Eli Logan lived the first 46 years of her life in her native Florida. She probably, she said, would have “stayed 46 more.”
But between the state’s politics pushing hard to the right and a slew of new laws affecting Florida’s LGBTQ+ community, schools and more, she’s joined the ranks of those leaving Florida for places they find safer for themselves and their families.
Logan, her husband and their three daughters recently left Brevard for an area of Georgia that’s a splash of political blue northeast of Atlanta. It’s a place this nurse practitioner sees as a “better, healthier place” to raise the couple’s children, the oldest of whom identifies as gay.
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She’s not alone. When Logan announced her family’s move on Facebook, well wishes were punctuated with messages like “We can’t stay either. It’s not safe and it’s not headed in a healthy direction.” Over the past few weeks, other goodbyes have popped up across social media, like that of Stacey and Sanjay Patel, staples of the Brevard County Democratic Party for several years. And Wendy Johnson, who explained in an impassioned Facebook post why she, her husband and their daughter would soon be moving to New York.
It’s not like people aren’t moving to Florida: They are. According to census figures, a net total of about 320,000 made the move to Florida between 2021 and 2022, making it the “most moved to” state in the country; a place where people flock for warmer weather, lower taxes and likely, in some cases, politics to their liking.
But the departure of Florida residents not for a better job, or to be closer to family, or for improved living conditions but because they say they no longer feel welcome … it’s different. And it’s to-the-bone personal for everyone who makes that decision.
Some say the exodus of those feeling disenchanted and disenfranchised has only just started. Even former Florida Rep. David Jolly, a Republican, said he considered leaving the state where he was born and raised, citing DeSantis’ attacks on migrants, the LGBTQ community and African Americans.
“Why would I want to raise my kids in an environment in which they’re shamed for embracing diversity of thought and diverse cultures?” Jolly said in a May 21 interview on MSNBC.
It’s easier for some, financially, to pick up and go, especially those who have jobs waiting or enough resources to get reestablished in a new location. But no matter the circumstances, leaving is draining, emotionally and physically, say three Space Coast families who’ve made that choice.
The Logan family.
The Patels, formerly of Satellite Beach, and their 2-year-old daughter.
And the Johnson-Chunka family of Melbourne Beach: Wendy Johnson, Peter Chunka and their daughter, Jenny.
These are mere snapshots of their stories, but they have a common thread: Family comes first. And these people, from a mix of political backgrounds, no longer see their families as welcome and able to thrive in the Sunshine State.
The Patel family: “It’s not a healthy environment to raise a child in”
Stacey and Sanjay were very busy — and very high-profile — in their life in Brevard County.
They were 40something activists; professionals with good educations — he, a graduate of UCLA; she of Carnegie Mellon.
He is a former Democratic state committeeman who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 against incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Posey for Florida’s 8th Congressional District, taking 40% of the vote. He tried for office again in 2020, running against John Tobia for a county commission seat — and again, lost.
She, a Satellite High grad with family ties to the Space Coast, was at one time the chair of the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee. In the early days of COVID-19, she founded Mutual Aid Brevard to help people find the resources and information they needed. By May 2023, the group had blossomed into 18,000-plus members encouraged to “Share what you have. Ask for what you need. We’re all in this together.”
But the Patels were often vilified, facing attacks by local elected officials again and again.
“A commissioner suggested my children should be aborted. A state representative called me and my husband ‘human feces,'” Stacey Patel recalled in a farewell message on Facebook, before her family departed Florida in early May.
So many factors played into their decision to move to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: from a desire to be part of a progressive community to new local and state laws affecting everything from passing food or money out of a car window to the homeless to abortion, teaching history, and the rights of LGBTQ people.
“I’m going to say gay. I’m going to protest,” that farewell message stated.
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Most of all, there’s Emma.
The couple wants to raise their daughter in a place where they feel a sense of belonging and hope, Stacey Patel said in a recent phone call with FLORIDA TODAY.
“I believe, politically, that if Sanjay and I did not have a child, we’d stay there and fight,” she said. “But … in my humble opinion, it’s not a healthy environment to raise a child in.”
Just weeks in, she already sees the difference, Patel said.
“There’s trees. There’s progressivism in this particular community, and thoughtfulness … I didn’t know my neighbors before,” she said.
“Already, both neighbors have come over and said hi, and we’ve had conversations in the front yard. There’s just an understanding that this is a community and not an assemblage of individuals. And diversity. All different kinds of people, young people, old people, Black people, white people, Asian people. It’s like breathing, you know? After holding your breath for a really long time.”
There are tradeoffs, she said. Like higher property taxes in their new home, which she said she’d rather pay than Florida’s sky-high insurance rates.
“Brilliant schools,” Patel said. “Why would I give money to a private school when I can invest in my community and pay teachers well?”
And while moving is hard, she said, “It’s really fun to start over; having a community of people who are like, ‘What’s the best we can do here? What’s the most beautiful community we can create?’ That’s how I feel, and I didn’t feel that way there … this just feels different.”
Still, the couple is “incredibly proud” of their contributions to Brevard, even if they both acknowledge the Space Coast wasn’t always receptive: “I think in spite of some obstacles, we made as much progress as could be expected,” Patel said.
