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New Florida House bill targets LGBTQ groups, critics contend

HB 599 would prevent nonprofits or any employers who receive state funding from requiring training on “sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
 
Sicilaly Santiago-Leon, who lost a cousin in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, talks to former state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith after she delivered emotional remarks to the Orlando City Council on Oct. 23 regarding the city’s plan to purchase the Pulse nightclub property.
Sicilaly Santiago-Leon, who lost a cousin in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, talks to former state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith after she delivered emotional remarks to the Orlando City Council on Oct. 23 regarding the city’s plan to purchase the Pulse nightclub property. [ JOE BURBANK | TNS ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023

Gay rights organizations are slamming a proposed bill that they say would cripple LGBTQ nonprofit groups in Florida.

“It would be devastating to organizations like ours,” said Todd Delmay, executive director of the Miami-based group SAVE. “It could make very difficult the work we have done for 30 years protecting, promoting and defending equality for LGBTQ+ people in Florida. But that’s the point. … It is primarily meant to sow division and fear.”

Filed by state Rep. Ryan Chamberlin, R-Marion, the bill (HB 599) would prevent nonprofit groups or any employers who receive state funding from requiring training on “sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” If enacted, it would be a major expansion from the initial focus on schools in the Parental Rights in Education Act, called the “don’t say gay” law by its critics.

“The original justification no longer applies,” said Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami. “This isn’t about schools. This isn’t about children. This is about how every Florida person is supposed to speak to every other Florida person in the so-called free state of Florida.”

The bill, which doesn’t yet have a Senate companion, also would prevent businesses from disciplining employees for refusing to use other people’s preferred pronouns.

In an email, Chamberlin said the legislation was needed “to protect Florida’s non-profit workers.”

“The bill focuses on taxpayer-funded organizations and businesses to prevent them from forcing (requiring) employees to participate in gender sensitivity or pronoun training and conduct that is married to a penalty for non-participation,” Chamberlin said. “If an employee recognizes a person by their birth gender or does not want to participate in gender sensitivity training, they should not be reprimanded or fired.”

He said any gay rights nonprofit that receives state funding “can have pronoun training and any other kind of gender indoctrination seminars, but they can’t fire or penalize their employees for not participating. If they want to force these things on their employees, then they should adjust their business model or seek funding elsewhere.”

‘A devastating domino effect’

The bill was seen by LGBTQ nonprofit groups as a major threat to their existence.

Delmay said his group receives little direct state funding, but he fears the bill could be used as a way to place restrictions even on local funding.

“They would argue that state funds were being used improperly and ultimately restrict or end local governments from making their own decisions,” Delmay said. “This would have a devastating domino effect on our work.”

He also said other donors may “overreact” and start to worry whether they should stop donating to organizations that receive state funding.

Robert Boo, executive director of the Wilton Manors-based Pride Center at Equality Park, said the state money the group receives through the Department of Health is “not a huge component of our funding, but it would impact us absolutely. And some organizations are totally dependent on government funding.”

He said his group will fight against the bill, including in court if it becomes law.

“Trying to prevent us from doing any cultural proficiency training in the LGBT community?” Boo said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Jamie Henkel, interim director of Learning and Inclusion for PFLAG National, said targeting nonprofits “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of economics, and Floridians should be concerned.”

PFLAG National, which has 18 chapters in Florida, including Orlando, partners with businesses through its Straight For Equality program.

“Companies know that inclusive benefits, programs, and policies are good for business, employees, and communities,” she said. “With so many issues to focus on and try to solve, HB 599 is a distraction – and a dangerous one, at that.”

Pronoun usage

The bill also includes a more sweeping section that does not include any language limiting its impact to organizations or businesses that receive state money.

That section states that employees or contractors could not be required to refer to another person’s “preferred personal title or pronouns” if [they] do not correspond to that person’s sex” and could not be penalized because of “deeply held religious or biology-based beliefs, including a belief in traditional or Biblical views of sexuality and marriage, or … disagreement with gender ideology.”

That would hold whether they expressed these views on the job or off.

In addition, it would prevent employees or contractors from providing their own pronouns to their employers if they did not match “that person’s sex.”

“We are all assigned a gender at birth based on our reproductive organs,” Chamberlin said. “To force anyone to call someone by anything other than their birth gender by threatening workplace penalties is unreasonable and unconstitutional.”

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a senior policy adviser with the gay rights group Equality Florida, criticized Chamberlin’s reasoning.

“I’ve already read some of his justification for bringing the bill forward, about needing to ‘protect workers’ and some other nonsense,” said Smith, a former state representative from Orlando who is running for state Senate in 2024. “But Florida workers don’t need protection from pronouns or inclusive work environments, they need better wages and lower costs to be able to afford living here.”

Smith also argued the bill was vague on how it would be carried out and enforced.

Kroger said the bill’s lack of clarity could be seen as a continuation of previous bills such as “don’t say gay” and the Stop WOKE Act, which have been criticized as vague and open to loose interpretation by the state.

“Vagueness is a choice,” Koger said. “Are they trying to chill behavior and speech without actually banning it? … It makes it harder for citizens and businesses and nonprofits to navigate the legal environment.”

DeSantis’ campaign slide

DeSantis made battles over LGBTQ issues a major part of his agenda in the runup to his presidential campaign, including a war with Disney after its former CEO criticized the “don’t say gay” bill.

But the bill’s introduction comes as DeSantis’ star is fading on both the national scene, where he trails former President Trump by huge margins in most states, and in Florida, where all but one Republican member of the congressional delegation backs Trump for president.

Koger said DeSantis’ problems in the Republican primary “have demonstrated the limits of this governing approach, focusing on cultural issues of sanctioning LGBTQ people and anyone who’s trying to create a supportive environment for LGBTQ people. It’s just not a winning political message.”

With more Republicans such as state Sen. Joe Gruters willing to criticize DeSantis on issues that affect private businesses, such as the state’s takeover of the special district once controlled by DIsney, “it’s entirely possible that Republican state legislators will begin to move away from this strategy and try to focus more on bread and butter issues that actually affect voters lives,” Koger said.

Gruters did not respond to a request for comment. DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern did not return a request for comment on the bill.

Smith, however, was pessimistic.

“Voters across the political spectrum are exhausted by DeSantis’ culture wars,” Smith said. “It’s why his own standing has fallen here in the state of Florida after being reelected by 19 percentage points. But culture wars are all Florida Republicans have … Now they’re extending this nonsense into private workplaces and nonprofit charities. Where will it end?”