The day before the Florida Legislature began its 2020 session, lawmakers filed legislation making it a felony for a doctor to provide medical help to transgender youth.
Advocates say the last-minute measure is part of a slate of bills in the annual legislative session that could undermine civil rights and protections for LGBTQ residents in Florida.
“This is the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida Legislature in recent memory,” Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, said in a written statement.
“It runs the gamut from openly hostile legislation that would arrest and imprison doctors for providing medically necessary care, to legislation that would carelessly erase critical local LGBTQ protections.”
The bills have also drawn criticism from Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida.
“From gutting employment protections, to jailing doctors for providing care to LGBTQ youth, to enabling the evil pseudoscience of conversion therapy, these bills are designed to extinguish the equality of millions of Floridians,” Fried said in a written statement.
“Freedom has many enemies, even among those who proclaim to cherish it. I encourage every lawmaker who stands for liberty to vote against these legislative affronts to humanity.”
The “most offensive and direct attack”
The legislation described as “the most offensive and direct attack” on gay rights is the “Vulnerable Child Protection Act,” filed in the House (HB 1365) by Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Lake County and in the Senate (SB 1864) by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Marion County.
The measures would make it a second-degree felony for a doctor or other medical professional to perform procedures related to sex-change treatment, such as a mastectomy or providing high-dosage testosterone, for a minor under the age of 18.
“This bill makes it a felony for a health care practitioner to surgically or medically change the sex of a minor. No parent should be allowed to sterilize or permanently disfigure a child,” Sabatini tweeted when he filed his bill.
But gay-rights advocates say those decisions should be left to the transgender youths and their families.
“Transgender youth are some of the most at-risk in our community. It is outrageous that conservative legislators would threaten their health and safety,” Gina Duncan, Equality Florida’s director for transgender equality, said in a written statement. “Medical professionals, not politicians, should decide what medical care is in the best interest of a patient. Forcing a doctor to deny best-practice medical care and deny support to transgender youth can be life-threatening.”
GOP bills could wipe out LGBTQ protections
Gay-rights advocates have identified another half dozen bills in the 2020 session that they say could harm Florida’s LGBTQ community.
They are all related to efforts by Republican lawmakers to “pre-empt” local government ordinances related to employment and the operation of businesses.
Proponents of the legislation say it is needed to provide “uniform” regulation of employment and businesses across the nation’s third-largest state, which has 67 counties and more than 400 cities.
But gay-rights advocates say preempting local government regulations on employment and businesses would wipe out a host of LGBTQ protections, such as local ordinances prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Those protections exist in most of Florida’s major urban areas, including Miami-Dade, Broward, and Orange counties.
Testifying against a House bill (HB 305) that would ban cities and counties from setting conditions for employment in their communities, Joe Saunders, a senior political director for Equality Florida, said the measure would eliminate local anti-discrimination measures in 12 counties and more than 30 cities, representing about 60 percent of Florida’s population.
Republican Rep. Bob Rommel of Naples, who is sponsoring the House bill, said he did not believe his proposal would affect local anti-discrimination ordinances.
“Respectfully, we disagree,” Saunders, a former Democratic lawmaker from Orlando, told the House Workforce Development and Tourism subcommittee on Wednesday. “The language defining what a condition of employment is, is vague. It’s broad.”
Currently, Saunders said, if a worker is denied employment based on his or her sexual identity in Orlando, the worker would have a local process to review the potential discrimination. “There’s not a venue at the state level,” he said.
In fact, advocates continue to push for a statewide ban on workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. In recent years, the Legislature has refused to even give the measure a committee hearing.
If Rommel’s bill advances, Saunders said, he would like to see specific language in the bill stating that the preemption measure would not affect local anti-discrimination ordinances. He noted that Rommel included that provision in a similar bill he filed in the 2019 session.
Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, has filed a bill (SB 1126) that would also preempt the regulation of conditions of employment to the state.
A preliminary statement tied to the bill states it is not intended “to affect any local ordinance, order, rule, or policy prohibiting employment discrimination.” But gay-rights advocates say they want to see that language in the text of what could become state law, rather than as a “whereas clause” in the existing language.
LGBTQ advocates are also raising opposition to four other bills that they say could eliminate city and county bans against conversion therapy, a controversial practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice has been discredited by the medical establishment and denounced by gay and transgender groups.
Two measures (HB 3 and SB 1336) would preempt regulation of occupational licenses to the state. Equality Florida said, as originally filed, the bills would prohibit local government from banning conversion therapy.
Rep. Michael Grant, a Charlotte County Republican, has amended his House bill to clarify that it would not affect the local conversion therapy bans.
Two other bills (HB 537 and SB 778) would prohibit local governments from regulating home businesses, giving that power solely to the state. If passed, the bills would allow conversion therapy to occur if it was a “home business,” the opponents said.
“Conversion therapy is no less fraudulent or dangerous because it is practiced in a home setting,” Equality Florida said.
Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who is sponsoring the Senate versions of the occupational licenses and home-business bills, told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau that his legislation does not target conversion therapy bans and he disagrees with the criticism from the LGBTQ advocates.
“I’m extremely disappointed in Equality Florida and their interpretation of these,” Perry told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald. “If you’re a fair-minded person that looks at this objectively, there’s no way you can interpret what they’re saying.”
Perry said he would be willing to amend his bill to clarify that issue.