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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

LGBTQ advocates blast DeSantis for signing bills they say target transgender rights

Gov. Ron DeSantis stands in front of a podium with a sign that reads "Let Kids Be Kids." American flags also surround him on stage.
Gov. DeSantis Facebook page
DeSantis signed four bills that target LGBTQ rights on Wednesday, which was also the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

Members of the LGBTQ community and their allies say the new laws could force families to move out of Florida and damage the state's reputation.

Advocates for LGBTQ Floridians are speaking out after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a package of bills on Wednesday that restrict transgender health care and bathroom use, expand a controversial education law and target drag performances.

DeSantis appeared before a cheering crowd of supporters at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa in an almost campaign-like scene.

One bill he signed strengthens state bans on providing gender-affirming treatments including puberty blockers, hormone therapy and some surgeries, to minors and makes it harder for transgender adults to access care as well.

Since March, Florida medical boards have banned doctors from prescribing these treatments for trans youth. Under the new law, which went into effect immediately, physicians could face third-degree felonies for violating the ban.

DeSantis continued to call providing this care to minors “mutilation,” which doctors who treat trans youth say is false and harmful. Most major medical associations in the United States say these treatments can be safe and effective when administered properly.

Children who have already started care are allowed to continue, as can adults. But the law adds barriers. It requires patients sign informed consent forms, bars the use of telehealth for treatment, prohibits nurse practitioners from prescribing hormones and prevents public funds from paying to provide care, say at a state university. Patients say these provisions could disrupt care.

The governor also signed a bill that expands the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call “Don't Say Gay,” to limit teachers from talking about LGBTQ issues from pre-K through 8th grade. It also bars students and staff from using pronouns that don't align with their sex assigned at birth.

“I feel strongly as governor but also as a dad of a 6-, a 5- and a 3-year-old that, you know, we need to let our kids just be kids,” said DeSantis.

Some parents feel powerless

But parents of LGBTQ youth say that's exactly what they're trying to do by allowing their kids to express themselves in schools and get medical care they and their doctors agree is appropriate.

“Gender-affirming care saves lives, we know that, I don’t want a politician to tell me what health care looks like for my family,” said Jennifer Solomon, who runs the advocacy group PFLAG’s Miami chapter and has a gender non-conforming son who attends public school. “I want to be able to have a team – mental health counselors, pediatricians, endocrinologists – and of today, I no longer have that.”

Solomon spoke on a press call organized by Equality Florida after DeSantis’ Tampa event.

“He's literally taking away safety from our children and as parents he's taking away the power for us to do what we know is right for our children,” she said, cautioning that recent policies have some families rethinking whether they want to call this state home.

“I don’t want to leave this state, I’ve lived in Florida almost my whole life, this is where I chose to raise my family,” said Solomon. “But unfortunately if this continues, good families like mine are going to be forced to leave the state and that’s unacceptable.”

What some lawmakers are saying

Advocates also criticized two other bills the governor signed. One requires people in public buildings such as schools, prisons, airports and government facilities, to use bathrooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth. Failure to do so could result in trespassing charges.

Another restricts live “adult performances” like drag shows in front of minors. State regulators could revoke licenses and fine bars, restaurants, and other venues that violate the law.

“I appreciate the legislature stepping up and making sure that we're going to have strong environments for our kids to learn and to grow as Floridians,” Gov. DeSantis said, shortly before signing all four bills on stage surrounded by young students at Cambridge Christian.

State Sen. Clay Yarborough (R-Jacksonville) and House Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), who sponsored much of this legislation, joined the governor in Tampa.

Fine, who pushed for an even stricter gender-affirming care ban that would have forced kids currently receiving treatments to stop by the end of the year, invoked his religion as he praised the new law.

“God does not make mistakes with our children,” he said, and was met with loud applause from the audience.

Democratic state lawmakers are voicing opposition to the new laws.

“It’s 2023, I never thought at this point in American modern history that we would be seeing such a regressive nature of policies,” Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), told WUSF. She added that she is “incredibly concerned” about the impact these policies could have on the mental health of LGBTQ residents.

Advocates vow to fight back

LGBTQ activists noted that the bills were signed on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

St. Petersburg resident Nathan Bruemmer, president of the Florida LGBTQ Democratic Caucus, called the new laws a “remarkable slate of hate.” He said they have caused a lot of fear and pain for transgender residents, including himself.

“Many in our community are really struggling to comprehend what it will mean, but we know those impacts, those harms will be real and I think, we fear, ultimately tragic,” said Bruemmer.

But he also stressed the resilience of trans Floridians and said they and their allies are more determined than ever to fight back.

Equality Florida’s executive director Nadine Smith echoed those sentiments.

“This backlash will not stand,” she said. “We are awake. We will make sure every family is respected and every child is protected. Florida is the frontline in this fight against fascism, and we are the resistance.”

The group recently issued a travel advisory warning families and businesses about the risks posed to LGBTQ people visiting or relocating to the state.

Equality Florida’s political director Joe Saunders, a former Democratic state representative, challenged the notion of the “free state of Florida” the governor often touts in speeches.

“Ron DeSantis doesn’t see freedom as a value worth defending, he sees it as a campaign slogan in his bid for the White House, and he is setting freedom and Florida’s reputation ablaze in his desperation to win the GOP nomination,” he said. “So we are here to make clear that the nation should be on high alert.”

DeSantis has not announced a presidential bid, but is widely expected to launch a campaign in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, some lawsuits are underway that challenge certain elements of these bills.

Parents of transgender youth and some legal groups have a federal suit against the state’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Lawyers originally targeted the medical board rules, but on Wednesday filed a request for the court to issue a temporary restraining order, immediately blocking enforcement of the new law. Attorneys say they will be in court on Friday arguing their motions.

Also on Wednesday, Penguin Random House along with authors, parents and the free speech group PEN America filed a lawsuit against the Escambia County School District for removing 10 books related to race and the LGBTQ community.

WUSF reporter Meghan Bowman contributed to this story.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.