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This article was produced through the NPR NextGen/Texas Observer Print Scholars program, a new collaboration designed to offer mentorship and hands-on training to student journalists and recent graduates interested in a career in investigative journalism.
For Greyson’s safety, identifying details, locations, and recent photos of his face have been intentionally left out of this story.
The lull between spring and fall semester was short-lived at the Rodriguez house. Lauren Rodriguez, a 37-year-old social worker, was busy managing a list of things that need to get done before her teenage son, Greyson Rodriguez, can start college in the fall. But before orientation and moving Greyson more than 1,000 miles away to begin his undergraduate career, the Rodriguez family needed to get through high school graduation.
Several boxes of supplies cluttered the dining room table, ready to be shipped to the school. Rodriguez checked on Greyson for the second time, warning the sleeping teen that he had a student advising appointment beginning in a few minutes. Greyson emerged, sluggish and silent, to sit on an oversized brown loveseat and stare at his phone. The neediest of their three dogs, Daisy, hopped into his lap to demand attention.
“He can be lazy sometimes, because that’s all teenagers,” Rodriguez says of Greyson. “But when he wants something, he’s very driven.”
Greyson has had to be driven. He graduated a year early to escape Texas, which he has mockingly nicknamed “the great state of hate.” Indeed, Texas is one of the most dangerous states in the country for a teen like Greyson.
At 13, Greyson came out as trans. He and his family faced abuse, cruelty, death threats, and aggression. “While I never read them, I know that during the summer I got death threats when I was 13 from people in my neighborhood who were sending me mail telling me to kill myself and they wanted me to die,” Greyson says. He was forced to switch to an online school and the family eventually moved to the more progressive Austin area to get away from their conservative hometown. Texas ranks second in the U.S. in number of cases of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people since 2013, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Since he came out, both he and his mother have become advocates for LGBTQ Texans, especially trans youth. In March, Lauren Rodriguez testified in front of the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence in support of House Bill 73, which would have banned the use of the “gay/trans panic” defense. The panic defense, often cited by defendants in cases of violence directed at gay or trans people, argues that after an individual discovered someone was gay or trans, they panicked and assaulted or killed them.
“Currently in the state of Texas, a criminal penalty for a defendants’ violence, including murder, can be lessened or eliminated if the perpetrator claims that the victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation triggered a mental breakdown that resulted in their loss of self control and subsequent assault,” state Representative Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat who filed HB 73, said during the public hearing.
In more than 100 criminal cases between 1970 and 2020 where defendants attempted to use the “gay/trans panic” defense, the highest concentration of cases took place in Texas, according to W. Carsten Andresen a professor at St. Edwards University in Austin and an expert on the topic.
But the 87th Texas Legislature failed to pass HB 73, signaling to LGBTQ Texans like Greyson Rodriguez and his family that the “gay/trans panic” defense is still an acceptable excuse for violence against vulnerable Texans. The bill was brought to a vote and rejected in the House committee, while the Senate companion never got a hearing. Despite the defense’s conflict with federal hate crime laws and a 2013 resolution from the American Bar Association calling for states to ban it, so far only 15 states and D.C. have passed legislation banning the use of the “gay/trans panic” defense, with bills proposed in Texas and 10 other states.
In 2018, James Miller, a 69-year-old Austin man, was sentenced to six months in jail plus 10 years probation for stabbing his neighbor Daniel Spencer to death. Instead of a murder or manslaughter charge, Miller was convicted of the lesser offense of criminally negligent homicide after claiming that Spencer had made sexual advances and that he acted in self-defense. However, prosecutors called the self-defense claim “ludicrous,” saying Miller didn’t have “so much as a scratch on him.” LGBTQ rights advocates and experts like Andresen point to the light sentence in this case as an example of the “gay/trans panic” defense at work.
“‘Are they going to get away with murder?’ That’s the concern,” Greyson says. “It’s not a matter of if it’ll stop or to lower the rates that we’re being killed. It’s, if we do die at least justice is being served properly.”
