Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Is Latest Test of Miami’s Famed Tolerance

After banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Florida’s Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that limits instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade

Ron DeSantis speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 24.
By Nathan Crooks, Ella Ceron and Amelia Pollard
March 11, 2022 | 09:04 AM

Bloomberg — Miami is the nexus of South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. It’s also still in Florida.

The cosmopolitan city’s co-existing enclaves -- among them a vibrant gay community, snowbird retirees, conservative natives of Latin America and newly arriving crypto workers -- are confronting a rash of election-year culture-war issues being promoted by the state’s Republican leaders, among them Governor Ron DeSantis.

After banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Florida’s Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that limits instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and makes it easier for parents to sue schools. The measure won final approval 22-17, with two Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

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Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, it’s received national attention and was even lampooned by Saturday Night Live over the weekend. It now will be sent to DeSantis for his signature.

Supporters say the legislation protects children and gives parents control over their schooling. Opponents called it an appeal to bigotry and fear. The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill after the session was opened with an impassioned invocation from a minister who prayed for teachers and parents “whose kids don’t fit the mold.”

Senator Dennis Baxley, a Republican who closed out the debate Tuesday, said the bill empowered parents. “There’s some tough, wrong roads, and that’s why we’re so cautious about who our kids are with and what they’re doing and what they’re talking about and what they’re learning,” he said.

Some say the polarizing legislation will harm Miami’s push to become a new center for tech and finance if companies and conferences shun it. Others wonder why lawmakers in state capital Tallahassee -- 500 miles north -- aren’t addressing things more pressing for the city, such as housing affordability and climate change. And they wonder why anyone would risk disrupting a polyglot community that’s an international symbol of affluence and glitz.

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“DeSantis calls us the free state of Florida, but it’s only free if you agree with him,” said Christopher Richmond, president of Miami-Dade LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus. He said that many Miamians feel estranged from Florida.

“When I talk to people about what’s going on, they’re aware, but I’ve heard people sort of dismiss it as like, ‘We need to cut south Florida off from the rest of Florida,” Richmond said.  “Like, ‘We should really should be our own state.’”

Janelle Perez, a Democratic state Senate candidate who was once a Republican, said that discussions with her conservative Cuban-exile parents mirror conversations with other community members.

“They just don’t understand why this is an issue and a priority,” she said. “What they tell me is that this doesn’t represent conservative values. This doesn’t represent, to them, what they thought the Republican party is.”

Florida is vast, almost 66,000 square miles with more than 21 million residents and home to many distinct cultures and regions, from the Greek sponge-fishing enclave of Tarpon Springs to the anything-goes bohemianism of Key West to the Panhandle, culturally similar to the Deep South. As a whole, Florida has grown more conservative, changing from the swing state that decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes to one that votes reliably Republican in presidential contests and where the party controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.

Then there’s Miami, where strains of conservatism and liberalism from two continents intersect.

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“In Miami, it’s different,” said Len Evans, a spokesman for the Palace Bar, a South Beach mainstay known for drag brunches. “Miami is like its own little state or country.”

The legislation “would be a tremendous setback for the state of Florida,” Evans said, adding that he believes it could repel tourists.

There are many Miamis, however. Rebecca Brady, director of Respect Life Ministry, a program of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami devoted to ending abortion, said she’s heard little dissent about the 15-week limit, other than that it doesn’t go far enough. Texas has passed a six-week law, which the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed to stand. The justices are also considering a Mississippi case that could overturn the right to abortion nationally.

“To be honest, what I’ve encountered is people who might be more frustrated with an incremental approach to saving lives,” she said. “It kind of makes us seem more moderate in promoting and being excited for the 15-week bill.”

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A University of North Florida poll last month found that 57% of registered voters opposed the measure, which awaits the governor’s signature. But few in the area seem eager to take sides on the abortion limit or the education bill.

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Read More: Disney Won’t Take a Stand on Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Measure

The office of Francis Suarez, the Republican mayor of the city of Miami, said he wasn’t available to comment. The Miami Young Republicans, a group branded for “center-right professionals,” didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Nor did the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority, Miami’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the Institute of Contemporary Art or even Wynwood Walls, an “urban graffiti art museum.”

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Sean Foreman, a political-science professor at Barry University in Miami, said culture-war issues are popular with Republican base voters at the state and national levels, even if they don’t necessarily resonate in Miami. He said the measures could turn off moderates and independents, who still decide elections in Florida.

“Typical social issues on abortion policy or gay rights don’t really stir people up in Miami the way they do in other parts of the state,” he said. “Part of that has to do with the diverse population. Not only are we cosmopolitan, but international. It doesn’t resonate the same way with Hispanics in Miami that it would with voters elsewhere in the state.”

DeSantis, widely considered a potential presidential contender even as he campaigns to be re-elected this year, has resisted what he calls a “false narrative,” arguing that the words “don’t say gay” are not in the actual bill.

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“It says no sexual instruction in grades pre-K through 3. And so, how many parents want their kindergartners to have transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction?” DeSantis said at a Friday news conference. “Those are very young kids. I think the legislature is basically trying to give parents assurance that they’re going to be able to go, and this stuff’s not going to be there.”

Teacher unions oppose the bill, which “will undoubtably spur lawsuits,” the Florida Education Association said last month. Lawmakers “have chosen to compromise the quality of students’ education, make our classrooms less welcoming and safe for many children, further drive educators out of our schools during a staffing crisis, and open the door to chaos and financial risk for the school districts.”

David Borrero, a Republican state representative for a district that includes parts of Miami-Dade county, said the bill -- which he co-sponsored -- has been misunderstood. He said the proposal merely tries to keep teachers from having what he called inappropriate conversations -- “commonsense stuff.”

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“This bill has really been twisted and taken out of context,” Borrero said.

Borrero, a Colombian-American, said that while the Miami area includes many Democrats, a conservative agenda resonates with voters who have personal experience living under repressive regimes.

“They know what it’s like to have the freedom of speech taken away from them,” he said. “Miami’s a different animal in that respect.”

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That’s the dichotomy DeSantis critics have pounced on. They argue that culture-war legislation doesn’t jibe with the “free state” mantra DeSantis and other Republicans have used throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to rail against restrictions and mask wearing. And in Miami, such divisions are alien to a community that straddles cultures.

Alex Guerra, co-owner of Hotel Gaythering in Miami Beach, is a first-generation Cuban-American who said his father is a progressive Republican. He said his parents “just couldn’t believe that this is what we’re spending our time on at this point in history.”

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