LOCAL

How Peoria became a progressive sanctuary for these LGBTQ people, out-of-state residents

Alex Dalton
Journal Star
  • All of the people who spoke to the Journal Star for this story pointed to the cheap cost of homes in the area as a major draw.
  • The political and social climates in Florida, Indiana and Texas have made some people consider Illinois for a new place to live.

Christina Cubbage is no stranger to discrimination.

Cubbage, a bisexual woman, said she endured abuse and harassment because of a high school relationship with a girl in her Texas hometown.

"I caught a lot of grief about it," she said. "I was even disowned by my own family. I got kicked out at a very young age."

While her relationship with her parents has improved somewhat over the years, she said the social climate of her home state has gotten more hostile to liberals and members of the LGBTQ community.

"It's always been conservative here. After the Trump administration though, it just felt like a huge shift," she said. "At least before you could be tolerated. Now you're very much condemned."

Several current and former red-state residents who shared their stories with the Journal Star echoed Cubbage in describing a social climate that has become more outwardly intolerant in recent years. It's a shift that has led her and others to mull a relocation to Peoria.

A shifting national landscape

This has been a banner year for bold socially conservative policies at the state level.

In February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state's Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate certain forms of gender-affirming health care given to children — usually nonsurgical interventions like hormones and puberty blockers — as child abuse. The following month, Florida passed a law banning teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through the third grade; critics have labeled it the "Don't Say Gay" law and lamented it as a bid to erase LGBTQ people from public life.

In June, the United States Supreme court delivered anti-abortion conservatives a victory they had sought for decades with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion established in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. Subsequently, 14 states, all Republican-controlled, have banned nearly all abortions.

Lauren McNabb, who lives with her husband and 3-year-old son in Corpus Christi, Texas, said that the Dobbsdecision and the implementation of her state's total abortion ban was a major factor in her plan to leave Texas for Peoria.

"I have a son. I don't want another child, and I don't even think my body could handle another pregnancy," she said. "So I'm literally choosing between risking my life and going to jail if I get pregnant."

Sarah Hicks lived with her family in Austin, Texas, until moving to Peoria in July. The implementation of the state's abortion ban left her fearful for her 19-year-old daughter, who is in college. The Texas law makes no exceptions for rape or incest, a fact Hicks finds particularly disturbing. She pointed to statistics showing that about a quarter of female undergraduates will experience rape or sexual assault during the course of their studies.

"There was just no way we could stay someplace where she had the potential to be a victim twice," she said.

More:Roe's fall is making Illinois an abortion haven for red-state women, to residents' chagrin

'Now it's straight-up harassment'

McNabb pointed to the election of President Donald Trump as an inflection point in the way conservative Texans treated her.

"Before, maybe you get weird looks here and there because your hair's dyed a funny color," said McNabb, who is a bisexual woman and an atheist. "But now it's straight-up harassment."

A YouGov poll released in April found that nearly half of Republicans believe that "Gay and lesbian public school teachers are trying to recruit children to the gay and lesbian lifestyle and prey on them sexually," indicating widespread embrace of the unfounded "grooming" accusations that have recently become a favored rhetorical tool of many conservative pundits and politicians.

More:The Peoria metro area is the cheapest place in the US to buy a home, according to website

Why move to Peoria?

Illinois implemented comprehensive abortion rights legislation in 2019, and the state's Supreme Court has recognized the right to abortion under the Illinois state constitution. Gov. JB Pritzker responded to the Dobbs decision by calling a special session of the state's General Assembly to focus on expanding access to abortion and other reproductive health care. The Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, has given the LGBTQ rights laws in Illinois its most favorable rating.

Within Illinois, Peoria bears an attractive distinction: affordability. In March, Realtor.com named Greater Peoria the cheapest place in the country to buy a home. At the time, the website noted a median home price of just $98,000, well south of the national median price of $392,000. All of the people who spoke to the Journal Star for this story pointed to the cheap cost of homes in the area as a major draw.

"Texas has gotten so astronomically expensive. There's just no way my husband and I would ever be able to afford to live here," Cubbage said. "And I don't want to buy a house in a state that refuses to change."

The city has gained national attention in recent years as a destination for progressives, thanks in part to the work of Angie Ostaszewski, a local Tiktok influencer whose videos highlight the perks of life in the River City. Peoria Transplants, a Facebook group that she moderates, brings together progressive-minded new arrivals to the area to ask and answer questions, plan events and celebrate the city's offerings.

