"A Lost Cause": Florida Democrats' Futile Attempt to Make the State a Trans Refuge

Local chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance are expected to close when HB1557 is enacted, says Scott Galvin of Safe Schools Florida.
Local chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance are expected to close when HB1557 is enacted, says Scott Galvin of Safe Schools Florida. Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
Over the past few months, legislators in Texas and Alabama have passed legislation that halts hormone replacement therapy among trans youth and limit how their guardians can care for them. This month, in response to a wave of anti-trans legislation across the nation, 21 lawmakers from 16 states announced plans to introduce what's known as "trans refuge laws," or "sanctuary" laws, seeking to protect trans children and their families by blocking subpoenas and barring compliance with warrants issued in states where gender-affirming care has been criminalized.

Of course, no state has received more notoriety for its anti-LGBTQ legislation than Florida, thanks to the passage of HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education (known by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill), which prohibits instruction on sexuality and gender between kindergarten and third grade or "in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."

But that hasn't stopped two LGBTQ Democrats in Florida — Sen. Shevrin Jones of Broward and Rep. Michele Rayner of St. Petersburg — from stating their intent to introduce trans refuge laws — even if Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican majority in the state House and Senate render the gesture of introducing such legislation largely performative.

Jones is the first openly LGBTQ person to serve in the Florida Senate. Even after he knew the majority of senators were planning to vote in favor of HB 1557, he delivered a tear-filled speech on the senate floor as he described his LGBTQ experience and tried to introduce an amendment that would prohibit educators from attempting to change a student’s gender or sexuality (it failed by a vote of 22 to 16).

Jones, who did not return New Times’ requests for an interview, appears determined.

"From our state legislatures to Congress, we stand against these laws that are trying to wipe away the history of the LGBTQ community," he said in a statement earlier this month in which he asserted his commitment to making Florida a safe place for trans people. "These so-called leaders must understand that when you come for one of us, you come for all us, and we will not stand down."

That said, Scott Galvin, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, a nonprofit organization that specializes in training and preparing teachers to appropriately interact with LGBTQ students, calls Florida "a lost cause" — and with good reason.

On June 1, 2021, the first day of Pride Month, DeSantis signed the "Fairness in Women's Sports Act," a law banning trans girls from participating in school sports, and declared, "In Florida, girls are going to play girls sports and boys are going to play boy sports." In late March, he misgendered trans swimmer Lia Thomas, referring to her as a "guy."

Following the passage of "Don’t Say Gay," Galvin has worked tirelessly to revamp their programming yet still expects local chapters of the Gay-Straight Alliance, the student-run extracurricular club that unites LGBTQ youth and their allies, to dissolve when HB 1557 goes into effect in July.

"The trans refuge law is going to go down in flames," Galvin says. "It will certainly be a welcome effort, but nobody should have their hopes up that it will pass — not in Florida."

Even if the GOP-led legislature were to pass a trans refuge law and DeSantis were to sign it, it's unclear how welcoming the state would be for its trans residents, especially after HB 1557 goes into effect in July: In late April, the Florida Department of Health issued new guidelines on treating trans children that suggest that gender-affirming care should not be prescribed and that social transitions "should not be a treatment option."

Though there are no legislative restrictions that might criminalize trans healthcare in Florida, there are no protections for it, either, which allows providers to deny gender-affirming care. Of Florida's 67 counties, only 12 have policies or ordinances that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, mostly in the workplace.

Sol Mateo Astacio, a trans educator who lives in Broward, is thankful for Jones' and Rayner's effort but he says that before introducing trans refuge laws, Florida needs to secure "united support."

"I do not think that Florida is safe [for trans people]," Astacio tells New Times. "I know that the refuge law might make it seem like a safe place, but people moving and living here and experiencing it might face a different reality."

Tatiana Williams is the cofounder of Transinclusive Group, a Broward-based grassroots organization that provides services to the local LGBTQ community. As a trans woman herself, she urges lawmakers not to give up their efforts to make the state safer for trans people.

"Our leaders need to understand how we feel and the impact laws can have on our safety and ability to navigate the world as our authentic selves," Williams writes in an emailed statement to New Times. "When lawmakers restrict our youth from being able to be themselves, they marginalize them even further, pushing them into a corner that isolates them, impacts their mental health, and puts them at risk." 

After sweeping blows to the trans community, Transinclusive Group's deputy director Nic Zantop argues legislators' support is needed in Florida more than ever.

"It’s more vital than ever for our elected officials to loudly proclaim that gender-affirming care is life-saving care," Zantop tells New Times, "and our trans youth, their families, and their healthcare providers should never have to exist in a state of fear."
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