DeSantis targeted LGBTQ Floridians like no previous governor. Now they’re working to defeat him.
Zander Moricz started his freshman year at Harvard last month, but he's still keeping an eye on Florida after clashing with Gov. Ron DeSantis throughout the last year.
The first gay student body president at Pine View School in Sarasota County, Moricz led a student walkout at the school to protest HB 1557, which was derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He later sued to overturn the law signed by DeSantis.
Now Moricz is working to derail DeSantis’ reelection bid from his Harvard dormitory room in Cambridge, Mass. He plans to rally the 2,000 members of an activist group he organized in Florida and nationwide in opposition to DeSantis’ reelection campaign.
“As November approaches the 2,000 of us will be doing everything in our collective power to ensure Charlie Crist is our governor and DeSantis is not put in a position of power in any way ever again,” Moricz said, referencing DeSantis' Democratic opponent.
Governor targets drag show:DeSantis seeks to punish Miami restaurant with drag shows attended by kids
LGBTQ issues in schools:Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz resigns from Lakeland Christian School board over LGBTQ proclamation
That type of commitment to unseating DeSantis highlights the intense emotions the governor has stirred up over the last year with a steady stream of policies impacting Florida’s LGBTQ community. No governor in recent decades has centered his political agenda on LGBTQ issues more than DeSantis.
When Florida students headed back to school last month, DeSantis took to Twitter to tout his efforts to rid classrooms of alleged “transgender ideology.”
The governor then repeated one of his favorite refrains over the last year, saying schools will “educate children. Not indoctrinate them.”
A few weeks later, DeSantis’ Lt Gov. Jeanette Núñez told a crowd in Miami that “Our students should go to school to learn their ABC’s, not their LGBT’s,” according to the New York Times.
DeSantis has drawn national attention for actions on everything from transgender sports and health care to what school officials can say about sexual orientation and gender identity. He is leaning into that record in the final months of his reelection campaign against Crist.
While DeSantis is being hailed as a “hero” by social conservatives, who say he is protecting the rights of parents to control what their children are exposed to, he is a villain to many in the LGBTQ community.
DeSantis has antagonized LGBTQ Floridians like no other governor since Republicans seized control of the state a quarter century ago, say critics, who argue his approach to the LGBTQ community harkens back to a much less tolerant era.
“We haven’t seen these kinds of attacks since the days of Anita Bryant,” said Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, referring to the former beauty queen known for her anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida in the 1970s. “We’ve seen neglect and we’ve seen ignorance and we’ve seen some pandering, but DeSantis has taken it to a whole new level.”
DeSantis is seizing on a new wave of GOP pushback nationwide against LGBTQ activism, emerging as one of the most prominent critics of transgender rights.
The governor’s approach has energized his supporters. A recent University of North Florida/USA TODAY Network – Florida survey found that 81% of Florida Republicans “strongly support” DeSantis’ focus on cultural issues, including those touching on LGBTQ issues.
But it has left many LGBTQ Floridians and their allies feeling like DeSantis is engaging in a toxic form of politics that scapegoats and demonizes marginalized people.
Florida’s 2022 election is not simply a matchup of DeSantis versus Crist. It also pits DeSantis against Florida’s sizeable, increasingly influential and highly visible LGBTQ community, which is mobilizing to take him on.
Florida has a long history of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals that DeSantis critics point to in complaining that his policies invoke another era.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a state Senate committee known as the Johns Committee investigated homosexuality in schools, resulting in roughly 200 teachers and students being fired or expelled.
In the 1970s Bryant, who was known nationwide for her TV commercials promoting Florida citrus industry, led a highly-publicized campaign that overturned a Miami-Dade County ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In recent decades, Florida GOP leaders have fought against gay marriage and gay adoptions, both of which Crist opposed when he was still a Republican. Crist later left the GOP and became a Democrat and said he “matured” on LGBTQ rights.
Equality Florida Action PAC has since supported Crist’s campaigns. The group endorsed his bid for governor last week and is likely to devote significant funding and other resources to his campaign. Equality Florida is the state's largest LGBTQ rights group with about 300,000 members.
Crist’s reversal on these issues was particularly stark, but many leading Democrats — including former President Barack Obama —also opposed gay marriage until public opinion began to shift.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015. Since then, LGBTQ advocates seemed to be on a roll in Florida.
Many Florida cities and counties adopted ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in workplaces, housing and public accommodations.
A statewide ban on discrimination against LGBTQ individuals never passed, but it attracted strong bipartisan backing. The current Florida GOP chair even co-sponsored it.
Florida leaders increasingly seemed to embrace the LGBTQ community, which is among the largest in the nation both by sheer numbers and by percentage of the total population.
About 4.6% of Florida’s population, or 1 million individuals, self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to a Gallup survey data aggregated by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.
Yet even as attitudes on LGBTQ rights shifted, new policy battles arose and LGBTQ advocates again find themselves on the defensive.
Transgender issues flare up
Much of the recent pushback against LGBTQ advocacy has centered around transgender individuals.
In 2015, the Florida Legislature debated a bill that would have outlawed people from using public bathrooms that don’t match their birth sex.
