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DeSantis signs Fla. ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Advocacy groups will likely challenge law in court

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Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (Washington Blade file screenshot/WFLA)

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill Monday, which is sure to prompt lawsuits as opponents question the legality of legislation they see as harmful and discriminatory. 

At a press conference, DeSantis said teaching kindergarten-aged kids that “they can be whatever they want to be” was “inappropriate.”

“It’s not something that’s appropriate for any place, but especially not in Florida,” he said.

House Bill 1557, titled “Parental Rights in Education,” will make classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3, while “age-appropriate” teaching would be allowed in older grades — though it is not clear what is considered “age-appropriate.” The bill would also allow parents to sue schools or teachers who violate the legislation. 

When the measure cleared the Florida Legislature earlier this month, statewide LGBTQ rights organization Equality Florida promised it would “lead legal action against the state of Florida to challenge this bigoted legislation.”

“We will not sit by and allow the governor’s office to call us pedophiles,” the group said in a statement

DeSantis’ signature comes after nationwide pushback from top LGBTQ organizations, Democrats, LGBTQ youth, corporations and the White House. According to Equality Florida, over 600,000 people sent emails to lawmakers in opposition to the legislation. 

DeSantis also pushed back against critics of the legislation, saying: “I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I am not backing down.”

While co-hosting Sunday’s Academy Awards in Los Angeles, openly gay Wanda Sykes addressed the bill, telling the audience that “for you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night.” Fellow hosts Amy Schumer and Regina Hall then repeated, “gay.” 

After being criticized for a muted response to the legislation, Walt Disney CEO Officer Bob Chapek apologized for the company’s response and clarified his opposition to the bill. 

Still, employees put on a “full stage” walkout last week at various corporate locations across the U.S. to protest what they see as a “lame” and “inadequate” stance taken by the company and Chapek.

LGBTQ youth across the state vehemently protested the bill, with thousands of students staging a walkout at the beginning of the month. 

“I pushed back on this, as I wasn’t going to allow staff to minimize our reach and message,” Jack Petocz, the lead organizer, said. “Using my megaphone, I told students to hold onto their flags and not to allow them to silence us.”

Some Republicans in the Florida Legislature also voiced concerns over the bill, prompting several to break from their party and vote against it.

“I am not going to support the bill today in hopes that we can find a way to love our neighbors,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who was one of two Republican senators to vote against the legislation.

After the vote in the House, where seven Republicans casted a vote against the measure,” Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith said: “This bill is so extreme that it inspired a rare rebellion within House GOP ranks.”

LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not, according to the Trevor Project.

This bill bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, effectively erasing LGBTQ identity, history and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

“Governor Ron DeSantis signed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in the most cowardly way possible today. He hid his agenda from the media and the public until the last moment, skulking onto a charter school campus that is exempt from the law and away from students who would protest his presence,” said Smith. “He has attacked parents and children in our state by invoking hateful anti-LGBTQ stereotypes all to pander to his right-wing base as he prepares to run for President in 2024. DeSantis has damaged our state’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place for all families, he has made us a laughing stock and target of national derision. Worse, he has made schools less safe for children. Equality Florida will defend the rights of all students to have a healthy environment to learn and thrive and for all parents to know their families are included and respected. This law will not stand and we will work to see it removed either by the courts as unconstitutional or repealed by the legislature.”

“LGBTQ youth in Florida deserve better. They deserve to see their history, their families, and themselves reflected in the classroom,” said Amit Paley, CEO and executive director of the Trevor Project. “While I am saddened to see this harmful bill signed into law, I am inspired by the outpouring of support for LGBTQ students we have seen from parents, teachers, celebrities, and their peers. Social support is vital for suicide prevention, and I want to remind LGBTQ youth in Florida and across the country that you are not alone.”

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Florida

Largest Fla. school district rejects LGBTQ History Month

Miami-Dade School Board rejected proclamation by 8-1 vote margin

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Audience members react with rancor during debate on an LGBTQ History Month proclamation (Screenshot from WPLG/YouTube)

The Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday rejected, by an 8-1 vote, a proclamation recognizing October as LGBTQ History Month in the district. This proclamation mirrored a nearly identical proclamation approved by the board with a 7-1 vote last year.

The board’s lone non-voting student advisor Andrea S. Pita Mendez, told WPLG that she was very scared during the meeting. School security had to intervene when the crowd got rowdy after Mendez, 17, said she supported the recognition of LGBTQ History Month after talking to her peers.

“Our students want this to pass,” said Mendez.

School board member Luisa Santos, who represents District 9, told WPLG she was outraged by the way the adults who were in the room disrespected Mendez. Some of the adults booed the high school student who was attending the second meeting of her term.

The measure, introduced by board member Lucia Baez Geller, would have symbolically declared October LGBTQ History Month in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and included a request to district staff to explore ways to support 12th grade civics teachers interested in including landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases on marriage equality and nondiscrimination in their course work.

During the public comments, many of the statements made were decidedly homophobic and transphobic with emphasis on religious freedoms and parental rights. Amid the mention of religion WPLG noted that MaryBeth Loretta, a clinician at the Alliance for LGBTQ+ Youth, asked the members to support the recognition “like Christ would do.”

The Miami-Dade School Board’s majority during the debate made statements that indicated that the vote to reject was due to seeing the proclamation being in conflict with the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Eulalia Maria Jimenez, the chair of Moms for Liberty Miami-Dade, asked the school board members to vote against the recognition and said it equated to “indoctrination.”

“Tonight’s vote is one more proof point of the sweeping chilling effect of Florida’s discriminatory Don’t Say LGBTQ law and the toxic anti-LGBTQ environment being fostered by Gov. DeSantis,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders.

