Equality Florida Unmasks Ron DeSantis & His Targeted Hate Of LGBTQ+ Youth: Part 1

0
1551

Bipartisan Report had the opportunity last week to conduct an interview with press secretary Brandon Wolf from the Florida-based organization Equality Florida, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and has been involved this year in combating the extremist agenda promoted by the state’s Republican politicians. That includes limits threatening drag performances, blocking gender-affirming care, or restricting which bathrooms transgender people can use.

Although protests have taken place in Florida’s Capitol, Republican officials have predictably resisted calls to stop their targeting of LGBTQ+ rights, problems that have also affected education. Legislators have formally approved an expansion of the “Don’t Say Gay” rules blocking classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity, although the state Board of Education already okayed its own expansion — covering all grades (in public schools) before college.

In this interview, which was broken into two parts for publication, the first of which is below, Wolf characterized some of what’s been seen as cravenly supportive of the obvious ambitions from Florida GOP Governor Ron DeSantis towards joining the GOP presidential primary, something polling suggests he’ll quickly lose. Wolf also discussed the intimidation these bills have fostered, along with the prioritization of extreme-right interests and unfolding economic damages. Separately but relatedly, DeSantis has even been at odds with Disney and threatening their Orlando-area park — no matter the thousands and thousands of jobs and related economic boosts from year-round tourism!

Bipartisan Report’s questions are in bold, and Wolf’s answers follow. Part two will come Friday.

Throughout this year’s legislative session, Equality Florida has been documenting the progression of a large number of proposals targeting or potentially impacting LGBTQ+ communities. Do you feel there has been an increase in the intensity of the extreme stances reflected by these initiatives compared to years past? In your work with Equality Florida, do you think the GOP’s scope of control in the legislature is really a clincher?

Well, I think it’s certainly safe to say that this is the most extremely anti-LGBTQ legislative session that we’ve seen, certainly in our organization’s history. We’ve been around for 26 years, and really up until this point — first of all, until 2021, we had successfully killed every piece of explicitly anti-LGBTQ legislation that came through Tallahassee. In 2021, the ban on transgender youth participating in sports made it over the finish line, but that was the one bill that they sort of gathered all their firepower behind, and it very nearly didn’t make it over the finish line. Then you go, fast forward to 2022 when “Don’t Say Gay” was filed, moved through the legislature, and ultimately adopted. Again, it was one bill that they were sort of amassing their machinery behind.

I think that was pretty typical for us up until this year to see at most one or two bills that were explicitly anti-LGBTQ moving [through the Florida state legislature]. This year there are 18 that have moved through at least one committee. One has passed both chambers. That’s the anti-drag bill, and we’re expecting a number of others over the next 10 days or so.

The make-up of the legislature has played a big role in what we’ve seen, the erosion of the moderate coalition inside the legislature. Those lawmakers, whether Republican or Democrat, who would stand together in support of LGBTQ equality. That coalition is gone. It’s been replaced by the DeSantis extremist right-wing. I think the other big factor that’s driving this is Governor DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. The fact that he is so desperate to be president, that he’s willing to essentially brand himself the emperor of the anti-LGBTQ extremist movement in this country is really driving policy right now.

[…] Ron DeSantis is not some lifelong anti-LGBTQ extremist whose primary mission it has been to erase us from society. He’s a political mercenary who really wants to be president, and this just happens to be the vehicle he’s attached himself to in order to outflank Donald Trump to the right.

When it comes to the specifics of some of these legislative proposals, one thing that’s been discussed is the climate of fear they facilitate. Could you share examples you and your organization have seen that might fit with that, or related insight?

Well, the chilling effect is the point. The legislature has used vague language and shadowy threats of criminal penalties or fines and fees in an effort to force people to self-censor themselves. And so what that has done is, as you mentioned, create this climate of intimidation, whether it’s from the state government or in between people. Using rhetoric that is dehumanizing to trans people — that paints them as some ideology instead of people, neighbors, community members — is a way of empowering that kind of intimidation inside a community — to get people calling each other out, to get people questioning each other’s gender identities. That’s baked into the policies as well, that some of these policies basically deputize people in the community to be the enforcers of state law.

And these are state laws that are so vague that it’s difficult to know what you’re asking people to enforce. And so as a result, you see books being banned; there have been hundreds of titles challenged across the state of Florida. Many of them have been banned. Most of them include LGBTQ characters or have LGBTQ authors. You’ve seen school districts like Miami-Dade refuse to recognize LGBTQ History Month. You’ve seen rainbow stickers and pride flags being banned in classrooms across the state. We’ve even heard reports of teachers who have a picture of their partner as a background on their phone, and they’ve been told to no longer keep that phone face up on the desk for fear that it might generate questions about their family make-up.

So, those are the chilling effects that we’ve seen across the state. It has made the state feel more hostile, certainly, toward LGBTQ people. There are a lot of people who are afraid for their mental and physical well-being every day. And ultimately, and tragically, that is the point, that is the goal of censorship legislation. That is the goal of this rhetorical assault on LGBTQ people. The ultimate goal is to not only scare us back into the closet, but to pour rocket fuel on the flames of bigotry that are pouring from the right-wing.

With students, teachers, other professionals, and many families perhaps second-guessing Florida, does your organization feel there has been an economically damaging effect for Florida taking shape as well? 

I think the data tells us that the economic impact is there. It’s interesting because DeSantis, if you listen to his propaganda machine, will tell you that things have never been better in the state of Florida. But what he is not saying is that things have never been better for right-wing extremists that support him, which is the entire goal of his brand of, and I’m putting in heavy air quotes, freedom. It is freedom to do as you’re told by Governor DeSantis; it is freedom to conform to the government’s idea of who you should be, how you should live, what entertainment you should enjoy. And if you step outside those things, the message is very clear from the DeSantis administration that you’re not welcome here. I think a broad range of people have gotten that message loud and clear.

We see there are upwards of 8,000 vacant teacher positions K through 12 in the state of Florida right now. [Editor’s note: It seems these numbers originate from late last year, and updated calculations vary — and seemingly remain very large.] I don’t know if those people went to different careers or fled the state entirely, but those are 8,000 open jobs that we can’t fill because teachers don’t want to be underpaid anymore. They don’t want to be overworked, and they certainly don’t want to have their character assassinated every single day.

The Williams Institute did a survey that said a majority of LGBTQ parents have considered leaving Florida, with somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of them actually making plans to do so as a result of these policies. [Editor’s note: Read more here.] We’ve also seen reporting that says one in eight prospective freshman college students have crossed Florida off their lists because they don’t want to go to school in a state that is at war with academic freedom. [Editor’s note: That’s super recent. Check out the numbers here.]

So across the board — whether it’s business owners, students, educators, families — people are reconsidering whether or not Florida is the right place to live and do business. And that is going to have a devastating impact on our economy. Ultimately it appears that DeSantis doesn’t care because his aspirations are, in the short-term, he wants to run for president. So he doesn’t particularly care what happens to the economy of Florida. But the rest of us have to live with those consequences.