Florida anti-LGBTQ laws prompt families who feel unsafe to flee
That is the day a slate of new laws signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis targeting the LGBTQ community take effect. Doctors will be allowed to deny care based on their moral beliefs. The use of preferred pronouns will be banned in public schools. And children will be barred from attending drag shows, among other measures. One law that prohibits gender-affirming health care for transgender people under the age of 18 is already being enforced.
The Republican governor vying to become president in the 2024 election championed the bills as part of his “Florida Blueprint.” His critics call it “the slate of hate.”
For Dennis, they add up to a difficult but urgent decision to flee. “I’m a trans adult. I have gender nonconforming children, and these laws are just so specifically targeting our communities that I don’t feel like my parenting relationship is going to continue to be respected,” Dennis said. “We just low grade don’t feel safe.”
A tectonic shift in how the LGBTQ community perceives its welcome is underway in a state famed for both a vibrant gay history in pockets like Key West and a past filled with examples of intolerance and aggression. While some of the new legislation builds on previous laws, gay rights advocates say they are alarmed by the sheer number of bills and the increasingly hostile rhetoric from DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers, who have championed the legislation as making Florida safe for children and standing up for parental rights, echoing a theme frequently used on the campaign trail by DeSantis.
In recent weeks, several civil rights groups have issued travel advisories for Florida, warning LGBTQ tourists to reconsider plans to visit the Sunshine State. The overall impact of the laws make Florida “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals,” the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, said in its warning in May.
Two Florida communities have canceled annual Pride parades out of concern that they will unintentionally break a new law that makes it a third-degree felony to have a child present at “an adult live performance.” Some transgender families are placing their children in private schools. And a growing roster of LGBTQ families and individuals are opting to leave.
NBA superstar Dwyane Wade announced that he had moved his family to California in part because he feared his transgender teenage daughter “would not be accepted or feel comfortable” in Florida. A NASA engineer left for Illinois after concluding the new bills amount to the state “attempting to erase trans people.”
Those who cannot afford to relocate are turning to GoFundMe to raise money to leave a state they say has become a dangerous place for them and their children. Advocates for transgender Floridians have started Transit Underground, an informal coalition to help connect those leaving with volunteers who offer transportation and temporary housing.
“We’re telling allies who say we should not leave, but stay and fight, that trans people can’t live in a state of genocidal terror,” said Lakey Love, a founder of the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation, which is supporting Transit Underground.
DeSantis and his staff have dismissed the growing backlash. Christina Pushaw, a former DeSantis spokeswoman who now works for his presidential campaign, posted a tweet in response to a survey indicating LGBTQ families are leaving the state with a single emoji: a waving hand. The governor likened the travel advisories to “a stunt” and has insisted the purpose of the laws is to “let our children by children.”
“We have a very crazy age that we live in. There is a lot of nonsense that gets floated around,” DeSantis said to a crowd of supporters at the Christian Cambridge School in Tampa in May. “What we have said in Florida is, we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy.”
‘People became complacent’
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Johns Committee, a state-sponsored investigative panel, targeted civil rights activists suspected of ties to communists. Its work eventually homed in on Florida universities. A 1959 report by the group alleged that “homosexual professors were recruiting students into ‘homosexual practices’ and they in turn were becoming teachers in Florida’s public-school system and recruiting even younger students.”
A decade later, former beauty queen Anita Bryant launched what some now see as a precursor to the DeSantis-backed measure critics call “Don’t Say Gay,” which bars classroom lessons related to gender identity and sexual orientation in K-12 public schools. She championed a crusade known as “Save Our Children” to overturn a local ordinance in Miami that prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, work and private education, arguing it infringed on her rights as a parent.
Despite that complicated past, gay pride flourished in parts of the state. Glamorous hotels and restaurants catering to the gay community sprang up in Miami Beach in the 1970s and remain fixtures today. Thousands flock to Key West for Pride Month and New Year’s Eve, when the island city does a ball drop hosted by a drag queen.
There and elsewhere, many have felt the worst was behind them, particularly after the Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage in 2015, said Scott Galvin, director of Safe Schools South Florida, which works with LGBTQ youth. “We thought, we’ve arrived, the struggle is over,” said Galvin, who is also a longtime North Miami City Council member. “As a result, people became complacent.”
Even after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, many in the gay community felt a sense of solidarity. The outpouring of grief and support poured into Orlando from across the political spectrum, including from DeSantis, who in 2019 attended a memorial event with his wife, Casey.
“Even people who were not LGBTQ felt attacked,” Dennis recalled after a gunman killed 49 people in the gay nightclub. “After Pulse, I remember hearing a man, he looked like a regular good old boy, say ‘These are my gays. Don’t mess with them.’”
When DeSantis last year signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Galvin said he was taken aback. He saw schools ordering teachers to remove rainbow flags and safe space stickers from their classrooms. Some teachers began pulling books like “And Tango Makes Three,” a picture book at about two male penguins who form a family, from their bookshelves, fearful of getting into trouble.
Then he was hit directly: Miami-Dade County schools, which for 20 years had welcomed Galvin’s nonprofit to host an annual empowerment day for LGBTQ students, refused to authorize the event this year, citing the new law.
