LGBTQ+ people protest in Florida over Republican conversion therapy bill

<span>The bill comes amid a mounting assault by Florida Republicans on LGBTQ+ rights.</span><span>Photograph: Gary McCullough/AP</span>
The bill comes amid a mounting assault by Florida Republicans on LGBTQ+ rights.Photograph: Gary McCullough/AP

Hundreds of LGBTQ+ people gathered on the steps of the Florida state house on Wednesday to protest against a first-in-the-nation bill that critics say would raise health insurance costs for all state residents.

The Republican-backed proposal, house bill 1639, mandates that insurance carriers cover conversion therapy, a scientifically discredited practice whose practitioners falsely claim to be able to change the sexual orientation or identity of LGBTQ+ people.

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“We hope that legislators wouldn’t vote for a health insurance mandate that would increase everyone’s costs as a way to just demonize LGBT people,” said Quinn Diaz, public policy associate for Equality Florida. “But we really don’t have any faith in this state government, at this point.”

Diaz said the proposed legislation would also force trans people to “out themselves” on state-issued identification cards, requiring Florida residents to list the sex they were assigned at birth on their driver’s licenses.

The bill comes amid a mounting assault by Florida Republicans on LGBTQ+ rights, a legislative project that has cost Florida taxpayers millions in legal fees. Last year, the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed the so-called “don’t say gay” law banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. Earlier this year, the Florida legislature introduced and advanced 11 bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights, including a proposed ban on Pride flags in public buildings, schools, and universities across the state.

Now, Florida leaders have opted to focus on driver’s licenses and healthcare. Just last month, a leaked internal memo from the Florida department of highway safety and motor vehicles revealed that the state would no longer allow trans residents to change the gender marker on their driver’s license.

“Permitting an individual to alter his or her license to reflect an internal sense of gender role or identity, which is neither immutable nor objectively verifiable, undermines the purpose of an identification record,” said the memo, written by the deputy executive director of the Florida department of highway safety and motor vehicles, Robert Kynoch.

Kynoch warned that “misrepresenting one’s gender, understood as sex, on a driver license” amounts to fraud and “subjects an offender to criminal and civil penalties”.

LGBTQ+ advocates say the quiet rule change has sown fear and confusion among trans and non-binary people across Florida.

“Folks were afraid to just drive their car and go pick up their kids from school, because if they get a traffic infraction and are pulled over, ‘would I be automatically arrested for fraud by the police officer who checks my license?’” said Diaz.

Though there is no legal way to retroactively prosecute a trans driver for the gender marker on their license, Diaz said, “the point of that memo was to make people scared.”

Protesters at Wednesday’s rally also expressed outrage that the bill will probably raise health insurance costs.

The Florida legislature passed a statute last year that requires lawmakers to commission an economic impact study any time a bill proposes the creation of a health insurance mandate. According to the 2023 law championed by Florida Republicans, any proposed “mandate that certain health benefits be provided by insurers” needs to first be assessed by the Florida agency for healthcare administration, so that the state can understand how the bill will “contribute to the increasing cost of health insurance premiums”.

Related: Florida state congressman introduces bill to ban Pride flags from campuses

But House Republicans have not commissioned an economic impact study to understand how mandating conversion therapy might raise monthly insurance premiums, according to Equality Florida.

Despite widespread criticism, the bill’s lead sponsor, the state representative Doug Bankson, said during a house committee hearing earlier this month that his proposal did not target transgender people.

“It doesn’t mean we’re standing here and saying that the people in this room don’t have the right to seek their wholeness,” Bankson said. “This bill is about making sure that everyone has the right to seek that wholeness.”

He described gender as a “subjective issue that is going on socially”, arguing instead that a driver’s license should display a person’s sex, “something concrete medically”.

Florida Democrats remain unconvinced by Bankson’s characterization of the proposed legislation as the “compassion and clarity” bill.

“What’s going on in the Florida capitol? We should be moving forward as a state, not going backwards,” said the state representative Anna Eskamani, speaking at Wednesday’s rally.

Testifying against the bill earlier this week, Eskamani said Bankson’s proposal was a poorly disguised way to score political points with other Florida conservatives.

“When we get in between people and their doctors and start to decide what coverage is appropriate versus not, it’s not about safety, now it’s just about political parties, it’s about the latest Fox News headline,” she said. “Nobody is asking for this.”

As protesters marched through the streets of Tallahassee on Wednesday, the memory of Nex Benedict – a non-binary teenager who died last week following a fight in their public high school bathroom – loomed overhead.

Related: Florida city’s offer of Safe Place to LGBTQ+ people prompts Republican ire

Angelique Godwin, a trans activist and drag artist who helped organize Wednesday’s rally, thought of Benedict’s early death as she looked up at protest signs with the words “Let Us Live” emblazoned on the blues and pinks of the transgender Pride flag.

“The tragedy of Nex’s death is something that I think has lit a fire in all of us,” said Angelique Godwin. “We want justice for Nex, and we are also aware that their death is a warning of what could happen here in Florida if they continue to push the anti-trans narrative in legislation.”