Legislative Session Update: the Good, Bad, and Hopeful
Written By: Jon Harris Maurer & Skoervitch Emile, Equality Florida
Legislative Session Update: the Good, Bad, and Hopeful
We are halfway through a legislative session that feels both strange and familiar. COVID protocols have quieted the usually boisterous halls of the Capitol and pushed the action into Zoom rooms and off-site, remote testimony rooms. At the same time, anti-LGBTQ maneuvers that have been a hallmark of recent sessions remain. Rather than focusing on the pandemic or our state’s broken unemployment system, Florida’s Republican lawmakers are following in the footsteps of reckless, anti-trans legislation filed nationwide. Despite the challenges of a pandemic legislative session, Florida’s LGBTQ community and our allies continue to turn out to keep up the fight for those most at-risk among us.
Fortunately, 2021 began with a great win for the LGBTQ community. In January, the Florida Commission on Human Relations made clear that Florida’s civil rights laws provide nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity statewide. This is a resounding victory that advocates across the state have worked toward for decades. Advances like this often bring backlash, and this session’s reaction was particularly cruel. Representative Anthony Sabatini (R-Clermont) filed an Anti-Trans Youth Bill, which included imprisoning doctors for providing life-saving medical care to transgender youth (HB 935). Representative Kaylee Tuck (R-Sebring) and Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) filed Trans Sports Ban Bills to ban transgender youth from playing sports (HB 1475/SB 2012).
While Equality Florida has helped hold off any hearings on the Sabatini bill, the Trans Sports Ban Bills are being fast-tracked over the objection of trans youth and their teammates, coaches, and parents. Transgender youth already experience disproportionate rates of bullying and marginalization. Now it’s adult lawmakers doing the bullying. The Trans Sports Ban would sideline them from playing with their peers and learning critical life lessons that come from sports like teamwork, dedication, and leadership. The bills manipulate our fundamental ideals of fairness to attack transgender youth, even in elementary schools.
Trans Sports Ban bills are inches from the floors of both chambers and are being championed by powerful members of legislative leadership like Representative Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater) who chairs the House Education Committee and Senator Stargel who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. This is part of a coordinated attack brought by anti-LGBTQ forces in 25 states. It is here at our doorstep. Trans youth are not a political football for some far-right culture war, and they are not red meat to throw to a conservative base. Major corporations, world-class athletes, and sports franchises and leagues like the Miami Heat and National Women’s Soccer League have joined the effort to push back on these attacks. This is a dangerous moment for our trans youth, and we all have to push back.
HIV & PUBLIC HEALTH
The legislature has failed to act on two important HIV bills. The HIV Modernization Bills by Representative Felicia Robinson (D-Miami Gardens) and Senator Jason Pizzo (D-Miami) seek to align Florida’s outdated, 1980s-era HIV statutes with modern science on prevention and treatment (HB 1465/SB 1618). The PrEP & PEP Access Bills by Representative Nick Duran (D-Miami) and Senator Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers) would help end the HIV epidemic by reducing the barriers to accessing HIV prevention medication (HB 607/SB 928). This lack of action comes as Florida holds the dubious record, year after year, of being among states with the most new HIV transmissions. Fortunately, bills that proactively address antiretroviral medication and care for pregnant women living with HIV and their newborns is advancing (HB 1565/SB 1568).
Once again, extremists have filed several bills to roll back reproductive freedom. Advocates have held two pairs of restrictive abortion ban bills at bay in part--a 20 Week Ban by Representative Tommy Gregory (R-Bradenton) (HB 351/SB 744), and a Fetal Diagnosis Ban by Represenative Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach) (HB 1221/SB 1664). In addition, the Limiting Access to Sex Ed and HIV Ed bill would have changed Florida's sex education and HIV education courses from "opt-out" to "opt-in," meaning parents would have to specifically grant access to this crucial information (HB 545/SB 410). The Senate Bill has been neutralized and now keeps the existing "opt-out" system; the House Bill by Representative Linda Chaney (R-St. Petersburg) still has the "opt-in" approach that creates an added barrier for youth to learn about sexual health, sexuality, and healthy relationships. Disappointingly, Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez (R-Doral) sponsored all three of these bills in the Senate.
Even as the majority of the Legislature appears bent on attacking transgender youth, several Democrat lawmakers are advancing pro-LGBTQ equality. Senator Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) successfully passed her Hate Crimes Law Expansion bill through its first committee (SB 194). It seeks to amend Florida’s existing hate crimes law to include coverage for crimes of bias based on gender or gender identity and a broader range of disability. This would help address Florida’s epidemic of violence against Black transgender women. Immediately after the bill passed its first committee, however, Senate leadership redirected it away from a favorable committee chaired by a Republican supporter and sent it to a hostile committee chaired by the Trans Sports Ban Bill sponsor, in an attempt to seal its fate.
Senator Lauren Book (D-Plantation) has also advanced an important bill to Eliminate the Gay and Trans Panic Defense (SB 718). It would eliminate the legal defense that excuses violence up to and including murder against an LGBTQ victim when the attacker alleges they feared the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Eleven states have already banned this defense rooted in homophobia and transphobia. Both the Hate Crimes Law Expansion bill and the Eliminate the Gay and Trans Panic Defense bill have passed the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee Chaired by Senator Pizzo with bipartisan support.
There are still weeks to go before the legislative session ends on April 30, and the Legislature needs to hear from you. Hundreds of dedicated LGBTQ advocates and allies have already engaged in Equality Florida’s virtual Lobby Days program, this year’s first ever PRIDE @ the Capitol event, and we continue to hold small group virtual meetings with lawmakers as we keep up the pressure against the Trans Sports Ban bills. Heartfelt stories in those Zoom rooms and remote committee hearings are fueling the passionate fight of our pro-LGBTQ champion lawmakers. Our community has out-organized the callous disregard that we’re seeing in Tallahassee in every committee. When the dust finally does settle, we will win and trans youth will know they are loved and valued.
You can learn more about Equality Florida’s legislative slate at https://eqfl.org/equality-floridas-full-2021-legislative-slate, and reach out to Wes@equalityflorida.org to get involved!