Steve Huckins, a native of Oregon, was preparing to move across the country when he went on Facebook to post a goodbye letter of sorts to his home state.
“I had planned to die here,” Mr. Huckins, 59, wrote. “It’s a beautiful state. The mountains, the lakes, the rivers, the beaches. All are overshadowed by the societal and political climate.”
Mr. Huckins and his wife, Ginger, were leaving Portland, Ore., one of the most progressive cities in the United States. They said Portland’s tolerance of homeless encampments, along with the open use of hard drugs and rising crime, had filled them with despair. So they headed 2,000 miles east, to deep-red rural Missouri.
Driving around their new hometown in June, about an hour outside St. Louis, they admired the old Victorians and a tractor defying the minimum speed limit on a state road.
“One thing I do like about Missouri, there’s lots of American flags,” Mr. Huckins said as he steered around a traffic circle where the Stars and Stripes flapped crisply on a pole. “In Portland, the American flag was offensive.”
One day earlier, in a neighboring state, another couple making a politically motivated move had a different flag on display — a Pride flag on a T-shirt.
Jennie and Jeff Noble were packing their possessions into a 26-foot U-Haul truck in suburban Iowa. Ms. Noble, 37, who was wearing the Pride T-shirt, and her husband were leaving Iowa for Minnesota.
Their only child, Julien, came out as transgender at age 11. Now 16, Julien uses prescription testosterone. After Iowa banned gender-affirming medical care for minors, criminalizing their son’s treatments, the Nobles — lifelong Iowans — concluded they had to get out.
“We are leaving due to the local politics affecting our son,” Ms. Noble said. “We are moving to Minnesota where the laws are more favorable.”
Americans are increasingly fracturing as a people, and some are taking the extraordinary step of moving to escape a political or social climate they abhor. Democrats have left Iowa, Texas and other red states as Republicans have moved out of California, Oregon and other blue states, often over their views on issues like abortion, transgender rights, school curriculums, guns, race and a host of other matters.
While there is no precise count of how many Americans have relocated because of politics and social issues, interviews with demographers and people who have moved or are considering moving, as well as a review of social-media postings and polling, show the phenomenon is real.
Jesse Jordan, of Tennessee, said he and his fiancée had considered moving to Oregon after Tennessee leaders adopted a near-total abortion ban, with no exception for a fatal fetal abnormality. “It has become kind of unthinkable for us to pursue a pregnancy in this state,” Mr. Jordan said.
Brian Schmidt, a Navy veteran in rural Iowa, who is white, is saving money so he and his wife, who is of Asian and Mexican descent, can move with their 5-year-old son to a more diverse city in a blue state. Matthew Krall, an accountant, has no regrets about moving his family in 2019 to Tennessee from California, where he was frustrated by that state’s Democratic governor and liberal policies.
When Mr. Krall and his neighbors discuss politics now in his conservative suburb outside Nashville, “it’s more of an agreeable conversation,” he said.
In a poll in March for the Axios-Ipsos Two Americas Index, four out of 10 adults said they were somewhat or very likely to move to a state more aligned with their political beliefs. The survey found that a majority of adults, 54 percent, were likely to move if their state passed laws that negatively affected them. “I think what Americans are reporting is that politics is a factor in these very, very important residential choices,” said Justin Gest, a George Mason University government professor who advises the Two Americas Index.
The Huckins family and the Noble family have not met, yet their journeys — from blue Oregon to red Missouri, and from red Iowa to blue Minnesota — mirror each other, unfolding only five weeks apart this spring. One family relocated because of a single issue — restrictions on transgender rights — while the other believed a broad swath of progressive policies had degraded their quality of life. But both families used strikingly similar language to describe their main concern: the need for personal safety.
For the Huckins family, Portland became “unsafe, unsanitary and scary,” Mr. Huckins said. “We had five or six security cameras in our house.”
For the Noble family, it was their son’s safety that worried them, as Iowa Republicans passed anti-transgender laws and used what they felt was dehumanizing rhetoric.
“We’ve been here our whole lives,” Ms. Noble said before the move. “Our families are here, friends are here, jobs are here. But when it came down to it, we have to support our son. We have to keep him safe.”
‘Welcome to Our Red State’
On a Wednesday in late August, four months after their move, Ms. Huckins and her husband took a drive to a farm called Shared Bounty, several miles from their new home in Troy, Mo., a city of 15,000 in Lincoln County. They have been married for 15 years: He retired from a warehouse job with the Army Corps of Engineers last year because of heart problems; she’s the daughter of a minister and ran a day care center.
At the farm, which sells vegetables, milk and preserves, they didn’t see a worker around. So Ms. Huckins picked out a tomato, weighed it and wrote her purchase in a ledger. Payment was on the honor system, the kind of transaction they would have never imagined in Portland.
“It still floors me,” Ms. Huckins said.