“The Don’t Say LGBTQ law is rooted in the same dangerous tropes about LGBTQ people and baseless attacks on teachers that were on full display in public comments at last night’s hearing. We are shocked and alarmed to see this reversal from the Miami-Dade School Board. This is a horrible signal to send to the thousands of LGBTQ youth in Miami-Dade County public schools. Voting down this simple recognition of our LGBTQ community makes our schools less safe.”

In a statement released Thursday, Equality Florida, the largest statewide LGBTQ rights group, thanked Baez-Geller, who sponsored the LGBTQ History Month proclamation [and] “stood strong in the face of unprecedented vitriol from extremists last night.”

“Nearly every board member opposing the resolution voiced their belief that the proclamation violated the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law, further evidence of the sweeping censorship of this law. Across the state, the law has fueled bans on books and ‘safe space’ stickers and has led to dangerous policies targeting transgender students. Miami-Dade County Public Schools have a long history of leading on common sense policies that include, recognize, and protect LGBTQ youth. Last night, board members abandoned that mission in service to anti-LGBTQ fear, misinformation, and a governor obsessed with a future presidential run,” the statement added.

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Fla. sued over exclusion of transgender healthcare from Medicaid

Lambda Legal among groups that filed suit

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U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, Fla. (Screenshot from YouTube/WCJB)

An international law firm and a coalition of LGBTQ and healthcare advocacy groups filed a complaint Wednesday challenging a Florida rule that excludes transgender-related medical care from Medicaid reimbursements. 

The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida against the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration by Lambda Legal, the National Health Law Program, Florida Health Justice Project, Southern Legal Council and the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman on behalf of a group of trans minors and their families. 

After Florida’s rule went into effect on Aug. 21, Medicaid coverage exemptions were carved out for gender affirming healthcare that is deemed essential for the treatment of gender dysphoria by all medical societies and organizations with relevant clinical experience. 

As the parents of one plaintiff wrote, in a statement: “We believe providing our daughter with the medical care that she needs and is recommended by her doctors for her gender dysphoria is imperative to ensure her health and well-being. The state’s decision to stop covering medically necessary gender-affirming medical care through Medicaid is tragic. It is cruel and dehumanizing.”

Shortly after Florida’s rule was finalized on Aug. 1, the Los Angeles Blade reported the objections of federal health officials at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights. 

Both agencies committed to doing “everything within our authority to protect Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to care and prevent discriminatory policies from taking effect.” Also at that time, Lambda Legal told the Blade the group was considering “all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking.” 

CMS did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday on whether legal action against the rule is being considered at this time. 

The nonprofit Movement Advancement Project think tank tracks the status of Medicaid coverage for trans related healthcare across all U.S. states, jurisdictions and territories, noting that trans patients often face obstacles to receiving care in states whose Medicaid programs neither explicitly affirm nor explicitly exclude coverage.

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Florida

Fla. student activists oust anti-LGBTQ school board members

‘We shouldn’t give up on Florida just yet’

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Courtney Vandebunte, Alysa Vidal, Cameron Driggers and Jack Petocz (Photo courtesy of Recall Flagler County School Board)

After months of political organizing on behalf of candidates running to replace two anti-LGBTQ members of the school board in deep red Flagler County, Fla., rising high school senior Cameron Driggers was ready to celebrate their improbable electoral wins this week.  

The upset shows that even voters in very conservative districts can see the dangers of extremism, Driggers told the Los Angeles Blade by phone Wednesday evening. “It was a great feeling,” he said, proof that “we shouldn’t give up on Florida just yet.” 

After the polls closed Tuesday night, Sally Hunt managed to eke out a razor thin victory against the far-right incumbent school board member for District 1, Jill Woolbright, who handily won her 2020 race and this year had secured the coveted endorsement of the state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Courtney VandeBunte, meanwhile, beat GOP candidates Lance Alred and Will Furry in a three-way race for the school board seat representing District 2, which will be vacated by conservative Woolbright ally Janet McDonald (who is running for county commission.). 

Six percentage points shy of the 50 percent threshold that would have allowed her to claim victory, however, VandeBunte will again face off against Furry in the November runoff elections, which is where Driggers’ sights are now set. “We’re not done,” he told the Blade. “We’re just getting started.” 

For Driggers, the outcome was a successful referendum on two “lunatics.” (Woolbright made headlines last year after calling the police on a school librarian for offering books with LGBTQ themes and has characterized opposition to her position on the school board as the work of satanists.)

Alysa Vidal, Jack Petocz and Cameron Driggers (Photo Credit: Jack Petocz)

As co-founder and deputy director of Recall Flagler County School Board (Recall FCSB), Driggers and his friends Jack Petocz and Alysa Vidal mobilized a massive political organizing effort in the weeks and months ahead of Tuesday’s elections. 

The group reached tens of thousands of voters through digital campaigns across multiple social media platforms and partnered with the Florida Democratic Party to “change hearts and minds” by knocking on nearly 5,000 doors, Driggers said. 

“I think the contribution from my organizers and volunteers and Recall FCSB had a huge impact on the results,” he said, adding that the margin of Hunt’s victory over Woolbright was only about 800 votes.

Driggers said he was optimistic as the polls opened on Tuesday, but mindful that Republicans constitute the overwhelming majority of the area’s elected representatives. Donald Trump carried Flagler County in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, winning 21 percent and 20 percent more votes than Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. 

Additionally, campaigning for Hunt and VandeBunte, “We were up against thousands of dollars from conservative super PACs,” Driggers said. These groups, some with links to DeSantis, poured money into the race with mailers that made outlandish claims about the Democratic school board candidates, he said. 

Cynicism towards politics is common among young people, Driggers said. But “nights like these prove you can effect change, even in the most conservative areas, with the most uphill battles.”

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