“When all of this started, we had a hard time motivating people in the LGBTQ community who don’t have children,” Galvin said. “You know, you’re 35 years old and you’re hitting up the clubs, life is great, so what happens in schools doesn’t affect you, right?” Now, he said, “they’re starting to realize that we’re all under attack.”
The state had shifted further right politically, as evidenced by the double-digit reelection of DeSantis last November. And while the governor set his sights on the Republican presidential nomination, his allies in the legislature introduced a new crop of bills placing restrictions on transgender people.
A fight over ‘childhood itself’
The bills aimed to establish some of the strictest provisions on gender-affirming care and how gender identity is addressed in the classroom. Whether they would pass was not in doubt. With a Republican supermajority in the legislature, most of the signature proposals from DeSantis easily advanced. But public hearings were contentious.
Tsi Day Smyth, who is nonbinary and has a transgender child, spoke often at the hearings, an act of protest they called exhausting and dispiriting. “You’re looking at legislation meant to erase people. And when you enter that room, you feel like they’ve already erased you,” Day Smyth later recalled in an interview.
During a hearing over a bathroom bill, state Rep. Webster Barnaby (R) lashed out against those speaking against the legislation, likening them to people who are “happy to display themselves as if they were mutants from another planet.”
“The Lord rebuke you, Satan, and all of your demons and all of your imps who come parade before us,” Barnaby said, looking at the speakers, including Day Smyth. “That’s right. I call you demons and imps who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world.” Barnaby briefly apologized several minutes later, but Day Smyth said the message coming from Republican lawmakers was clear: Trans people are not welcome here.
The harsh rhetoric continued even after the bills were passed. At a bill signing event in May, DeSantis was joined by Rep. Randy Fine (R), who sponsored some of the anti-LGBTQ legislation. Fine likened the bills as part of a broader war of good against evil. “There is evil in this world, and we are fighting it here today,” Fine said. “The fight that we have had here in Florida is about the fundamental nature of childhood itself.”
‘Taking us back 100 years’
The new laws already appear to be having a chilling effect. Florida is home to about 95,000 transgender adults, according to an estimate from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, and while the vast majority are likely to stay, a number like the Dennis family are taking steps to leave.
According to GoFundMe, there has been a surge in fundraisers created to support trans people looking to relocate to more LGBTQ-friendly states since May 2022. So far this year, more than $200,000 has been raised on the platform to support trans people and their families looking to leave Florida.
Among those deciding to leave Florida is Eleanor McDonough, who was the only out trans woman working in the state legislature. She served as an aide to state Democratic Rep. Rita Harris, but she left after the session ended in May, convinced that there is “no indication that the Republican supermajority is going to stop any time soon.”
Some Republican lawmakers told McDonough they did not believe in all of the anti-trans rhetoric and legislation, but she said they told her they felt they had to support DeSantis in his policies or see their own legislative priorities killed. “They found it hard to make eye contact with me at the end,” McDonough said. “They would just look away from me, almost like they felt shame on their part for what they were doing.”
The anti-LGBTQ turn is evident beyond the halls of power in the capital of Tallahassee. On May 17, the day DeSantis signed his slate of LGBTQ-focused bills, someone hacked an electronic street sign in Orlando, across town from where the Dennis family lives. The sign had been put up for an upcoming marathon.
Hackers changed the language to read: “KILL ALL GAYS.”
“What is happening now is taking us back not 50 years, but 100 years,” said Caitlyn Ryan, a founder of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University in California. “It is extremely destructive.”
Still, many are also vowing to stay and defend their rights, gathering to protest at the state capitol, and showing up at pride events. Tens of thousands gathered the first weekend in June in Orlando for the annual Gay Days events at Walt Disney World kicking off Pride month of June.
“I have trans friends who are leaving the state,” said Joseph Clark, chief executive of the Gay Days event. “People don’t feel safe right now. They don’t feel welcome. But I think that is more of a reason to do what we’ve been doing on an annual basis for more than 30 years.”
‘We can’t stay in Florida’
For the Dennis family, normalcy is a family made up of three parents, all of whom are transgender, raising two children. Hazel is 12 and Sparrow is 5. Dennis said both their children are gender creative, a term that describes individuals who do not identify as a man or a woman. Dennis said there is a feeling of dread now because of laws directed at transgender families like theirs.
When Sparrow was born, Dennis, 35, said they would be a “theyby,” a baby whose gender was not advertised to the world. Gaining acceptance and affirmation for that choice was difficult, Dennis said, even in Orlando, a city whose voters have consistently elected progressive politicians over the past decade. “Not everyone is accepting,” Dennis said. “I don’t need my neighbor to like me. But I need laws to protect me.”
Hazel quickly chimed in with a remark that hinted at the fear the family lives with because of anti-LGBTQ laws and hostile rhetoric in Florida. “For instance, I don’t want to get shot,” Hazel said. Dennis said they do not want their children to endure hatred.
The parents got together and consulted a map of the country that shows states that have LGBTQ-friendly policies. They picked Maryland, and they are moving there in early July.
Dennis needs medication for their transition, which has also become more difficult in Florida for adults. Dennis has been a community organizer in Orlando and said they will miss “the tenacity and the creativity and the resilience of community.”
“It feels like I’m jumping off a sinking ship and being like, well, I got my life raft, y’all take care of yourselves,” Dennis said. “But we can’t stay in Florida.”