TALLAHASSEE — After an emotionally charged debate, state lawmakers Wednesday gave their initial backing to a bill that would prohibit transgender men and women from using public restrooms aligned with their gender identity.
The proposal is intended to address public safety concerns that its sponsor, Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, said arise from a broad nondiscrimination ordinance passed in Miami-Dade County in December. That ordinance, he said, would permit men to legally enter women's restrooms and locker rooms for the purpose of committing a crime against those women.
"I believe that criminals — males — will use this law as the cover to go into the women's locker room," Artiles said. "All they have to say is, 'I feel like a woman today.' "
But activists and transgender people speaking before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday argued the so-called bathroom bill would infringe on their civil rights and even their safety by requiring them to use facilities that correspond with the sex listed on their drivers' licenses or passports, rather than their identity.
Cindy Sullivan, a 45-year-old transgender woman from St. Petersburg, broke into tears while testifying. She said lawmakers don't understand the challenges transgender Floridians face and said the bill is "government intrusion at its worst."
"I just want to live an authentic life, free of harassment," Sullivan said afterward. "I don't want to hurt anybody. Harassment is out there, and this bill is government harassment."
The bill passed along party lines, with the panel's nine Republicans in support and four Democrats opposed. Earlier in the day, Democratic leaders, including Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, announced their opposition to the bill, calling it "hateful" and "against the character of Florida."
Even some Republicans have raised concerns that the bill may go too far in the name of protecting public safety. Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, the subcommittee's chairwoman, said she doesn't think most lawmakers understand transgender issues. She supported the measure Wednesday, but said she hopes to see changes before voting on it again in the Judiciary Committee.
Artiles filed the bill in February, and lawmakers have already inserted a litany of exceptions to account for janitorial staff and parents helping young children use the restroom. More could be coming, including a change to allow sports reporters to enter team locker rooms after games.
What likely won't change is the core assertion of this bill: Allowing people to use facilities that don't correspond with their biological sex is dangerous.
"I think that's common sense," Artiles said. "Whether or not a transgender person or a transitioning person falls into the description, we have to look at the consequences of this law."
Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at email@example.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.