the Union brewing as this is being written has the issue of trans rights at its centre, but it should serve to remind any non-Scottish UK trans people that maybe life north of the border in an independent Scotland could offer a safe future.
Would Wales follow a Scottish lead? Almost certainly, but we’d expect a lot more foot-dragging from London so not in the same time frame. Meanwhile Northern Ireland is politically as delicate as ever, but a place with an easily crossable border to the Republic of Ireland and an inexorable demographic change in progress from Protestant to Catholic. Of the options we’d go for Scotland, but maybe we’ve given you something to think about.
Having exhausted the UK, nearest to us are the EU countries. We may no longer have the freedom of movement we had before Brexit, but we’re still not without possibilities. Of these, top of the list is our closest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland.The status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit may be a roaring trashfire, but the Common Travel Area provisions that predate the EU remain in place allowing citizens of either country to live and work in the other. This makes the Republic of Ireland the easiest destination country for British trans people in terms of immigration, but as with every destination, there’s a catch. Ireland is a lovely place with a good legal status for trans people, but it has many of the same social problems as the UK including astronomical housing costs. If you’re crossing the Irish Sea, make especially sure you have meaningful plans to cover your work and income. Also, for the love of God, read up on the past hundred years of Anglo-Irish history.
Beyond the British Isles, it makes more sense to talk about types of visa and what you should do than it does to list specific countries. Returning to the paragraph about preconceptions, it’s not for us to dictate which countries are safe or not, because while it’s pretty easy to name the least safe countries it isn’t for us to impose any of those preconceptions on you. Look for an accepting cultural and legal environment as you make your list. So back to visas, and here there are plenty of choices. They all require different levels of sacrifice, but among them are options for all levels. We’ll try to list a few below, but this is by no means exhaustive and you will only find what you want by combing the immigration websites of the countries in question.
First up: the employment visa. Not just for high-flyers headhunted by multinationals or even for those lucky enough to be able to land an overseas employer prepared to do the visa legwork, there are still countries offering work visas for mere mortals. Look for skilled worker visas programmes where they are seeking particular specialties, look for industry-sector-based programmes, and look for programmes aimed at particular geographical areas. Just as one example, Canada has visa programmes for people prepared to work in its northern and Atlantic provinces. Getting a work visa will take a lot of research and effort, but once obtained it can be a route to permanent residence and even citizenship.
Then there is a whole category of entrepreneur, freelancer, and digital nomad visas. Most countries have these in some form or another, and while costs vary widely there are still some sweet spots. Leaving aside the citizenship-by-investment programmes which are only for the wealthy, there are often small business schemes which allow a proprietor of a business based in the country to live in the country and run the business. They inevitably require a certain level of cash to be held in the business to remain valid, but it’s often not an unattainable sum. The business itself can even often be a consulting operation, allowing the owner to do a fairly conventional job for which they are employed as a business rather than as a person.
If a business isn’t quite for you but you have a transportable skill, then a digital nomad visa may be for you. These are designed for people who earn money outside the country with a job they can do anywhere with an internet connection, the idea being that a country will attract a group of earners and taxpayers with minimal investment. They are usually fairly short term in the first instance as many people working this way prefer to hop from country to country, but there are usually schemes to extend them or convert them to residency.
These are by no means the only visas on offer, if you spend a while researching you’ll find a load of others for surprising reasons. But what this section should do is remind you that there are plenty of possibilities to be found, and if you’re prepared to do the research and make an effort it doesn’t have to cost the earth, either. Break out Duolingo, and start learning the language!