During the public hearing, 11 people, including Rodriguez, testified in support of banning the defense and submitted a total of 15 pages of written statements supporting the bill. In contrast, only a lobbyist from Texas Values Action, a conservative think tank and evangelical Christian organization, testified against HB 73.
“I think it’s not good public policy to include definitions of sexual orientation or gender identity because it forces us to determine what a person perceives,” said Jonathan Covey, the Texas Values Action lobbyist. “You easily run into issues of constitutional vagueness when you use this terminology.”
In 2009, the federal definition of a hate crime was expanded to include crimes motivated by gender identity and sexual orientation in federal cases, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While Texas’s hate crime statute includes crimes motivated by sexual orientation, it does not include crimes motivated by gender identity.
During the public hearing on HB 73, Covey also said that his organization opposed the bill due to free speech concerns. “It’s typically a bad public policy to ban offensive speech,” Covey said. “Open discussion even in a courtroom is better than allowing supposed bias to fester in a type of subconscious realm.”
“This is not a free speech bill,” state Representative Ann Johnson replied. “We are talking about the criminal context where it’s assaultive conduct. Right? So it’s not a speech.”
“I understand that,” Covey said.
Johnson continued: “For example if a 16-year-old has sex with a 32-year-old, we would not allow the 32-year old to say, ‘but she consented.’ We have made a policy decision that there is no consent, correct?”
“I think I’m following what you’re saying,” Covey said. But, “we don’t create laws that hinge on someone’s perception of how much they weigh or create laws that hinge on someone’s perception of how tall they are.”
Rodriguez says that this failure to support and affirm gay, trans, and gender diverse Texans at the state level exacerbates safety concerns for Greyson. “My son has to live in fear of someone finding out he is trans and hurting him,” Rodriguez said during her testimony.
In nearly every social situation, Greyson has to consider how someone would react to him coming out as trans. At his first job as a host in a restaurant, Greyson says he “tested the waters” to gauge his coworkers’ acceptance of him by mentioning his long-time boyfriend; he didn’t tell them he was trans.
Rodriguez and her son have strict rules around dating, specifically about coming out to potential partners. Because LGBTQ people are at a much greater risk of intimate partner violence, Rodriguez and Greyson have agreed that the first few dates with a new person will always be in public and that Greyson will only come out if he decides it’s safe and wants to pursue a relationship. He says that conversation is also about mutual respect.
“If I think I want to have a relationship with you and you think you want to have a relationship with me, I still want that to be built on everything being out in the open,” he says. “Not built on your assumptions on what you think is going on, only for that to be thrown out the window and you having a crisis or not understanding what to do with this information.”
On a humid day in early June, Greyson accepts his high school diploma during a socially distanced, in-person commencement ceremony. He’s difficult to spot in his emerald cap and gown with a black mask covering nearly his entire face.
When his name is called, Greyson walks out onto the stage to shake hands with administrators, as his mother, father, and grandparents cheer from a section near the front of the room. Then he disappears again into the first few rows of seats filled with other teens leaving high school behind.
Greyson also plans to leave behind his activism, at least for a while. “Passing isn’t the goal,” Rodriguez says, but both she and Greyson describe the importance of his identity outside of being trans, and safety concerns around his visibility.
“There’s some people who think every single person on the planet has a right to know,” Greyson says. “In my opinion it would be great if everyone had the ability to know and it wasn’t a threat. But the less random people who freaking know, the less risk there is.”
Greyson will start college in the fall, 1,200 miles away from his home and parents because he says he isn’t safe in “the great state of hate.” Inspired by the affirming care he has received from his medical team, Rodriguez says that he plans on studying nursing. Lauren had hoped that a bill banning the “gay/trans panic” defense would bring some peace of mind that would allow her family to remain close.
“If we pass this bill, my son may be able to feel safe enough to return to Texas and live as his authentic self,” Rodriguez said during her testimony. “And I would have my son closer to me.”