Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Florida's culture war makes LGBT residents feel like targets

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol, on Monday, March 7, 2022.
Wilfredo Lee
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol, on Monday, March 7, 2022.

In the last two years, Florida has followed the legislative trends of other red states, passing similar laws — around the same time — regarding protesting, voting and most recently LGBTQ issues.

For Jacksonville residents and other Floridians who consider themselves LGBTQ or allies, the laws feel like an assault on their identities. They worry that more could be on the way.

The state Legislature often finds itself downstream of culture war issues, with the latest examples — the Stop WOKE Act and Parental Rights In Education — set to be voted on Monday by the Florida Senate after passing the state House the previous week.

Both bills are supposed to curtail speech in classrooms that supporters of the legislation say hurts kids. Parents have the right to direct their children's education, they say.

The Stop WOKE Act — short for "Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees" — targets lessons and trainings that have the potential to make someone feel bad or guilty due to their race, nationality or sex. The Parental Rights In Education bill — derided by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill — bans the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and bans related discussions at higher grade levels depending on how a parent or school interprets "developmentally appropriate."

"We see a lot of focus on the transgenderism, telling kids that they may be able to pick genders and all that," Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday in Jacksonville, defending the Parental Rights In Education bill. "I don't think parents want that."

A spokeswoman for the governor, Christina Pushaw, implied on Twitter that opponents to the bills were grooming kids for pedophiles, "or at least you don't denounce the grooming of 4-8 year olds," she said.

America has a long history of LGBTQ opponents tying homosexuality or being transgender to pedophilia and beastiality in order to discredit their movement. The SPLC castigated Pushaw on Monday and called on her to resign.

“It is despicable and shameful that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, would so grossly malign and defame an entire community to shove unpopular legislation forward," Scott McCoy, interim deputy legal director for the SPLC Action Fund, said in a statement.

Quoting the Alliance for Children, the SPLC defined "grooming" as the "calculated and gradual process by which an offender sexually abuses a child. It is a horrifyingly planned and manipulative act that makes victims of sexual abuse feel complacent and adds an additional layer of protection for the offender."

"Unsurprisingly, Pushaw’s tweet is just another dog whistle in ongoing efforts to demonize and erase the existence of the LGBTQ+ community," the statement said.

Similarly, LGBTQ advocates recognize the political realities of Florida.

Although Florida is often considered a "purple," hotly contested state in presidential elections, it has had one-party rule of its Legislature and governor's office for over two decades.

Brooklyn Owens is a Jacksonville LGBTQ rights activist and trans woman who gained national attention for a college fund that was started for her after her parents kicked her out for her identity. She says she's not worried about the broader community if the bills become law.

She is worried about students who will feel ostracized.

"My issue with it is not that it is an attempt to be a referendum on gay people in Florida. My biggest issue with the [Parental Rights in Education] bill is that it creates a very unsafe environment for kids," she said, praising her ninth grade biology teacher for making her feel accepted and safe at school.

"I was that kid. I was that kid that desperately needed a teacher to protect my safety because of the harmful and toxic environment I was in at home, and this bill would prevent that teacher from doing so."

The chilling effect has already happened at some First Coast schools. A new policy of the St. Johns County School District makes some teachers afraid they'll be forced to out students to parents. A similar statewide measure was stripped from the Parental Rights In Education bill after initially being introduced as an amendment.

The legislation, as it passed the state House, still calls for parents to be notified of similar developments with their child, but it says school administrators should withhold that information if they have a reasonable belief it would lead to abuse or abandonment at home.

It's possible, once law, that the legislation will be challenged in court. The state is already embroiled in two related legal challenges: An appeals court is considering the case of Drew Adams, a trans man who was prevented from using the men's restroom as a St. Johns County student in 2017, and a ban on trans women from playing in women's sports. A South Florida freshman is challenging that law after she was prevented from joining her high school's girls soccer team because she was assigned the male gender at birth.

In the latter case, DeSantis signed the trans athlete ban into law last year on the first day of Pride Month. Florida is one of 10 states — and among the most recent — to pass such a ban.

Some deep red states have bucked the trend. Republican governors in Kansas, North Dakota and Utah have vetoed bills attempting to ban trans athletes.

The trans girl at the center of the South Florida soccer trial had been on hormones and receiving gender affirming treatment for over a year at the start of the lawsuit, which was filed when she was 13 last June.

In Texas, Gov. Gregg Abbott has tried to criminalize gender affirming care for minors. Given the speed at which Florida has followed Texas and other red states in passing LGBTQ-related legislation, activists are worried about a similar measure coming to the Sunshine State.

"I work with parents of transgender youth at [Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network]. I've heard from a couple of them about what's going on in Texas already, and they're terrified that something like this could happen in Florida," Dan Merkan, policy director for JASMYN, said.

According to Merkan, the result of continued legislation in this vein could spell out long-term negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth.

"It could have some real serious implications, everything from being able to just provide safe and inclusive classrooms for young LGBT students, to students or parents that are LGBT, feeling like their identities are being erased," he said. "These bills are being pushed around the country, and they're making hay out of nothing, LGBT people are your neighbors; they're in your schools. We've been getting along well for most of the last decade. It's just not right."

The Parental Rights In Education and Stop WOKE Acts are both expected to pass the Senate along party lines this week. DeSantis has indicated he plans to sign both.

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.