DeSantis signs bills on pronouns, gender care, drag shows and more

The governor’s “Let Kids Be Kids” theme draws applause at a Tampa Christian school, but harsh criticism from other quarters.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis address the audience during a news conference at Cambridge Christian School on Wednesday in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis address the audience during a news conference at Cambridge Christian School on Wednesday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 17, 2023|Updated May 18, 2023

TAMPA — One by one, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday signed bills that will govern conversations about student pronouns in public schools, limit access to gender-affirming care and allow group prayer before sporting events.

The newly minted legislation also holds businesses accountable when children attend adult entertainment events and mandates sex-separate locker rooms for student athletes and state workers.

Taken together, the bills were part of what DeSantis called his “Let Kids Be Kids” package. A placard with that phrase was placed in the camera frame as the governor took the stage at Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School.

DeSantis noted that Cambridge was the subject of a legal battle that began in 2015, when prayer was not allowed over the public address system at a championship game between the school and Jacksonville’s University Christian School.

Speakers at Wednesday’s ceremony included Cambridge Head of School Shawn Minx, who said: “The next time Cambridge Christian returns to play for a state championship — and we will return — we will pray over the loudspeaker before kickoff.”

Also on hand was Luca Hein, a Minnesota college student who underwent gender reassignment surgery as a teen and now speaks out publicly against the practice. “I was one of the kids who just needed a chance to grow up and get the help I needed,” Hein said.

DeSantis began his remarks with two digs at Hillsborough County Public Schools.

He claimed the Hillsborough County School Board voted to allow pornographic material in schools. The board did take up the issue on March 28 of a book that had been challenged, the nonfiction “This Book Is Gay.” But on that day, the board voted 4-3 to remove the book from all middle school libraries.

DeSantis also referred to “policies” in Hillsborough that “make kids pick pronouns, and even hide that from their parents.” No such policy exists, said district spokesperson Tanya Arja.

Nevertheless, DeSantis said that in Florida, “we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy.”

The audience of students, staff and parents who packed the Cambridge gymnasium gave DeSantis standing ovations and cheered loudly at statements that included “we’re not doing pronoun Olympics in Florida.”

Also receiving rousing applause was Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican legislator, who told the audience: “There is evil in this world and we are fighting it here today. We are going to do it because God does not make mistakes with our children.”

Democrats in the Senate responded to the event with prepared statements, noting that Tuesday was International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

“These bills take us several steps back as a society that’s fought hard for progress and equality,” said Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book of Davie. “Being gay or trans isn’t perverse. It isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is the discrimination legalized today.”

Senator Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said, “these bills are mean spirited, unnecessary and won’t stop people from being gay or trans. What it will do is put a target on their backs and increase the instances of bullying and suicides of LGBTQ Floridians. It will put people like my granddaughter in harm’s way.”

These are the five bills that DeSantis signed on stage:

  • SB 254, which prohibits “sex-reassignment prescriptions and procedures for patients younger than 18 years of age.” Critics of the bill note that life-altering surgeries performed on minors are extremely rare. The law requires adult patients who are receiving these medications or surgeries to be informed about the dangers and irreversible nature of these procedures and to give written, informed consent.
  • HB 1069, prohibits teachers from asking students about their preferred pronouns. It asserts that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait” and “it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” The law also expands the state’s prohibition on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, adding pre-K and fourth through eighth grades to the restrictions. DeSantis remarked that after passage of the 2022 law, which applied to kindergarten through third grade, educators tried to beat the system by having inappropriate discussions in preschool.
  • HB 1438, prohibits a person from knowingly admitting a minor to adult performances such as drag shows. It also authorizes the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to fine, suspend or revoke the operating or alcohol licenses of hotels or restaurants if they admit a child into an adult performance.
  • HB 1521, requires educational institutions, detention facilities, correctional institutions, juvenile correctional facilities, and public buildings with a restroom or changing facility to designate separate facilities based on a person’s assigned sex at birth or to provide one-person unisex facilities.
  • HB 225, allows private school, virtual school and home school students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at other public or private schools, regardless of zip code. It reorganizes the Florida High School Athletic Association board of directors and allows teams to provide brief opening remarks, including prayers, before high school athletic contests.

The event drew a harsh reaction from the advocacy group Equality Florida, which organized its own virtual news conference shortly after DeSantis’ event concluded.

“DeSantis has just signed into law the largest slate of anti-LGBTQ bills in one legislative session in the state’s history,” said Joe Saunders, the organization’s senior political director.

“Free states don’t strip parents of the right to make health care decisions for their children. Free states don’t ban books, censor curriculum, or muzzle free speech.”

Times Staff Writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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