For example: The Mutual Aid group is still going strong. Patel looked at a post one recent morning and “I’m even more proud of that I don’t have to be there and that this thing’s still big and it’s still beautiful,” she said.
“Somebody got into a shelter. Somebody was giving away their car on the page. There are still so many good things going on … I planted my seeds,” she said.
“You’re supposed to plant seeds for trees under which you’ll never sit. I hope it’s shady down there.”
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In 2018, former New York residents Wendy Johnson and Peter Chunka built their “dream home” in Melbourne Beach.
Johnson, a one-time special needs teacher, founded a nonprofit greyhound rescue, “A Touch of Grey,” which has rescued at least 450 dogs. Her husband continued to work in sales. They have family, Chunka’s parents, in Sebastian. Brevard was a place where they chose to live, work, volunteer, become certified foster parents.
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One of those foster children was Jenny, a transgender teen who came to them at 15. They adopted her just before her 18th birthday.
Jenny Johnson-Chunka loves going to the mall. Arcades. Her job at Publix. Classes at Eastern Florida State College and volunteer work. And Disney World, which, her dad says, would be the place for Jenny’s “dream job.”
But in a few weeks, this family of three will leave Florida for Syracuse, New York, where both Johnson and Chunka are from and where they know from experience and research that a supportive community awaits.
It boils down to this: With the passage of legislation that directly affects Jenny’s health and happiness, they want to ensure her safety. On top of that, Medicaid, which Jenny qualified for, no longer covers gender-affirming care in Florida: “Could we pay out of pocket? Yes,” Johnson said. “But God knows what they’re going to do with that.”
They’re no longer willing, Chunka said, to live and spend their money “in an environment that fosters this kind of stuff … it’s been law on top of law. For Jenny and other kids out there, unfortunately, what we’re seeing and hearing from other people is it’s just kind of breeding hate. So for her, it’s safer to stick at home because with autism, she’s very vulnerable.”
Something as simple as going to the bathroom, Johnson said, could put Jenny’s safety and future at risk.
“All these bills kind of creeped up …there was the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of messed up,,’ but for me, it wasn’t so impactful,” she said.
“I think it hit me first when Jenny started sobbing, when we were talking about the bathroom bill and what could happen if she went into the wrong bathroom and someone asked her to leave. She could literally get arrested.”
As her parents talked about the move, Jenny reached out and took their hands in hers.
She’s excited, she said. And grateful for family.
Maybe she’ll get a job at Wegmans, the popular grocery chain. And return to community college. She’ll definitely enjoy the mall in Syracuse, which she shares is one of the largest in the United States.
“I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of new people,” Jenny said. “I can basically start with a fresh, clean slate and move from there.”
There’s been sadness, yes. And moments of anger for these parents — Johnson, a registered independent, and Chunka, a former Republican. There could come a day, the couple agreed, when the tide turns in Florida, and neither rule out a return.
They speak of Rainbow Passages, a group which is raising money for families “who can’t leave but don’t have the financial resources,” Johnson said.
“Before we leave, we’ll do whatever we can to help, to network, and see what we can do from wherever we are,” she said.
“Not contributing to the community with our dollars, but helping people here who want to get out.”
The Logan family: “DeSantis went after all the things that I believe in”
Eli Logan is blunt about the moment she knew she might have to think about moving.
“When DeSantis won the first time I knew that nothing good was going to come from it,” said Logan, a nurse practitioner who was born in Palm Beach County and moved to Brevard at age 28.
“And then shortly thereafter, I found out that my oldest is gay. And as predicted, DeSantis went after all the things that I believe in — women’s rights, trans rights, more. I just cannot believe the latest legislation about how they can actually take kids away from parents who want to provide gender-affirming care … it blows my mind.”
So when her husband got the chance to interview for a job in Athens, Georgia, Logan did a lot of research. And after he landed the job, “everything went really, really fast,” she said
“It definitely was like a bug in his ear consistently over the past several years,” said Logan, who campaigned for DeSantis’ opponent, Andrew Gillum, in that 2018 election.
“I knew we needed to get out. And now my daughter is part of the LGBTQ community … I feel like an attack on trans people is an attack on the whole community. I don’t know where it’s headed, but I don’t think it’s headed anywhere good. And you know, if they’re going to come for trans people, who are they going to come for next?”
She’s adjusting to the family’s new life in Georgia. She got on Facebook, “followed all the breadcrumbs” and found a group of like-minded women in Athens and surrounding counties, she said.
“As soon as I moved up, I met them in real life. They have kids, like my kids, you know, either LGBTQ or whatever other issues my other kids are having,” said Logan, whose mother, who’s 77, will be moving to Athens, too.
“I was actively seeking people to become my tribe because when I moved here, I knew nobody … I knew I had to get my ass in gear to find people we can relate to.”
Still, it was hard to move. Even harder, Logan said, “when you’re 14, 12 and 10” and in the last month of a school year. There have been “tears, breakdowns and slammed doors,” but “nevertheless, they persisted,” Logan said. And as it turned out, all three children made either straight-A or A and B grades for the entire year.
“I’m so thankful that this opportunity came about and we were able to get out,” Logan said.
“And I’m looking forward to stepping back into politics at some point but coming from a different place — not from fear and anger, but from hope and positivity.”
Britt Kennerly is education/breaking news editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Kennerly at 321-917-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly.