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In Sarasota County, a school board member is a target of anti-gay rhetoric at public meetings

Man with white hair and goatee wearing blue blazer gestures while seated.
Sarasota County Schools
Tom Edwards, a retired businessman, was elected for a four-year school board seat in August 2020 and is the sole Democrat on the board's 4-1 conservative majority.

Tom Edwards says his opposition to the law that restricts classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to the state's school voucher expansion program, has made him a target for his conservative opponents.

Earlier this month, Melissa Bakondy, a frequent school board commenter with ties to the conservative group Moms for Liberty, stood before a podium and accused Tom Edwards, a retired businessman, elected to the school board in 2020, of being an LGBTQ groomer.

"I'm calling upon Governor DeSantis to remove woke Tom Edwards as he is a threat to the innocence of our children and to the rule of law in our great state of Florida," Bakondy said.

Her comments drew audible gasps from the audience, prompting one woman in the school board chamber to jump up and call the speaker a bigot.

At the end of the meeting, school board chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, called the comments "wildly uncomfortable and inappropriate."

"Just as much as I do not believe anyone's sexual orientation should be discussed in a classroom or in an office, I do not believe it’s relevant or should be discussed at this dais or in these chambers so my apologies for that," Ziegler said.

But Edwards' sexuality was brought up again at the very next board meeting. And despite her previous apology, Ziegler admonished the audience when they tried to cut off a different speaker's anti-gay comments, prompting Edwards to leave the meeting.

Ziegler then urged the audience to “calm down,” and allow the speaker to continue.

In the 2022 election, three conservative candidates backed by DeSantis easily won seats on the Sarasota County School Board, joining Zeigler to create a Republican majority.

Opponents are 'probably a groomer'

That same year, DeSantis' press secretary tweeted that the state's Parental Rights in Education law, which restrictsclassroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, was an “Anti-Grooming Bill," and that anyone opposing it is “probably a groomer.”

Edwards says his opposition to that law, and to the state's school voucher expansion program, has made him a target for his conservative opponents.

"You claim I'm hurting children? What about the LGBTQ children that hear that language and think there's something wrong with me? We won't accept bullying from our children and yet we accept it from our public officials and my colleagues on the school board," Edwards said.

The term "groomer" is the latest iteration of a kind of anti-gay rhetoric that David Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Florida, says has fueled culture wars for decades.

"The idea that it represents, that LGBT people and gay men in particular are a threat to the nation and particularly a threat to the nation's children, that has a long history," Johnson said.

Florida and moral panic

Johnson, the author of "The Lavender Scare," which tells the story of the federal government's campaign to purge gay people from public service, says Florida also played a big role in this kind of moral panic campaign.

The Johns Committee, named after its chairman, state senator and former governor Charley Johns, was a panel that investigated and fired many college professors and public-school teachers for so-called subversive acts.

And former beauty queen Anita Bryant famously took anti-gay sentiment mainstream in the 1970s with her "Save Our Children” campaign, formed after the passage of an ordinance in Dade County, granting gay people housing and employment protections.

“Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” Bryant argued.

"She makes that the centerpiece of her anti-gay campaign,” said Johnson. “Gay people are a threat, they'll be teaching your children in school, they'll be recruiting them into their quote unquote 'deviant lifestyle.' "

Bryant’s work resulted in the repeal of the Dade County nondiscrimination ordinance, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, in a voter referendum.

Fast forward to present day, after so many years of progress on gay rights, the rapid acceleration of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation seems dizzying to advocates and has them worried about the clock turning backwards.

They also say harsh political language can have damaging effects on the mental health of LGBTQ students, many of whom already feel isolated.

In Sarasota, many in the community say board chair Ziegler should not let speakers hurl personal insults at board members.

Ziegler did not respond to requests for comment but has previously stated that all of the school board members have been criticized and called names.

Edwards, meanwhile, says he will continue to lobby to shut down such attacks.

"You know, I didn't invite this fight, but I do intend to win it," he said.

The day after the comments that prompted him to walk out of the meeting, Edwards officially filed for reelection to the Sarasota County School Board.

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