TALLAHASSEE — This week a national firestorm rained down on Tallahassee, with politicians and presidential candidates accusing GOP lawmakers of trying to pass a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
But it’s more complicated than that.
One bill, sponsored by two of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers, does directly target transgender minors by preventing them from getting hormone therapy or other treatment.
As for the other bills, multiple Republicans are now pushing back, saying their proposed legislation is being unfairly described as anti-LGBTQ.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why they would try to lump these bills,” said Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville. “It’s disappointing that they would take these minor bills and paint them in an unfair way.”
The firestorm started on Tuesday, when the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida sent a news release denouncing “the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory.”
It named four bills each filed on the Legislature’s deadline, and NBC News picked up the news release and labeled the bills “anti-gay.”
It didn’t stop there. Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, noted on Twitter that the Legislature has three open LGBTQ members, including himself.
“THIS is what it feels like to be kicked in the gut by your colleagues,” Smith wrote. “I am so utterly offended and disappointed.”
His tweet was then retweeted by Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who wrote that the bills would cause “immense harm” to LGBTQ Floridians.
“I’ll fight to protect LGBTQ+ youth, including by passing the Equality Act, banning conversion therapy nationwide, and ensuring that every LGBTQ+ person gets the gender-affirming health care they need,” she tweeted.
Tallahassee does not have a strong track record of fighting for the rights of LGBTQ Floridians. Controlled by Republicans for decades, the Legislature has for years failed to pass a law banning LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, and former governors and attorneys general fought to uphold the state’s ban on marriage equality.
And this year, Republicans are fast-tracking a bill meant to turn out their base voters in an election year, legislation requiring minors to get parental consent for abortions.
But Republicans say there is no coordinated wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation this session.
One of the bills named by Equality Florida, however, does directly target transgender minors. Senate Bill 1864 and House Bill 1365 would make it a felony for doctors to provide minors with hormone therapy or to perform sex reassignment surgery. Lawmakers in at least four other states have filed similar bills in the last few months, according to Vox.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, two of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers. Sabatini didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Baxley said that questions over a child’s gender should not be made until they’ve become an adult, and doctors and parents aren’t sufficient enough to make those decisions.
“I just don’t want to take a physically healthy child and submit them to this prematurely,” he said.
Equality Florida’s public policy director, Jon Harris Maurer, called it “a clear attack on some of our state’s most vulnerable youth.”
He noted that therapy for transgender youth was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Studies show that transgender children suffer higher rates of suicidal thoughts and actions.
Baxley did not sound optimistic about his bill’s chances. It might not have support from Senate leadership. On Friday, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he hadn’t seen the bills but is against any legislation that is discriminatory.
“If I believe that there’s an infringement or that it creates a discriminatory environment, then I’m going to express my dissatisfaction with that,” he said.
The other bills named by Equality Florida, however, are far different. Each targets restrictions local communities place on businesses.
Neither mentions conversion therapy, but Equality Florida says those bills — and their companion bills in the House — would do away with local communities’ bans on conversion therapy.
Maurer said that the LGBTQ protections might be unintended “collateral damage” in the local pre-emption bills.
“That is what we are focusing on — the impact of the legislation, not the intent,” Maurer said.
Perry said he in no way meant to target conversion therapy bans, and he doesn’t see how his bills could be interpreted that way. He said Equality Florida also posted his cell phone number online, and he’s been getting “harassing” calls all week.
“I’m extremely disappointed in Equality Florida and their interpretation of these,” Perry said. “If you’re a fair-minded person that looks at this objectively, there’s no way you can interpret what they’re saying.”
The House version of his bill, House Bill 3, is a priority for Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. On Wednesday, at Equality Florida’s urging, the bill was amended by its sponsor, sponsor Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, eliminating the threat to local bans on conversion therapy.
Perry said he will make a similar amendment to his bill.
House Bill 305, a bill that prevents local governments from regulating conditions of employment, has also drawn ire from LGBTQ advocates.
One of those prevents local governments from making rules that regulate the interview process. Pre-employment screening — or a job interview — is the stage where discrimination can take place, LGBTQ advocates say.
“There is no state law protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination,” said Rich Templin, legislative and political director for Florida AFL-CIO. “And communities enacting civil rights ordinances would be preempted and wiped out.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, said people have been calling him, asking if the bill affects policies that prevent employment discrimination.
“The bill does not do that,” Rommel said.
Those lobbying for the bill are the same business groups that lobbied for the past preemption bills, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation and Associated Industries of Florida.
Their philosophy is that there should be few restrictions on the free market and that if there are local issues, the state should be the one to address them.
Samantha Padgett, a lobbyist for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, told lawmakers that “there is nothing in this bill that addresses discrimination.”
“It neither enables or encourages discrimination nor does it prevent it,” she said.