LGBTQ Agenda: HRC, Equality Florida hold online forum as DeSantis administration issues new anti-LGBTQ policies

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 19, 2023
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LGBTQ advocates and allies participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida April 19. Speakers included Joe Saunders, Equality Florida senior political director; Multi Sekhem, the father of Samira Burnside, a 16-year-old trans journalist; Burnside; Allen Barsky, social worker and professor at Florida Atlantic University; first grade teacher Shari Gawanter; and HRC President Kelley Robinson. The event was to discuss the ongoing assault on LGBTQ rights in the Sunshine State and was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
LGBTQ advocates and allies participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida April 19. Speakers included Joe Saunders, Equality Florida senior political director; Multi Sekhem, the father of Samira Burnside, a 16-year-old trans journalist; Burnside; Allen Barsky, social worker and professor at Florida Atlantic University; first grade teacher Shari Gawanter; and HRC President Kelley Robinson. The event was to discuss the ongoing assault on LGBTQ rights in the Sunshine State and was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom

The Human Rights Campaign joined Equality Florida in a forum Wednesday about the unprecedented assault on LGBTQ rights in the Sunshine State — the same day that the Florida House of Representatives and the Sunshine State's Board of Education are set to take further action on anti-LGBTQ policies.

As the Bay Area Reporter reported April 18, Equality Florida issued a travel advisory warning against visiting the state considering the political environment, which the state's equality group said includes 22 anti-LGBTQ bills being under consideration this year alone, a record for the state.

Eighteen of these are moving forward, Joe Saunders, Equality Florida's senior political director, said during the virtual forum.

"We have to be very real and honest with ourselves at this moment — Florida is being held hostage by the political ambitions and hubris of Governor Ron DeSantis," said Saunders, a Democratic former member of the state Legislature's lower chamber. "If you start with that premise, you understand everything that comes next: you understand how state agencies have been weaponized, you understand that in the past 12 months drag queens see secret investigators in their shows from the Department of Business and Professional Regulations, [and] you see how the Board of Medicine has been weaponized to prevent health care for trans kids."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the DeSantis administration is seeking to revoke liquor licenses of venues or concession suppliers that hold drag shows, which the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco has termed a "public nuisance" that "corrupts the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency."

The B.A.R. also reported that Florida's Board of Medicine banned gender-affirming care for youth. That went into effect in March.

On April 19 — as the forum was underway — the Florida Board of Education approved an expansion of the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, which banned classroom discussion or teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The new policy now prohibits such discussions through the 12th grade.

Kelley Robinson, the president of HRC who participated in the forum, issued a statement after the board's decision.

"There's nothing wrong with talking about LGBTQ+ people, history, and culture in our classrooms. There's nothing wrong with children receiving life-saving gender affirming care. Our community poses no threat," Robinson stated. "The real threat to Floridians is Gov. Ron DeSantis and extremist legislators who are some of the most anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in America."

Saunders also issued a statement.

"Free states do not ban books. Free states do not censor entire communities out of the classroom. Free states do not wage war on LGBTQ+ people to score cheap political points for a man desperate to be president," Saunders stated.

"This policy will escalate the government censorship that is sweeping our state, exacerbate our educator exodus, drive hardworking families from Florida, and further stigmatize and isolate a population of young people who need our support now more than ever," he added. "Shame on the DeSantis administration for putting a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ Floridians."

Saunders said during the forum that the expansion comes amid a renewed conflict between the DeSantis administration and the Walt Disney Co., which opposed the law. DeSantis announced new legislation earlier this week that would target the company's recent effort to outfox the state's regulators, and speculated about building a state prison next to the Walt Disney World Resort, as well as reassessing its property for tax purposes and possibly imposing tolls on roads leading to the theme parks.

Yet, as Robinson said of the anti-LGBTQ laws, "We know this is having real impacts on real people, especially young people watching this play out."

One of those young people is Samira Burnside, a 16-year-old trans teen from Tampa who's studying journalism.

Burnside said that she got an appointment for gender-affirming care just before the medical board's ban for youth went into effect.

"It was three hours before the [regulation] went into effect that I got that appointment," Burnside said. "The testimonies at the Board of Medicine meeting were more than three hours; that's what saved me."

Burnside's father, Muti Sekhem, is an activist and community organizer.

"He [DeSantis] should know from the depths of his soul that gay and trans people were not legislated into existence and sure won't be legislated out of existence," Sekhem said.

Burnside said that in the long-term, the proposals will fail.

"You're betraying your constituents — you're supposed to be supporting everyone in this state, not just those who vote like you," Burnside said, in remarks directed at Florida legislators. "It's not gonna work out. It's an assault on American freedoms, on constitutional freedoms, on parents' rights. It's an assault on what you say you believe."

The Florida House of Representatives is set to take up three anti-LGBTQ bills today (April 19), noted Saunders. House Bill 1521 is a so-called bathroom bill that would prohibit gender-inclusive restrooms and similar facilities.

HB 1421 would ban changing an individual's birth certificate to reflect their gender identity, and restrict health care for both trans youth and adults.

HB 1423 would "authoriz[e] the Division of Hotels and Restaurants of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to fine, suspend, or revoke the license of any public lodging establishment or public food service establishment if the establishment admits a child to an adult live performance," which Saunders said could impact the ability of drag shows to occur under Florida law.

The bills prohibiting gender-inclusive restrooms and SB 254 — which would give the state the ability to strip parental rights from those parents who support their trans children — passed the House and will now be debated in the state Senate. (SB 254 returns to the Senate after amendments.)

As of April 21, HB 1421 and HB 1423 await consideration.

"My message to young people who are watching this happen right now, who are getting called into this fight, is a very clear one — every movement for civil rights, social justice, and equality: it was students and young people who were at the vanguard who were at the very front of it," Saunders said. "Understand that there are these benchmarks we can find: the war against Anita Bryant, the war against HIV. This is that moment in Florida, and really in the country, and it won't be fixed in six months: we're going to have to fix it together."

Bryant, a former beauty queen, is an out-spoken opponent of LGBTQ rights who in the 1970s ran the "Save Our Children" campaign to successfully repeal a local ordinance in Florida that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

HRC's Robinson also noted that all the anti-LGBTQ legislation today isn't anything new.

"All the things they're saying about trans folks today — 20 years ago it was about lesbian and gay folks," Robinson said. "Thirty years ago it was about folks with HIV. Forty years ago it was about Black folks. Fifty years ago it was about Jewish people."

Shari Gawanter, a first grade teacher in Florida, said that she is "not going anywhere."

"Teaching is a superpower and I wield it in a way that changes lives," Gawanter said during the forum. "My students will be the media, will be the legislators, the doctors, the lawyers, the people who fix the buildings, the cooks, the cleaners: all of it. I have the future in my classroom. ... Legislators, governor: I'm voting you out."

Though not on the panel, the Reverend Anne K. Apple, who is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee that hosted the forum, gave a brief reflection at the end of the event. She said she's the "mother of a gay daughter and her life depends on your witness."

"God created all in God's image — their image — and it was good: very good," Apple said. "This work is very important. Thank you for your labors."

DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment for this report as of press time.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

Updated, 4/21/23: This article was updated with the status on bills mentioned.

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