TALLAHASSEE — The Republican majority in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday unexpectedly rammed a ban on transgender athletes in women’s and girls’ sports through the legislative process amid an outcry from Democrats who called foul on the last-minute procedural moves used to get the issue passed in the final days of session.
House and Senate Republicans resuscitated the issue by attaching the transgender ban to a wide-ranging charter schools bill that was originally designed to create more avenues for charters to operate in the state.
Democrats in both chambers decried the move as a violation of the rules and fought passage of the measure. But Republicans moved forward with the language, passed the measure in both chambers within hours of each other and sent the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The move was the latest twist in one of the most controversial legislative proposals of the 2021 session, and it all but ensures the transgender athletes ban will become law.
“We in the Senate pride ourselves in being the grown ups and following procedure,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, a lot of things that happen in the Legislature are negotiated in exchange for other things, and it makes a mockery of this process.”
The measure passed by the Legislature on Wednesday does not include a past provision which would have allowed an institution to verify a student’s birth gender via a medical inspection of the athlete’s genitals. It also excluded elementary school students from the ban — both ideas proposed by Democrats when the bill was initially heard in the House.
However, it does include a blanket ban on transgender athletes participating in women’s and girls’ sports, which Democrats, many transgender Floridians and equal rights advocates say is discriminatory and unnecessary.
“In the 11th hour of the 2021 legislative session, Florida lawmakers are still hellbent on passing this discriminatory bill,” said Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s director of transgender equality. “Despite hearing the voices of trans kids and their families time and time again, extremists in the Legislature have made it their mission to make trans children pawns in their culture war.”
Supporters of the transgender athlete ban — almost all of them Republicans — say it’s necessary to maintain competitive equity in women’s sports.
The effort to ban transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports in college and high school competition is part of a national effort by conservative state legislatures. Florida is among at least 30 states that have filed similar legislation.
In Florida, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, have both backed the proposal. DeSantis is also in support of the idea, his office told the Herald/Times.
However, supporters have pointed to no specific instances of a transgender athlete unfairly skewing the competitive landscape in a women’s or girls’ sport in Florida. Both the Florida High School Athletic Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association already have policies governing transgender participation in women’s and girls’ sports.
Florida supporters of the ban have often pointed to Connecticut, where transgender girls won several high school track and field championships starting in 2017. Those championships caused cisgender athletes — who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth — to sue in federal court. This week, a federal judge tossed that suit on procedural grounds.
A mad legislative scramble
While the issue was on the House floor, Democrats filed a flurry of amendments in an attempt to narrow the scope of the measure. But the Republican majority rejected them all — a total of 18 amendments.
Republicans did not allow the consideration of most of those amendments because leadership only allotted about an hour and a half for debate and questions. Once that time expired, Sprowls abruptly cut off the Democrats from proposing amendments to the proposal, sponsored by Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid.
It was a similar story in the Senate, where Republican leaders ruled about a dozen Democrat-sponsored amendments out of order and refused to hear them.
Democrats were furious about the Republican moves to jam the bill through the process.
“It’s clear that Republican House members do not care about trans kids,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said in a text message minutes after the House passed Tuck’s transgender language.
After it passed the House, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, made an impassioned case against the bill.
Torres told the story of his transgender granddaughter, and how her struggle for societal recognition opened his eyes to the plight of a marginalized community.
“I ask you, please, please kill this. We don’t need this. We thought it was dead, but obviously, some don’t care,” Torres said. “We have to care.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, argued for the amendment’s passage, saying it was the “most simplistic resolution” to achieve the goal that “women are going to play with other women that have the same physiological makeup.”
“I know it is unfortunate for the number of students who are transgender, but we are doing this so that women have the opportunity to participate, to get scholarships, to excel with other women of like strength capabilities,” Stargel said.
Stargel offered opponents of the bill a glimmer of hope last week when she said the Senate may not have time for the transgender athlete ban before the end of session.
Democrats had speculated that threats from the NCAA to pull championships from states that pass transgender athlete bans might also have made Senate Republicans uneasy about the legislation.
But Republicans in the Legislature strenuously denied this, and on Wednesday, Stargel said the time for the policy had come.
Other education measures in the bill
The bill was rushed through the Legislature in the final days of session as part of a wide-ranging education bill stuffed with policy changes, including language from a Senate bill that would allow parents to have their children repeat a grade next academic year to recover from pandemic-induced learning losses.
The 65-page “charters school” bill, at its core, is meant to create more avenues to authorize charters and enter into contracts for their operation, beyond local school districts sponsoring. It would give public colleges and universities the power to approve charter schools, something Republican lawmakers tried and failed to push last session.
Charter school bill sponsor Stan McClain, R-Ocala, told House members on Wednesday that the charter school control provisions would “create high-paying, high-wage jobs that lead to economic security for our children,” and he also tried to limit school board term limits to eight consecutive years.
But the Senate said no. Hutson said there were not enough votes in the chamber to support term limits, an issue that Republicans have tried to push for years in the Legislature.
When it came to a ban on transgender kids, however, the story was different.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.