In Portland, they lived on the east side in the Centennial neighborhood, where the crime rate is high relative to the rest of the city, according to the police. Their single-story house with brown siding was both home and business: Ms. Huckins operated Ginger’s Joyful Day Care there for 33 years.
The yard held a swing set and other play structures for the children. Inside, pint-size furniture and bins of toys filled brightly painted rooms. Although the small lot was enclosed with a chain-link fence, Ms. Huckins insisted on inspecting the grounds each day before letting the children out to play.
“I had to make sure some addict hadn’t thrown a needle in the yard,” she said.
When a thief stole the catalytic converter out of Mr. Huckins’s Ford pickup, they installed security cameras, two of which monitored the front porch. They moved the truck behind a gate, then padlocked the gate.
“People wanted liberalism in Portland, and they got it,” Mr. Huckins said. “They’ve got an out-of-control homeless problem. They’ve got an out-of-control fentanyl problem. They’ve got a lack of police.”
The couple said the quality of life in Portland and their neighborhood deteriorated after months of protests, some violent, following the 2020 killing of George Floyd. “We had riots within blocks of our house,” Mr. Huckins said.
In 2020, Oregon voters approved a measure to decriminalize possession of hard drugs for personal use. Homelessness, a challenge to many cities, is rampant in Portland, which for years took a hands-off attitude toward tent camping on sidewalks. Amid calls to “defund the police,” $15.1 million was cut from the police department’s budget in 2020.
Mr. Huckins became a frequent consumer of social media feeds that were devoted to Portland’s problems. While he was confined at home because of his health during the Covid pandemic, he binged on outrages.
He commented angrily on Facebook last year about a news story that described how marchers dressed in black broke windows during a protest. The same month, Mr. Huckins posted home-security video of a young man in a hoodie approaching one of his cars in front of his house overnight, apparently trying to break in.
In the end, Mr. Huckins and his wife were not driven to give up on Portland by a single incident. The last straw may have been a state effort to charge tolls on Interstate highways in the city. They said it came on top of a tripling of their property taxes. They believed liberal politicians were leaning on homeowners to pay for programs that enabled homelessness and crime. “They cut my police force for their agenda,” Mr. Huckins said.
For years, Ms. Huckins’s daughter from her first marriage, Stacee Hord, had encouraged her mother and stepfather to move to Missouri, where her young family had settled. After resolving to move out of Portland late last year, Missouri was the obvious choice of a destination for the Huckinses because of their three grandchildren. Mr. Huckins posted about the impending move on Facebook the day after New Year’s. “It’s exciting, scary and unsettling,” he wrote.
Since relocating to Troy, Mr. Huckins has unfollowed all the Portland news feeds that agitated him during his Oregon days. On Facebook, he gleefully posted his $9 bill for weekly garbage pickup in Missouri, writing, “We paid $60 a month in Portland.”
Their new home is in a subdivision named The Hamptons, carved from corn fields, with wide streets and sidewalks. “My pickup, I left it parked and unlocked on the street for three or four days,” Mr. Huckins said. “It was not ransacked. It was not stolen.”
Mr. Huckins and his wife now spend much of their days at home, watching TV in his-and-hers reclining chairs. Their living room is a tidy space decorated with Ms. Huckins’s figurines and dollhouse pieces. The kitchen had so many of her refrigerator magnets that dozens were exiled to the back of the door leading to the garage. Ms. Huckins’s grandchildren — ages 10, 8 and 3 — visit often and play in the craft room she set up in the basement.
“Living here is a whole different environment,” Mr. Huckins said. “We have new dreams, new visions, new thoughts.”
Neither he nor his wife had any regrets about their move. “It’s so much better here — financially, emotionally, mentally,” he said.
When they tell people they relocated from Oregon, they often receive a similar response: “Welcome to our red state.” Not long ago, Mr. Huckins met a local police officer and mentioned that he had moved to Missouri from Oregon. The officer rolled his eyes and uttered an expletive.
‘Can We Move to Minnesota?’
One day in early March, Republican lawmakers in Iowa passed a law banning gender-affirming care for minors. Supporters argued that people under 18 were too immature to make decisions about treatments, which can include puberty blockers, sex-specific hormones and surgeries.
As the news broke that afternoon, Julien Noble, a 16-year-old who had been taking prescription testosterone under a doctor’s care, sent his parents a text: “Can we move to Minnesota?”
It had been nearly five years since Julien had come out as transgender to his parents, on the day before Mother’s Day. His mother’s reaction was complex but instinctively supportive.
“Obviously with any of this, there’s a grief, you know,” Ms. Noble said, adding, “But I knew he would be so much happier.”
Delaying medical treatments until he was legally an adult, Julien said, would have prolonged the unhappiness he felt since recognizing his identity in early adolescence.
“I was so sure of myself at like 11 or 12,” Julien said. “If I were to wait until I was 18, that’s, like, six more years of lagging behind and not feeling secure about anything.” With the treatments, he added, “I can, like, go to the grocery store and not be nervous that everyone’s like, ‘He’s a girl!’”
