Robby Price spent many early mornings wondering if he and his family would be able to continue to enjoy their recently constructed Sarasota home and life in Southwest Florida or if he, his husband, and their 6-year-old son would finally make the painful decision to leave the Sunshine State behind for good.
Price and Jordan Letschert, or Papa and Dada to their son, Kellan, were married seven years ago at Historic Spanish Point in Osprey a few miles south of downtown Sarasota. The couple has been together for 12 years and became parents via surrogacy. Their son is why the family finally decided to make the life-changing decision to move from Sarasota, Letschert’s hometown.
“It’s getting harder and harder to stay. The discrimination and the hate have gotten so in-your-face,” Letschert said. “There have been events we’ve gone to with our son, and we have looked at each other and asked, ‘Should we be here?’ ”
Recent headlines have tracked how people have been flocking to the Sunshine State from across the country for milder weather, a good economy and relaxed pandemic restrictions, among other reasons. But others are weighing leaving Florida, citing a shift in tolerance and policies they view as marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community as reasons they're looking for friendlier communities in new states – and even different countries. Four Sarasota families, including Letschert and Price, shared their experiences with the Herald-Tribune.
An active leader in Sarasota’s LGBTQ+ community, Letschert, 40, is a former police officer and entrepreneur who owns a handful of gym franchises and a family-run resort in Key West. He grew up in Sarasota and the couple's son now goes to the same independent school that Letschert attended in his youth. Price, 40, is also an entrepreneur and director of an online e-commerce company that supports the LGBTQ+ community.
However, Letschert and Price say they feel attitudes toward their community shifting in Florida following the passage of legislation that LGTBQ+ advocates and individuals believe directly targets those in the already marginalized community.
In June 2021, Letschert, along with a handful of Sarasota officials and advocates, was instrumental in helping to reverse the decision of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to not light up John Ringling Causeway bridge in pride colors in conjunction with the annual Pride Month celebration.
Less than a year later, in spring 2022, the Florida Legislature enacted two laws — the Individual Freedom Act, more commonly known as the Stop Wrongs Against our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, and the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that regulates how race, sexual orientation, and gender identity can be discussed in schools, among other things. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the two bills into law last July, which prompted outrage and opposition from some local students, educators, and advocates.
“That Parental Rights bill was the most disheartening because we’re parents, too,” Price said. “Every night we hope that things will change here, but at this point, it literally feels like we are fleeing persecution.”
'Florida has left us'
In early summer 2022, the family reached a turning point after learning of a playtime interaction at Kellan's summer camp in Sarasota. Kellan’s parents say he proudly described his family and his two dads to another child his age, but was met with negativity. Kellan was later called "weird" by the child, prompting Letschert and Price to speak with the camp leaders.
That was when they decided it was best to relocate.
“Kellan talks so openly about our family. He has a huge personality, he is so bright and outgoing … We don’t want his light to be dimmed by people that don’t even know him and judge him because of who we are,” Price said.
By the middle of July, the family had visited two cities in the Pacific Northwest and made an impromptu trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada in search of the right place. None were the right fit, they said, so Kellan was re-enrolled into his Sarasota independent school.
When they returned, they felt a growing concern about staying in Sarasota and for the safety of their son after local elections and what Letschert called political overreach, a reference to the election of a slate of conservative candidates that shifted the balance of policy-making power on the Sarasota County School Board.
“Our tax dollars go to fund public schools, and we have elected leaders who are working against us. Now, the public is being pushed to anger … they don’t want to understand people who are different,” Letshert said.
A final trip to Denver in early October helped give Price and Letschert the sense of reassurance and hope they hadn’t found in their other visits, after they toured one of the local charter elementary schools in the Denver school system.
“The diversity policy was baked into the application itself,” Letschert said. “After that trip, it was the first time we came back to Florida, and it felt like we were in a placeholder home.”
“It is such a stark contrast to what we are used to seeing in Florida,” Price said, adding: "There, we wouldn’t have to wake up thinking about battles to fight every morning. Nothing is going to change in Florida.”
Letschert says the family has requested Kellan’s transfer documents from their independent school and plans to relocate at the end of the school year.
His family lives in Sarasota County, but he says the political climate, coupled with the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, has even begun to chip away at his relationships with his friends and relatives. He said he’s felt a growing wedge with those who vote more conservatively.
“Family and friends carve us out in their minds when voting. I never thought living here in Florida that our very close family members would be voting for these policies,” Letschert said. “So, I don’t feel like we are leaving Florida; I feel like Florida has left us.”
Sarasota family eyes new country for daughter
A Sarasota mother named Amanda, who asked that her last name not be used because of fears for her family's safety had an inkling early on that her eldest daughter was gay. She and her husband were prepared for the day that their daughter would come out to them, but she says has concerns about whether Florida is a safe place for her daughter and others like her.
Following the enactment of the Parental Rights in Education Act last year, the mother says she feels a shift in attitudes in Sarasota that make her less secure.
“Sarasota always leaned right, but the politics weren’t as divisive as they are now. So, it was manageable to live here; everyone just played nice, and we were happy to be raising our children in this community. But we have made the tough choice to leave,” she said.
After her 8-year-old daughter identified as gay to her last year, the mother began to question whether Sarasota or Florida as a whole were the best places for her family. The stay-at-home mother and her husband began having a conversation about moving not only out of the state of Florida but outside the U.S.
The couple eventually narrowed down their relocation options to Canada, where they plan to move to within the next year.