The bill failed, but DeSantis has aggressively delved into transgender issues over the last two years.
Since 2021, DeSantis has:
- Signed a bill prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports at the middle school, high school and college level.
- Signed a proclamation declaring a female Sarasota swimmer who lost the NCAA championship in the women's 500-yard freestyle event to a transgender swimmer the “rightful winner.”
- Signed HB 1557, legislation officially known as the Parental Rights in Education Act but dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It outlaws “classroom instruction… on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, and says instruction on these topics in higher grade levels must be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
- Prohibited the state’s Medicaid program from paying for certain transgender health care services.
- Urged the Florida Board of Medicine — which is controlled by DeSantis appointees — to ban certain transgender health care services for minors. The medical board is moving forward with such a plan.
- Filed a complaint aimed at shuttering a Miami restaurant and bar that hosted “sexually explicit” drag shows attended by children.
- Worked to elect school board members who share his concerns about how schools approach issues of gender and sexual orientation.
The governor’s actions are most notable in the education realm, where he has led a wave of conservative pushback to how schools approach certain LGBTQ issues.
Many of those actions are fallout from HB 1557, which became a national spectacle. It blew up even further when Disney opposed the bill and DeSantis sought to punish the company.
Equality Florida led the effort to brand HB 1557 as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, angering DeSantis, who repeatedly insisted that characterization of the legislation — which specifically mentions sexual orientation — was misleading. Regardless, the "Parental Rights in Education" bill became toxic enough that nine Republicans voted against it.
A poll released last week by LGBTQ advocacy group GLADD of "LGBTQ and ally voters" in Florida found that 71% believed HB 1557 was "designed to attack LGBTQ people," 77% view DeSantis unfavorably and 67% are "extremely motivated" to vote.
DeSantis has targeted many of his policies at transgender individuals rather than the gay community as a whole, seizing on areas where conservatives believe that advocacy for LGBTQ rights — which are now broadly popular — have outstripped public opinion.
The UNF/USA TODAY Network – Florida polled showed that 52% of Florida voters support the governor’s focus on cultural issues, including where he has ventured into gender identity issues.
Florida GOP Vice Chair Christian Ziegler said DeSantis is bringing "common sense" and "sanity" to issues where "the left is overextending their hand."
“The left is just jamming their stuff through and if anybody speaks up, these groups come out of the woodwork and all a sudden they start calling you a bigot… and frankly all we are doing is bringing common sense to the equation," Ziegler said.
Christian Family Coalition Florida Executive Director Anthony Verdugo said DeSantis has taken positions on transgender issues that have broad appeal, citing his push to keep transgender individuals from playing women’s sports.
“It’s not misogyny. It’s not sexism. It's common sense,” Verdugo said.
In the process, the governor has become the darling of social conservatives.
“He’s viewed as a hero,” Verdugo said. “He’s viewed as a leader. He’s viewed as a courageous man, as a statesman. He is willing to say what others are thinking but either will not say or don’t have the platform. He has gotten so much support from cultural conservatives because he’s speaking their language, He’s fighting back.”
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said the governor is "devoted to protecting children and empowering parents."
"To the extent that sexual topics are being injected into the education of -- or marketed towards -- children, the governor is standing up and pushing back," he said.
Verdugo believes DeSantis’ agenda is a recipe for electoral success, saying it will appeal to suburban female voters who fled the GOP because they didn't like former President Donald Trump.
LGBTQ advocates say it’s a cynical strategy.
“They are creating this phony moral panic about LGBTQ people to whip people up into a frenzy and divide people further,” said Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, the state’s first openly gay Latino lawmaker.
Whether DeSantis wins reelection could depend in part on whether his culture war approach has crossover appeal and fires up his base more than it fires up LGBTQ advocates and their allies, who are highly motivated to take him out.
LGBTQ activists mobilize
DeSantis seems to believe that many people are uncomfortable with the discussion around gender identity that has taken place in recent years, and he can use that to his political advantage.
“They talk about pansexualism and all this stuff," DeSantis said during a recent rally for conservative school board candidates. "I’m just thinking… ‘imagine what our elderly, they don’t know what any of this stuff is. It’s weird that you would even be talking about it.’"
But Smith, the head of Equality Florida, said acceptance of transgender people is growing and will only increase.
“This conversation reminds me of the conversation around marriage equality,” Smith said. “We lost 38 states in a row before the tide changed.”
Young people are especially sympathetic to the idea that gender identity is fluid, and have been among the most vocal in pushing back against DeSantis.
There were student led walkouts across the state in response to HB 1557. Now LGBTQ activists are trying to harness this energy into defeating DeSantis.
“DeSantis may think he’s winning but let me tell you he’s not,” said Lakey Love, a transgender individual who co-founded the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation. “This generation that’s coming out of these public schools are going to push people like him and his out.”
Zander Moricz, the Harvard student, said he plans to visit Florida regularly this year and coordinate other campaign efforts from his dorm room.
“DeSantis has brought a lot of energy… out of youth in the state,” he said. “Not out of inspiration, but out of fear and urgency.”
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org