Respect Equality

LGBTQ+ candidates win in Florida in aftermath of ‘Don’t Say Gay’

“We're going to take this into our own hands, and we're going to fight for ourselves and for our community.”

Story at a glance

  • Seven openly LGBTQ+ candidates vying for seats in the state legislature won their primaries Tuesday evening in Florida.

  • Should they defeat their Republican opponents in November, LGBTQ+ representation in the state legislature will triple.

  • In the nation’s renewed fight over LGBTQ+ rights, Florida has been at the helm, enacting a slate of controversial policies that affect how LGBTQ+ young people talk about their identities at school and restrict how they can access health care or play sports.

Seven openly LGBTQ+ candidates running for state House or Senate seats in Florida have won their primaries, advancing to November’s general election where voters will decide whether to triple LGBTQ+ representation in the state legislature.

Florida’s legislature made national headlines in January when state Republicans introduced the Parental Rights in Education bill — known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — to restrict public school teachers’ ability to engage in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

After advancing through the House, Florida senators in March passed the controversial legislation, rejecting more than a dozen amendments that would have bolstered protections for LGBTQ+ students and their families.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who also won his primary Tuesday evening, signed the bill into law later that month, accusing public school teachers during a press conference of pushing their “woke gender ideology” on Florida students and peddling “clearly inappropriate” learning materials.

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Since March, copycat legislation has cropped up in Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana and elsewhere. A similar measure in Alabama, introduced in an amendment to another bill barring transgender students from using restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, was signed into law in April.

Proponents of such measures have argued that they are necessary to protect the rights of parents, while LGBTQ+ advocates and individuals have said they send a dangerous message to LGBTQ+ children that they do not belong.

“We need to be proactively electing folks that create diversity so we have laws that protect all of us,” said Adam Gentle, a Florida Democrat who will face off against Rep. Jim Mooney Jr. (R) in November.

Gentle, an openly gay man who received nearly 56 percent of the vote in his primary election on Tuesday, said he fears Florida — and the country — is progressing backward by crusading against things like LGBTQ+ affirmative supports at school and transgender health care.

“We were creating places for people to be their authentic selves, we were allowing kids to bring their full selves to school,” Gentle said. “I think what’s most frustrating about what we see happening today is that feeling of going backwards when so much progress has been made.”

Six other openly LGBTQ+ candidates in Florida will advance to November’s general election: Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) and Michele Rayner (D), Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), Gabriel Gonzalez, who is running for a seat in the state House, and Eunic Ortiz and Janelle Perez, both of whom are running for state Senate seats.

“Enough about us waiting for allies to go out there and fight for us,” Perez told Changing America on Wednesday. “Now, we’re going to take this into our own hands, and we’re going to fight for ourselves and for our community.”

Perez, who if elected would become the state legislature’s first openly gay parent, said measures like the “Don’t Say Gay” law that claim to protect parental rights do not have her, her wife’s or her children’s best interests in mind.

On Tuesday, Florida voters also ousted Rep. James Bush III, the only House Democrat that voted to pass the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in February.

Nadine Smith, the executive director of the group Equality Florida, said Tuesday evening in a statement that Bush’s defeat is a “clear warning” from voters that “politicians will pay a price for their anti-LGBTQ agendas.”

In a poll released earlier this month by the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization GLAAD, more than two-thirds of LGBTQ+ voters in Florida said they were “extremely motivated” to vote this election cycle, including more than half who said they were more motivated to vote this year than they were during the 2020 presidential election. Voters cited discriminatory policies backed by the state’s current elected officials, including the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

In March, a statewide Morning Consult and POLITICO poll found that a third of Florida voters are opposed to the legislation. Still, more than half said they would support measures to restrict or ban lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

Beyond the legislature, Florida officials this year have pursued policies that if enacted would further restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the state, particularly transgender youth.

In July, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. instructed school leaders across the state to ignore guidance issued by the Biden administration that expands Title IX protections for transgender students.

Diaz, a Republican and former state senator who voted to pass the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, in a July 28 memo told school officials that they are not required to give transgender students access to facilities that match their gender identity or allow transgender women and girls to compete on female sports teams.

“To the extent that you do any of these things, you jeopardize the safety and wellbeing of Florida students and risk violating Florida law,” Diaz wrote.

Earlier this month, Florida’s Board of Medicine voted to initiate rule-making on a new standard of care for the state’s transgender youth, building on a recommendation from the state Health Department that gender-affirming medical care including puberty blockers and hormones should not be accessible to minors because young people lack the “cognitive or emotional maturity” to understand the risks associated with treatment.

The decision of the board — consisting of doctors appointed by DeSantis — clashes with guidance from major medical associations.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) this month eliminated Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming health care, affecting an estimated 9,000 Florida Medicaid recipients who are transgender.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the primary win of Gabriel Gonzalez.