A transition that began in middle school with Julien cropping his hair short and practicing a deeper voice in his bedroom progressed to a legal name change last year. The family’s pediatrician required him to undergo a year of psychotherapy before beginning hormone injections.
“We could see he was not going to change his mind,” Ms. Noble said. “This is who he is.”
Julien’s parents married fresh out of high school in rural northwest Iowa. Mr. Noble worked in the meat department of a supermarket. Ms. Noble studied online to be a paralegal. When they were growing up, Iowa was a leader in civil rights, legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009 and adding protections for transgender people to the state’s Civil Rights Act in 2007. They were barely aware of partisan divides in their native Cherokee County.
“I just don’t remember it being political at all, like it wasn’t a thing,” said Mr. Noble, 38, whose meat-cutting job gave way to a career in computer software. “I used to think I’d want to live here all of my life because people were so nice.”
But since the 2016 presidential election, when Donald J. Trump easily carried the state, Iowa has tilted sharply rightward. The state passed a six-week abortion ban in 2018, at the time one of the strictest in the nation, and a law allowing adults to buy and carry handguns without a permit was passed in 2021. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, made restrictions on transgender youth central to her agenda the past two years.
In response to Julien’s text in March, his parents said they would keep an eye on the legislation to ban treatments for minors. They believed it was possible the governor might not sign it.
Still, they debated leaving Iowa. For seven happy years, they had lived in Ankeny, a rapidly growing suburb of Des Moines, buying a home on a corner lot in a subdivision called White Birch. Minnesota was close and familiar, just a three-hour drive away. And the suburbs of Minneapolis were similar to those ringing Des Moines, though politically they were more blue than red. On the same day that Iowa lawmakers acted in March, Tim Walz, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, issued an executive order to protect gender-affirming treatments for minors in his state.
The Nobles weighed whether they could simply wait things out until Julien was 18, driving to Minneapolis for his biweekly testosterone shots. That way he could finish his senior year at Ankeny High School, where he had a circle of friends who supported one other.
During a trip back to Cherokee County to visit his parents, Mr. Noble and his wife told them that they were thinking of leaving because of the legislation. Charles Noble — his 70-year-old father, and Julien’s grandfather — said he and his wife were fully supportive of the move, to ensure Julien’s happiness. “Jules is still our grandchild, and we love him just the same,” he said.
But Iowa lawmakers soon passed another bill: The G.O.P. majority barred students from using restrooms that did not align with their biological sex. The bathroom bill tipped the Noble family toward their decision to leave. Since Julien had begun using testosterone, his voice had deepened and his sideburns had grown in.
“It would be awkward if he were in the female restroom,” his mother said.
In late March, Ms. Reynolds signed both bills into law. That night, the Nobles made the decision to put their house up for sale. They chose a moving date in June, a few days after the end of Julien’s junior year.
They planned to keep their jobs and work remotely. In the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley where they had rented a home, Julien would enter his new school at the start of his senior year. Like any new student, he was nervous.
“It depends on the day, it depends on the hour how I feel,” Julien said. “Minnesota is, like, great. And it’s, like, safe and it’s lovely. And like our new house is cool. But then it’s like I have to go to a new school and do the whole thing again, and try to meet new friends.”
In late August, the gym at Eastview High School in Apple Valley rocked with the cheers of hundreds of students and their families. To welcome newcomers, the school staged a pep rally with its marching band and its state-champion dance team.
It was two days before the start of a new school year, and Julien, after spending several weeks in Chicago at an art school over the summer, was there with his parents, sitting high up in the bleachers. The family had started settling into Apple Valley, with Ms. Noble finding new friends through a Facebook group.
Most of the students at the rally were freshmen. Julien was a senior transfer student. Afterward, a student guide wearing a backward baseball cap gave Julien and two other newcomers a tour. The student guide pointed out “my favorite room in the building — the wrestling room.” Julien described his new school as “a bunch of sports teams that sometimes teaches classes.”
His father tried to be reassuring. “I’m sure it’ll be fun once you get to know some people,” he told his son.
The Nobles said they had no second thoughts about leaving Iowa.
While driving to a barbecue in Minneapolis for her Facebook group, Ms. Noble had been pleased to see Pride and Black Lives Matter signs. Like the Huckins family, the Nobles had stopped closely following political news from their old state. When people asked why they had moved, Ms. Noble said she kept it vague, saying simply that the state was a better fit for her family.
“I told some people that I’ve gotten to know the real reason why,” Ms. Noble said. “But it’s hard. I mean, so many people are still so hateful and not supportive.”
Mr. Noble still seemed stunned that in America in 2023, politics would drive a family to seek refuge across state lines.
“I don’t quite understand how it got so crazy,” he said. He didn’t even know if his parents were Democrats or Republicans when he was growing up.
His son was more concerned with the effect than the cause. “It’s like we’re one country on paper,” Julien said. “But we’re not really.”
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.