“We looked at all of our options. We really tried to find a way to stay here, but the issues that we’re seeing are systemic and not only locally, but as a nation. So, we figured if we were going to move and uproot our family then that’s where we’ll do it,” she said.
The Sarasota mother echoed parents interviewed who cited legislation they felt targeted LGBTQ+ families and individuals. She explained that the two bills, along with the controversial overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade precedent, impacts her family directly and worries that the challenges are only beginning.
The move to Canada will afford the family a fresh start, closer proximity to her husband’s Canadian-based employer, and an environment that lets her daughter be who she is without fear, she said.
“My daughter is a target. I feel like because we can do better, we should do better,” she said. “I worry for the kids and families who can’t leave. What’s going to happen to those kids whose parents, and now the schools, don’t support or accept them?”
Veteran family counting down to Florida exit
For over 30 years, Zeth Pugh has called Sarasota home. However, the 42-year-old and her husband, Jay Pugh, a combat-disabled Army veteran, are only a few months away from uprooting their family to relocate to a new state with their transgender 15-year-old.
The family has faced many challenges because of reactions to their ninth-grader's gender identity and transition, ultimately opting for homeschooling.
Pugh and her husband, 52, removed their son from public middle school three years ago because they said classmates bullied him when he identified as bisexual. Their son's transition, coupled with the family’s potential health concerns due to the COVID-19 virus, prompted them to homeschool, his mother said.
However, Pugh said state legislation and rules regarding treatment of transgender children, and, more recently, bullying their son has experienced in the family’s neighborhood, has pushed them to seek a safer environment for him.
“Having people in the community who feel that it’s okay and even righteous to bully him, is just ridiculous. I feel terrorized. The politics, they worked. As a queer family, I feel terrorized. I came to that realization the other day and I was devastated,” Pugh said.
Their child continues to face mental health issues as a result of bullying as well as body dysmorphia as the teen transitions gender, his mother says. “He’s frustrated,” Pugh said. “He was a typical kid, tall and skinny for his age but puberty hit fast and hard.”
After her son’s most recent voluntary check-in and release from a behavioral health center in October, Pugh said she began efforts to move her family from Sarasota to Oregon.
In a move backed by DeSantis, the Florida Board of Medicine on Nov. 5, voted to enact a policy that now restricts doctors from prescribing hormone blockers to minors, though minors already on hormone therapy are exempt from the restriction.
“When I realized what happened at the Board of Medicine meeting, at that moment I knew that my parental rights no longer mattered,” Pugh said.
The decision to move wasn’t without major sacrifices. In the fall, Pugh withdrew from her doctorate program in educational program development at the University of South Florida. Her husband will be leaving his job of over a decade when the family moves in April.
“It is hard, and I have really been struggling," Pugh said. "I’m walking away from my lifelong dream of earning my doctorate degree because I can’t raise my child here.
“My husband, a veteran, has worked for the same company for 12 years, now he’ll be unemployed.”
What she and her family are giving up, Pugh believes, will be worth the safety that their teen needs to live a long, healthy life.
“I know there are bigots everywhere, but I know that in Oregon we will have some protections,” Pugh said. “He is really relieved that we are leaving Florida. He’s aware that everyone seems to hate him, but he’s making improvements. When we are living in a state where he’s seen I won’t be afraid as a parent as much as I am here.”
In Oregon, Pugh is hopeful that her son will be able to find better care for his medical needs and protections in place for LGBTQ+ families. The Pacific Northwest state is one of 20 in the U.S. that currently has full LGBTQ non-discrimination protections. Oregon has no anti-transgender health policies in place for youth and provides numerous resources for transgender-affirming care for minors and support for their caregivers.
The family is working with a real estate agent to build a new home in Oregon and is awaiting the sale of their Sarasota home.
“Yes, we live in paradise, but I can’t wait to get the hell out,” Pugh said.
‘Choosing to stay would be choosing to struggle everyday’
Michael Rothgeb remembers his move as a young man from his native state of Indiana to Sarasota in 1994.
“It was an absolute paradise,” Rothgeb said. “The sunny, conservative town is not the same. This Florida is totally different than what it used to be.”
Rothgeb, 40, along with his 15-year-old, gender-fluid teen is bound for the Pacific Northwest as they relocate from Southwest Florida. The Air Force veteran has spent just shy of 30 years in Sarasota and is permanently disabled from his military service.
Over the past year, Rothgeb said he’s watched as Florida legislators have enacted what he considers ”extreme’’ policies and created an unsafe environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community. He said he worries that he and his non-binary teen could face healthcare restrictions.
He said the 2022 Florida legislation and the restrictions on transgender care are the tip of the iceberg.
“It honestly feels like I’m back in the military during 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Rothgeb said, referring to the controversial, now repealed, U.S. military policy that allowed non-heterosexual citizens to serve in the military if they refrained from publicly sharing their sexual orientation.
“This is all a huge overreach and a huge misstep,” he said. “These bills have been a steamroll of events and politics in Florida. This won’t be a quick course correction, and Florida will be on this path of hate for the next 20 to 30 years.”
Rothgeb says for the sake of his teen, and others in the LGBTQ+ community, the best course of action is to relocate to a state with less targeted policies.
“For the safety of our kids, I think we just have to get out now,” Rothgeb said. “Choosing to stay would be choosing to struggle every day, but I am heartbroken about the move.”
Samantha Gholar covers social justice news for the Herald-Tribune and USA TODAY Network. Connect with her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @samanthagholar
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Families reconsider raising kids in Florida due to anti-LGBTQ sentiment