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Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee

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More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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Florida

Fla. ‘Don’t Say Gay’ ban now applies to K-12 public schools

Rule takes effect in 34 days

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The Florida Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Florida’s Board of Education voted Wednesday to implement a rule that expands the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to now prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through 12th grade in the state’s public schools.

The rule change, which does not require legislative approval, will ban lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity from fourth to 12th grade unless required by state standards or as part of a reproductive health course that parents can opt students out of.

Today’s vote was put forth by the Florida Department of Education, both of which are controlled by appointees of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has publicly stated his opposition to LGBTQ equality and civil rights. The rule goes into effect in 34 days, according to the Florida Department of Education.

LGBTQ advocacy groups and student activist leaders across the state spoke out, including Jack Petocz, a senior at Flagler-Palm Coast High School who had organized and led the statewide protests last spring in opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Petocz tweeted defiantly: “This was NEVER about protecting your children. It’s all an elaborate plan to ERASE people like me from existence. You won’t fucking win.” 

Petocz then noted:

Petocz was also trolled on his Twitter account by a far-right participant of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection who homophobically attacked him:

Joe Saunders, senior political director for the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, Equality Florida, released the following statement:

“Let’s put it plainly: this is part of the governor’s assault on freedom. Free states do not ban books. Free states do not censor entire communities out of the classroom. Free states do not wage war on LGBTQ+ people to score cheap political points for a man desperate to be president. This policy will escalate the government censorship that is sweeping our state, exacerbate our educator exodus, drive hardworking families from Florida, and further stigmatize and isolate a population of young people who need our support now more than ever. Shame on the DeSantis administration for putting a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ Floridians.”

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Florida

Trial begins for National Black Justice Coalition CEO on conspiracy, fraud charges

Sharon Lettman-Hicks calls allegations ‘baseless,’ politically motivated

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Sharon Lettman-Hicks (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A trial in federal court in Tallahassee, Fla., began on Monday, April 17, for Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the CEO and board chair of the D.C.-based LGBTQ group National Black Justice Coalition, and former Tallahassee mayor and unsuccessful Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

The trial began about 10 months after a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Florida on June 7, 2022, handed down an indictment charging both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks, who served as a campaign adviser to Gillum, with conspiracy and multiple counts of fraud.

The indictment alleged that Lettman-Hicks and Gillum engaged in an illegal political corruption scheme that began in 2015. It says Lettman-Hicks allegedly helped Gillum improperly funnel money solicited from FBI agents posing as real estate developers with a promise of providing something “very significant in return” for Gillum’s support for the developers in his role at the time as mayor of Tallahassee.

The indictment said much of the money Gillum received from the FBI sting operation went for his personal use through a company Lettman-Hicks operated called P&P communications. It charges both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks with 19 counts of wire fraud and one count of attempt and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.   

The Tallahassee-based TV news station WCTV reports that last week, on April 11, prosecutors announced they had obtained a new superseding indictment against Lettman-Hicks and Gillum that includes two fewer charges of wire fraud against the two than the previous indictment. WCTV reports the charges that were dropped both involved wire transfers of $66,250 from “Organization E” to Lettman-Hicks’ company P&P Communications.

Lettman-Hicks and Gillum, who identifies as bisexual, have strongly denied the allegations against them, calling them politically motivated by Republican politicians who dominate the political landscape in Northern Florida.

At the time the first indictment was handed down, Lettman-Hicks, who is based in Tallahassee, had qualified as a Democratic candidate running for a seat in the Florida State House. She immediately withdrew her candidacy after the indictment was issued. 

“I am devastated by these baseless charges, and I have made the painful decision to suspend my campaign,” she said in a press release reported by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper. “I must now focus on fighting for my continued freedom,” she said in the release.

Legal observers have pointed out that the FBI’s political corruption investigation that led to Lettman-Hicks and Gillum’s indictment began in 2015 during the Obama administration, which was in charge of appointing the federal prosecutors involved in the case. Some observers note that Florida state prosecutors associated with the GOP-controlled state government do not appear to have been involved in the case.

Lettman-Hicks was listed this week on the National Black Justice Coalition website as the organization’s CEO and board chair. The website says she served as the group’s CEO and executive director from 2009 to 2017, when she stepped down as executive director. It says she has been based in Tallahassee during her tenure with the NBJC.

David Johns, the current NBJC executive director, is based in the organization’s headquarters in D.C.

A spokesperson for the NBJC did not respond to a request on Monday for comment on Lettman-Hicks’ trial that began on Monday.

On its website, NBJC says it has served since its founding in 2003 as “America’s leading national civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+, and same-gender loving (LGBTQ+/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS through coalition building, federal policy change, research, and education.”

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Florida

Miami Beach Pride parade takes place on Ocean Drive

Advocacy groups last week issued travel advisory for Fla.

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The annual Miami Beach Pride parade took place in Miami Beach, Fla., on April 16, 2023. (Screenshot from video courtesy of Yariel Valdés González)

More than 170,000 people attended the annual Miami Beach Pride parade that took place on the city’s Ocean Drive on Sunday.

The parade took place against the backdrop of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed expansion of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and banning gender-affirming care for transgender children in the state. The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature is also considering a bill that would prevent children from attending drag shows.

(video by yariel valdÉs gonzález)
(video by yariel valdÉs gonzález)
(video by yariel valdÉs gonzález)

Equality Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition last week issued a travel warning for the state.

“As an organization that has spent decades working to improve Florida’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place to live work and visit, it is with great sadness that we must respond to those asking if it is safe to travel to Florida or remain in the state as the laws strip away basic rights and freedoms,” said Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith. 

State Rep. Fabián Basabe (R-Miami Beach) is among those who participated in the Miami Beach Pride parade. Protesters confronted the Miami Beach Republican over his support of anti-LGBTQ bills in the Florida House of Representatives.

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