As Florida’s legislative session nears its conclusion, it’s shaped up to be a tough year for LGBTQ residents and their supporters.
Proposals LGBTQ activists support – such as banning employment discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity, or banning conversion therapy for minors – didn’t get much traction among lawmakers before the deadline for committee hearings in the House and Senate. The deadline to pass bills not related to the annual state budget through each full chamber is Friday.
In most cases, bills intended to strengthen civil rights in the Sunshine State – even ones with Republican support – weren’t defeated in fierce debates or dramatic votes. They died quietly as lawmakers focused on the state’s budget and new restrictions on abortion and immigration.
Lawmakers have been juggling several competing issues this session before the 2020 elections, including the environment, teacher pay and, most recently, coronavirus concerns, said political analyst Susan MacManus.
“Election year legislative sessions are typically very different,” MacManus said, “where people are trying to just get the job done — pass the budget.”
It hasn’t been all bad news for LGBTQ groups and supporters: A bill that would penalize medical practitioners for providing transgender youth with hormone therapy floundered in the House and is not moving in the Senate.
That bill’s death came as a relief to Tyler Graff, a transgender 17-year-old high school student in Gainesville. He said he will soon begin hormone therapy after moving last year from Arizona to Florida, where it is easier for him to access the treatment.
“Trans rights are human rights, and people are still out here trying to reverse those,” Graff said. “I'm hoping one day we won't need laws to protect us, we won’t need people speaking out to prevent these laws from being passed.”
Outside the Legislature, controversy raged over reports that $129 million in Florida’s school vouchers were used at more than 150 Christian schools that taught what were described as anti-LGBTQ views and policies. The voucher program is intended to help low-income, black and Latinx families afford the school of their choice.
The schools’ policies, as first reported in January by the Orlando Sentinel, included denying admission to students if they or their family members were gay or transgender, and expelling students for a “homosexual act.”
Leading companies — including Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank and others — promised to stop donating money to the program, but Fifth Third Bank reversed its decision in early February amid pressure from political conservatives, including Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Florida’s scholarship law prohibits private schools that accept the vouchers from discriminating against students based on “race, color or national origin.” Back in the Capitol, Democratic lawmakers sought to amend that to ban discrimination based on gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, but those efforts also appear to be stalled.
“We're working very hard from all angles, both the rulemaking through the Department of Education and legislatively,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who introduced SB 56, a bill that never got a hearing.
Reps. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Carlos Smith, D-Orlando, withdrew a similar measure in the House, HB 45. They said they were speaking with the Education Department, as well.
“At the end of the day, these might be private institutions, but they're benefiting from a public program, and it's really important the state ensures that no one is discriminated against for participating in these public programs,” Eskamani said.
At the end of February, the House and Senate moved bills that seek to more than double the number of Family Empowerment Scholarships, from about 18,000 vouchers last year to about 46,000 next year.
Smith proposed two amendments to HB 7067: requiring state policy researchers to create a study on discrimination in voucher-funded private schools and requiring those schools to publish admissions policies on their websites. Neither passed.
LGBTQ groups said they were concerned about a parental rights bill, HB 1059, which passed through the House and on to the Senate. It would allow parents to withdraw their children out of classes or activities they find harmful, and also requires school districts to notify parents about their child’s health and well-being.
However, the bill may have died in the Senate March 2 when the Rules committee simply ran out of time to vote on it. The meeting ended in the middle of debate, and the Senate Rules committee does not have any more scheduled meeting times.
Activists said the broad language in the bill could force school employees to disclose to parents situations when a child comes out to a counselor.
Jon Harris Maurer, lobbyist for Equality Florida, the state’s most prominent LGBTQ advocacy organization, said the group opposes the bill because it does not consider the risk children may be put in if they’re outed to their parents.
“In some cases, schools are the only place of safety for LGBTQ youth,” Maurer said. “We want youth to be able to seek guidance even though they may not be comfortable doing so at home.”
A leading disappointment for LGBTQ groups was the death of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, a bill that would make it illegal for an employer to fire a gay, bisexual or transgender person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure has failed in the Legislature every year for more than a decade, although as many as 20 states have passed similar measures.
“Unfortunately, some members feel like it’s not necessary,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, the bill’s sponsor. “That doesn’t mean we don’t stop fighting, though.”
Nik Harris, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ first advocate for LGBTQ consumers, said despite the Competitive Workforce Act’s popularity among Floridians, it’ll take a change in elected officials for the bill to be heard.
“Folks are playing to their base, unfortunately,” Harris said. “Our elected officials are really behind on the eight ball when it comes to the average Floridian.”
House Speaker José Oliva, R-Hialeah, said the bill could lead to lawsuits against employers and said discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was not a major problem in Florida.
Monica Lisciandro, a Brevard County resident who was fired from her job as a musical theater teacher for being gay, said Oliva’s comments were “the funniest thing” she’s ever heard. She said she lost her job at a private Christian school in Palm Bay after the school administration received an anonymous call saying she was in a relationship with a woman.
“Not securing equal rights for everybody just because you’re afraid of litigation makes absolutely no sense to me,” she said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.