Florida LGBTQ Democrats tackle turning a ‘terrifying’ year into election results

“I’ve followed the Florida Legislature for at least 10 years, and I have never seen anything remotely as bad or as dangerous as this session,” said one longtime Pinellas Democrat.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist speaks to the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus at the group's winter conference in St. Petersburg on Feb. 12, 2022.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist speaks to the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus at the group's winter conference in St. Petersburg on Feb. 12, 2022. [ Emily L. Mahoney | Times ]
Published Feb. 15, 2022|Updated Feb. 15, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida’s LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus gathered for its first in-person conference since the pandemic began to address what members described as an increasingly hostile political climate to gay and transgender Floridians.

“Last year was a brutal year in Tallahassee, and we didn’t think they could go any further, but this year they have,” Stephen Gaskill, president of the caucus, told attendees Saturday in a ballroom at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park. He pointed to proposals making their way through the state Legislature.

Republican lawmakers, he said, are “very openly, actively trying to erase us from public life ... and it is terrifying.”

The question top of mind for the caucus, and for Democrats running in 2022: how to turn voters’ anger over contentious bills into mobilization.

“I’ve followed the Florida Legislature for at least 10 years, and I have never seen anything remotely as bad or as dangerous as this session,” said Susan McGrath, the campaign chair for the caucus and a past president of the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats and the county Democratic Party.

The caucus’ local chapters will lead a “coordinated campaign” to get voters to the polls in November, she said.

Concern over Florida bills related to LGBTQ issues is not new. In 2021, many LGBTQ Floridians were outraged by a law banning transgender athletes from participating in women’s and girls’ scholastic sports.

This year, the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, which prohibits schools from encouraging discussions among younger students about sexual orientation and gender identity, has garnered national headlines. But LGBTQ advocates said there are other bills they’re worried about.

Related: Students, supporters protest ‘don’t say gay’ bill outside Gaither High

For instance, critics fear a bill that would allow medical providers and insurers to deny non-emergency procedures that violate their religious, moral or ethical beliefs could reduce access to care for transgender people. A sweeping preemption bill that would allow businesses to sue local governments if an ordinance harms their profits has also sparked concern among advocates worried what it could do to some cities’ and counties’ LGBTQ discrimination protections. And an education bill that would give parents and the public greater ability to challenge school library books could affect kids’ ability to read stories with LGBTQ characters and themes, opponents say.

When asked about the characterization of this session as having many anti-LGBTQ bills, Republican Party of Florida executive director Helen Aguirre Ferré specifically defended the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, saying in a statement that it will prevent “teacher led” conversations that are “far from age-appropriate.”

Related: Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bills, explained

Gaskill, the caucus president, said the group has restarted its door-knocking efforts after the pandemic curtailed those in the 2020 election cycle. The caucus estimates there are roughly 970,000 LGBTQ voters statewide.

“I feel certain as we continue to tell our stories and how individual people will be impacted by these bills, it’s going to have an effect on the electorate, because it’s emotions,” Gaskill said, saying fear and anger can be powerful motivators. “People choose their candidate, they choose their positions, based on emotions.”

It’s clear Democrats’ top 2022 hopefuls see LGBTQ voters as part of their path to victory.

Democratic National Committee chairperson Jaime Harrison appeared by video during the caucus’ meeting. All three Democratic candidates for governor — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, state Sen. Annette Taddeo and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist — made speeches promising to end what they described as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election-year politics targeting the LGBTQ community, particularly children. U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who’s running for the Senate, received raucous applause for a line aimed at Republicans: “Leave our children the hell alone.”

Democrats in the state, who have long been outflanked by Republicans in statewide politics, know they also face the “midterm curse” — traditionally, the president’s party almost always loses ground. And DeSantis has proven to be a popular governor among GOP voters, which will likely motivate his supporters to the polls.

State Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, who is queer, said she’s heard from voters on LGBTQ issues as she’s knocked on doors in her campaign for Congress. She said most voters say these “red meat” proposals, like the “don’t say gay” bill, are not addressing the issues they truly care about.

“All of them are saying, ‘What’s going on with affordable housing? What’s going on with the economy? What’s going on with education?’” she said.

Rayner’s campaign has focused on “reframing the conversation” around those topics, she said.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which advocates against LGBTQ discrimination, compared some aspects of the current political climate to the early 2000s, when a quick succession of states outlawed gay marriage.

“We couldn’t talk about marriage in terms of rights and benefits, we had to talk about it in terms of love,” she said. “That’s when the dial began to change.”

On Monday, Equality Florida launched a TV ad against the “don’t say gay” bill, which nods at Florida Republicans’ own messaging centered around freedom.

In it, a young girl starts a presentation to her class, saying her two moms are her “heroes,” when a buzzer interrupts. A poster in the classroom reads: “State approved topics only.”