Ostaszewski told the Journal Star that the Dobbs decision and the year's other developments had led to an upsurge in the number of people inquiring about Peoria, particularly among those most affected by new red-state policies.

"We are seeing many families with trans children begin emergency relocation to Peoria when they had previously been only considering it," Ostaszewski wrote in a Facebook message. "I am speaking with dozens of folks fleeing the South in light of Supreme court rulings."

It's difficult to determine how many red-state progressives have relocated to Peoria, and how that number compares with broader trends in the city's demographics.

The Peoria area isn't all liberal. Just under 52% of Peoria County voters cast their ballots for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. But for Hicks, who in Texas "no longer felt like I was in a place where our vote, our voice, our opinion in any way, shape or form mattered," the narrow margin makes a big difference.

"It has felt very welcoming," she said, noting the pride flags displayed by many of the city's homes and businesses.

More:The pros and cons of Peoria's affordable housing market

'A matter of self-preservation'

Alex Thixton and his husband, both of whom grew up in Indiana, moved to Peoria earlier this year.

While most of the people he encountered growing up were kind and accepting, Indiana's policies made him want to leave, which he and his husband did in 2019. In 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that LGBTQ advocates say enables businesses and individuals to discriminate under the guise of religious liberty.

The couple spent a few years in Portland, Oregon, but found it prohibitively expensive. Following a period spent living in their van and traveling the country, they began looking for a permanent home in early 2022. By then, Thixton said, the factors that had led them to leave Indiana in the first place were even more pronounced.

Both Thixton and his husband are transgender, and the two of them saw that their home state had seemingly grown even less hospitable since they left. In May, Indiana state legislators voted to override the veto of the state's Republican governor and impose a ban on transgender girls participating in school sports. In August, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis could fire Catholic school teachers who marry same-sex partners.

"Whereas our initial departure from Indiana, which was also politically motivated, was more of an effort to seek out a more progressive area to live, our decision to stay away from Indiana and live in Peoria instead is a matter of self-preservation," he wrote in an email. "As a queer trans person in a same-gender marriage, I fear for what rights might be taken from me next — and even on a smaller scale, I don’t want to live in and pay taxes to a place that does not care at all about the people who live there."

Thixton first heard about Peoria from Ostaszewski's TikTok account. The city, he wrote, has turned out to be "a really neat place to live," and its location allows him to be close to family who still live in Indiana.

"Most importantly," he wrote, "I don’t feel the same looming sense of danger that felt ever-present while living in Indiana, which means the world."

Cubbage and her husband have made up their minds to relocate to central Illinois — either to Peoria, which she also learned about from Ostaszewski's TikTok account, or to Mattoon, a city of just under 17,000 people that promises families willing to relocate an incentives package.

Moving to Illinois, she said, means establishing a sanctuary that members of her family can visit should they ever need to access abortion services.

"When Roe v. Wade was overturned, my husband and I both agreed that we needed to make a safe space for our nieces," she said.

'People have been surprisingly kind'

McNabb plans to move to Peoria early in 2023. It's a decision that she has not made lightly.

"I've made a really good group of friends that are leftists, that are progressive. We protest together. We do charity work together. We're really fighting down here to try to protect the environment, to get people out to vote," she said. "What's going to be hard about leaving is, it almost feels like I'm running away from the problems instead of sticking to my guns, so to speak, and trying to help fix them."

Jade Paler, top right, and her family, Izzeyl Reverie, top left, Phoenix Paler, 12, lower left, and Orion Paler, 9, recently left Florida for the less conservative environs of Peoria.

Jade Paler moved to Peoria with her partner and two children from Orlando, Florida, in August. She pointed to what she sees as an increasingly bold climate of racism in her home state as a major reason she and her partner elected to leave. Paler, who is Hispanic, said that she had stopped speaking Spanish in public and feared for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter, who unlike the rest of her family is not white-passing.

Paler said she was impressed with the amount of care and community she experienced in her new neighborhood near the Bradley University campus.

"People have been surprisingly kind," she said. "I had a woman on my street bake me zucchini bread and brought it to me and welcomed me to the neighborhood," she said.

Paler has endeavored to raise her children without restrictive gender roles, and said that her son sometimes sports painted nails. It's a personal choice that she said led to incidents of bullying in his Florida school that left him afraid to return to class.

So far, things in Peoria have been different.

"My son, who was out of my children the more anxious about school, had come back and said he had made so many friends and that was such a great experience," she said.