Protesters gathered in the Capitol’s Fourth Floor Rotunda on April 19, 2023, to protest passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Credit: Michael Moline
The Republican-dominated Florida House voted Wednesday to deny transgender people access to the bathrooms of their choice, gender-affirming care for minors, and to penalize performance spaces that allow minors to attend drag shows.
Each of the three bills passed mostly along party lines. The anti-drag measure heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who led the drive to pass all three bills. The others need final passage in the Florida Senate.
Republicans referred repeatedly during an afternoon of passionate debate that they were fighting “evil.” They used words like “butchery” and “abomination” to refer to hormone and surgical interventions to treat “gender dysphoria,” or the conviction that your gender differs from your birth sex.
“There is evil in this world and we can fight it here today,” said Randy Fine, the Brevard County Republican who cosponsored the transgender therapy bill.
“We can reject their made-up words of gender-affirming care, cisgender, nonbinary and whatever nonsense they come up with next. We lean in because we are right. We can fight for children. We can declare in unambiguous terms that defying the natural process of puberty is not health care, it is an abomination,” Fine said.
As for the transgender people who traveled to Tallahassee to beg lawmakers not to deny them therapy, Fine said this: “They are not evil. They are victims. I don’t hate them. My heart breaks for what has been done to them.”
Democrats, by contrast, complained that Republicans were telling falsehoods about the therapies offered to children, especially regarding sex-change surgeries, which they argued rarely is offered to minors and then only in extreme cases.
“When it does happen, these are children who are going to cut off their own breasts if we don’t help them. They are wrapping bands around their chests so tight that they can’t breathe,” Orlando Democrat Anna Eskamani said.
“Please, try to put yourself in the shoes of the impacted. Ignore the moral panic that has been manufactured many times by right-wing media … to divide us when we should be brought together. Respect and trust parents and let kids regardless of their gender identity to be kids and to reach their fullest potential,” she said.
During the debate, a group of LGBTQ protesters shouted chants outside the House chamber, but there was nothing like the episode during preliminary floor debate Tuesday when they showered underwear from the gallery on top of House members.
One Republican noted that the House had kept the teenaged pages who volunteer to run errands for lawmakers off the floor for the trans debate.
One bill (HB 1521) passed Wednesday outlaws gender-inclusive restrooms and changing facilities in private businesses, health care facilities, schools, public shelters, and jails. It covers dressing rooms, fitting rooms, locker rooms, changing rooms, shower rooms, and perhaps more. The vote was 80-37.
Another (SB 254) enacts a wholesale prohibition on allowing transgender minors to receive gender-affirming care in the form of hormone replacement therapies, puberty blockers, or any surgeries with the goal of “sex-reassignment” for a minor. The bill makes exceptions in the case of genetic disorders of sexual development. The vote was 82-31.
That one grants state courts temporary emergency jurisdiction over children if they are at risk of or are being subjected to the “provision of sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.” That would mean that children could potentially be removed from their homes if they are simply suspected of receiving gender-affirming care.
Furthermore, recipients of such care would be entitled to sue their providers within a 20-year statute of limitations and recover damages, including punitive damages.
The third bill (HB 1423), Protection of Children, would charge anyone with a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail or $1,000 in fines, for “knowingly” admitting a minor to an “adult live performance,” defined as featuring nudity or sexual conduct. Opponents fear the bill could bring prosecution of participants in Gay Pride events.
Specifically targeted is material that “predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for the age of the child present; and taken as a whole, is without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the age of the child present.”
Additionally, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation could pull or suspense licenses from lodging or food establishments that allow minors to attend such shows. Fines would range from $5,000 for a first offense to $10,000 for subsequent violations.
The House bill substituted (SB 1438) — also Protection of Children. The vote was 82-32.
Defense of drag
Gov. Ron DeSantis has had state regulators go after a Miami bar that is accused of allowing children to attend a sexually suggestive drag performance, threatening its liquor license.
During the debate, a number of Democrats noted Republican Webster Barnaby’s reference to transgender people during a committee hearing as “mutants” plus “demons and imps who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world.”
During debate on the bathroom bill, Democrat Rita Harris of Orange County wept openly while discussing a legislative aide, her “very dear friend” “who makes this state better” who is transgender.
“I’m sorry that her humanity, my dear friend’s humanity, is lost on you all. That, despite knowing her and despite passing her in the hallway and despite wishing her a good weekend and despite wishing her a good evening and despite asking her how her day is, you are going to vote to put her in a situation where she could be hurt. Because that’s what this bill is going to do — it’s going to hurt people,” Harris said.
Eskamani defended drag and invited Republicans to take in a show.
“Drag is joy. Drag is happiness. Drag is fashion. Drag is glorious. Drag is lip syncing. Drag is life for so many of our community. It is what saves people from taking their lives because they can have an expression that allows them to tell their stories. I just don’t understand why would you want to stop that,” Eskamani said.
No harm intended
One Republican thread throughout the afternoon was that their legislation wasn’t directly attacking trans people or drag per se.
“This bill never mentions transgender or any other particular group of people. When we named this bill the Safety in Private Spaces Act, we were trying to capture the intent and effect of this bill in just a few words,” sponsor Rachel Plakon of Seminole County said of her bathroom bill.
She insisted that women and girls are being attacked in restrooms by “biological males” despite evidence that trans people are considerably more likely to get beat up.
“When it comes to protecting all Floridians, including our women and children, I will not back down,” Plakon said.
Republican co-sponsor of the therapy bill, Ralph Masullo, a doctor representing Citrus and part of Marion counties, argued that treating gender dysphoria with hormones and surgery is harmful, causing bone, brain, and cardiovascular problems.
“They need therapy. They need mental health counseling. They don’t need to screw up their sex. They don’t need to screw up their physiology,” Massullo said. And we need to fight this, not because we’re a conservative, religious, right-wing Legislature. We need to fight for this because it’s right,” he continued.
Democrats insisted the medical authorities including the American Medical Association endorse hormone therapy for minors with gender dysphoria and that it can prevent suicidal depression.
Democrat caucus leader Fentrice Driskell warned Republicans against hubris — “when we feel that we know better than someone’s own lived experience when they tell us about it. When we don’t really know what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”
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