TALLAHASSEE — Bathroom use restrictions. A crackdown on treatment for transgender minors. And stiff penalties for venues that admit children into “sexual” performances.
All of these issues were part of heated marathon hearings in the Florida House on Tuesday and Wednesday, as LGTBQ+ advocates shouted outside of the chamber — and disrupted the proceedings — to protest legislative efforts that they said will harm them.
The proposals have been supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to soon announce a bid for the White House, and amplified by people and groups aligned with him politically. The bills follow a national theme of Republican-led legislatures across the country taking aim at LGBTQ+ issues.
Conservative lawmakers say they’re pushing forward the bills in an attempt to protect children. Advocates say such measures will harm LGBTQ+ children.
“There is evil in this world and we face it here today,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who sponsored two of the bills passed Wednesday.
Protesters took to the state Capitol in Tallahassee and laid out large white briefs with “no panty police” and “leave my genitals alone” scribbled in multicolored marker.
A small group that included children was escorted out of the building Tuesday for throwing underwear on the lawmakers below.
Six members of the group were issued trespass notices, and one was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace.
Tsi Smyth and their 13-year-old child, Journi, were among those protesting at the Capitol with the group Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, which also protested against the recently passed bill banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Smyth said though legislators frame themselves as advocates for children, they don’t listen to children like theirs who oppose the moves.
“It’s sad kids have to do things like this in order to be heard,” Smyth said.
Here’s a look at the three pieces of legislation passed by the House, and what comes next.
Access to transgender health care
Children in Florida already can’t begin puberty blockers or hormone therapies meant to treat gender dysphoria after the state’s Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine passed rules prohibiting it in November.
But SB 254 would put that rule into the statute and makes it a third-degree felony for a doctor to violate the law. The legislation passed the House with an 82-31 vote. A somewhat different version of the same bill previously passed in the Senate.
Limiting treatments like puberty blockers and hormone therapies for children goes against the recommendation of major medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society, but Republican lawmakers say that studies out of European countries challenge the idea that the treatments come without serious harm.
Transgender children and their parents who have spoken out against the bill at its various stops have said that accessing treatment to ease their gender dysphoria saved their lives, with some saying they were suicidal before beginning treatment.
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The bill would allow doctors to use hormone therapies and puberty blockers on children being treated for conditions other than gender dysphoria.
Fine amended the Senate bill to include prohibitions against changing the sex of a person on a birth certificate and against private health insurers covering “gender clinical interventions.” The House-amended version of the bill also requires that children currently getting such treatments for gender dysphoria cease such treatments after this year.
Because the House amended the Senate bill, the Senate will need to take another vote before it can go to the governor.
The legislation restricts state health insurance from covering treatments like hormone therapies or surgeries to treat gender dysphoria.
It also allows a court to consider one parent’s support of medical interventions for gender dysphoria as “serious physical harm” in a custody case. It does not allow for the state itself to intervene or take children out of the home.
Targeting “sexual” performances
The House approved SB 1438, which would create stiff penalties for businesses that allow children into “adult live performances.” Critics worry that the broad language in the bill will have a chilling effect on drag shows across the state.
Although the bill does not explicitly name drag performances, it does specify that the “lewd” exposure of “prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts” would qualify as an adult performance.
The bill emerged as the DeSantis administration has targeted venues that have hosted drag performances with minors in the audience, even when state regulators found “no lewd acts.” DeSantis has said he believes “sexualized” drag shows are dangerous for kids.
The measure, which the House voted for 82-32, can now go to the governor. If signed into law, it goes into effect immediately and any person that admits children to a performance in violation could face up to a year in jail.
The restrictions will apply in cases when the shows are “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the age of the child present,” are considered “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state,” or appeal to “a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest.”
Critics fear the bill’s intent is to create a chilling effect on drag performances and pride parades. Fine, the bill sponsor, said he hopes “it’ll have a chilling effect on adult live performances that target children,” but that it doesn’t affect entertainment for adults.
After talking about drag shows and denouncing a group that lets children with Down syndrome perform in drag, Fine said, “The right question is not why do I want to stop children from going to these kinds of events, the question is why are they so determined to do it to children.”
A provision in the bill says governments may not issue permits for a performance that violates the “adult live performance” definitions.
Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, filed an amendment to remove that provision, saying she was concerned such language could make municipalities hesitate to approve permits for pride parades and other events.
Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, joined her in supporting the amendment, saying that St. Pete Pride allows people in the LGBTQ+ community to be seen, and is a huge economic driver for the area. The amendment was rejected.
Republicans who spoke out against the proposed amendment noted that pride parades aren’t mentioned in the bill and questioned if the Democrats were saying pride parades were “lewd.”
“This is either a red herring or you are condemning pride parades,” said Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville.
Limiting and criminalizing bathroom access
People who enter a bathroom or facility designed for the “opposite sex” and refuse to leave when asked could be charged with a misdemeanor under a bill, HB 1521, passed by the House in an 80-37 vote, with two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.
The bill defines “female” as a person who, at birth, belonged to the sex that has “the specific reproductive role of producing eggs,” and “male” as someone who at birth belonged to the sex that has “the specific reproductive role of producing sperm.”
The bill designates circumstances where it’s OK for someone to enter a bathroom belonging to the opposite sex, including escorting a child or elderly person. But anyone over 18 who enters otherwise can be charged with a misdemeanor if they refuse to leave when asked.
Schools would set their own disciplinary measures in cases with children under 18.
Democratic lawmakers asked how business owners or police officers would confirm a person’s gender, if challenged. The bill sponsor, Rep. Rachel Lora Saunders Plakon, R-Lake Mary, said officers could check an ID, speak with people who have familiarity with the person or even subpoena a birth certificate.
When a representative asked what would happen to androgynous people, who may be challenged for being in a restroom because they don’t conform to a certain idea of masculinity or femininity, Plakon said it would be “up to officer discretion.”
The bill also requires that any correctional institution house male inmates and female inmates based on their sex at birth.
The policy would violate the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, commonly known as PREA, which says that transgender inmates’ housing should be determined case by case.
When a state is out of compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it risks losing 5% of any federal Justice Assistance Grant funds it receives. The amount of the fund Florida has received has varied from $150,000 to $180,000 over the years, according to a House bill analysis.
Julie Abbate, the national advocacy director of Just Detention International, said going against the best practices outlined in that federal act, which are intended to reduce prison sexual abuse, could open Florida up to liability.
The Senate has not yet passed its version of the legislation, which has one committee stop left.