The governor of Florida is attacking trans rights, censoring discussions of racism, and taking control of the state’s colleges. We speak to four young activists who are fighting back
If you haven’t heard of Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, think of him as a less messy but comparably evil version of Donald Trump. His pitch is ‘MAGA without the drama’ – all the white supremacy and transphobia, delivered in a more competent fashion. All the same, he’s not above attention-grabbing theatrics, whether evil (luring a group of undocumented migrants onto a plane with the promise of work, before dumping them on Martha’s Vineyard, a tiny island and Democratic stronghold) or absurd: yesterday, he took control of the board of DisneyWorld, promising, “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”
While DeSantis hasn’t officially announced his run for presidency, it’s almost certain that he will. Bolstered by his success in the midterm elections last November, he is increasingly the preferred choice of the Republican Party, both among voters and the party establishment. Whether or not he eventually beats Trump, or wins the presidency, his political influence is undeniable: during his governorship, Florida has become a testing ground for racist, transphobic and homophobic legislation, much of which is now spreading out across the US. It’s bad enough that this is happening to Black and/or trans people in Florida, but it’s worth paying especially close attention to what DeSantis does because, as Jeb Bush said in an endorsement yesterday, “Florida could be a model for the future of our country.” It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish vision for the US.
Many of the worst policies he has introduced bear some relation to public education (the following is by no means an exhaustive list). There was the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, introduced in 2022, which made it illegal for teachers to discuss gender identity or sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade. This legislation was written in such a vague way that it created a statewide chilling effect: frightened of getting sued, schools have warned employees against wearing rainbow clothing or displaying pictures with their same-gender partners. According to one legal scholar, if a child drew a picture of their two dads and shared it with the class, the school could be subject to penalties.
DeSantis’s attacks on trans youth, in particular, have been vicious and multifaceted: not only is he in the process of banning gender-affirming care for minors, but he has declared – in official state guidance – that trans young people should not be allowed to wear clothes, use pronouns or change their names in line with their gender identity. At college-level, he recently demanded that 12 public universities hand over data about who is accessing gender-affirming healthcare. While this data is anonymous, the move is feared to be a precursor to an outright ban on campus clinics providing these treatments.
Alongside LGBTQ+ issues, DeSantis has made a sustained and far-reaching effort to censor discussions around racism. The absurdly named ‘Stop Woke Act’, which was passed last April, took aim at ‘Critical Race Theory’ (a term so nebulous it can be used against any material which deals with structural racism) and allows students to sue their teachers if a lesson causes them to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race. Last month, in what was described as a ‘hostile takeover’, he seized control of New College, a tiny liberal university in Sarasota, and appointed a rogue’s gallery of reactionaries to its board. Among them was Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist notorious for spearheading the crusade against ‘critical race theory’.
This is a bleak, hostile terrain, but Florida’s students aren’t taking it lying down. Last week, I interviewed a number of young activists in the state who are mobilising against DeSantis’s attacks on the trans community, racialised minorities and freedom of education. On campus, there is a real sense of urgency, fear and desperation about what he is doing and where these policies might lead. But at the same time, the students I spoke with were so smart, eloquent and determined that I came away feeling quite optimistic about the future of Florida. DeSantis might be a powerful opponent, but I wouldn’t bet against them.
BEN BRAVER, ECONOMICS AND PHILOSOPHY MAJOR AT USF AND ORGANISER OF STAND FOR FREEDOM
“After I found out that DeSantis was trying to take trans health data from 12 public universities, I got a group of students together and we started organising. We created a petition asking USF not to send in the data, which got 1,000 signatures in one day and 2,600 in a week. We then held a rally a few days later which centred on trans joy. The narrative is so often around the issues that trans people face and how hard it is to be trans. But we know that when people are allowed to be who they are, they’re happy.
“Unfortunately, after we met with the Dean and handed over an 86-page binder full of signatures, we realised that USF can't stand up to DeSantis on its own, and that we needed to start organising statewide. We also knew DeSantis was planning an attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, so we broadened our scope to encompass that. We planned a ‘Stand for Freedom’ walk-out on the 23rd across almost every college campus in the state and many of the high schools, which was absolutely incredible.
“There has been a huge amount of support from the professors, from the administration, and all of the students that we’ve talked to. We’ve been trying to stress that what DeSantis has been doing is an attack on all students and on freedom of education. He is specifically targeting LGBTQ+ and BIPOC members of our communities, but it’s an issue that every student, every teacher, every staff member, and every citizen of the state should be concerned about.”
ELI, STUDENT AND ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE TRANS STUDENT UNION AT USF
“I think it’s quite easy for me to pass as my assigned gender, which means I’m free from some of the worst of the vitriol. But I am visibly queer, so the policies which De Santis is passing are terrifying, and in some ways make me afraid to be myself. At the same time, the massive activity on the part of students has also been really freeing, encouraging and supportive. I was around 12 when I really started feeling that I don’t identify with masculinity. But I never really felt safe stepping out of that identity, until all this stuff started happening.
“Within the Trans Student Union, there is a lot of fear about the long-term repercussions of these policies. But you also see people openly expressing themselves, almost as a form of protest: we’re here and we’re going to get louder about it now that you're trying to silence us. There’s kind of a dichotomy: it’s scary what DeSantis is doing, and we wish he wasn’t doing these things. But as trans students, we feel empowered by the amount of support that we are seeing from the people around us.”
LAUREN PINERIO, SOCIOLOGY MAJOR AND MEMBER OF THE TAMPA BAY STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY
“DeSantis has a strong agenda against trans people; he doesn’t think minors should be trans and he is trying to eliminate that, not just in public schools but in colleges too. We think he’s requesting the data on gender-affirming care because he wants schools to cut funding for those services and eventually get rid of them altogether. At USF, there is a programme that provides gender-affirming care, which is great, because a lot of students can’t afford to access it otherwise. So it is an important service that a lot of trans students rely on.
“I’ve been a part of Students for a Democratic Society for about a year and a half. A lot of our members are queer, myself included, and we definitely see all of these issues as interconnected: DeSantis attacking diversity and Black history is not unrelated to his attacks on trans people. We have already started to see the effects of critical race theory being suppressed in college: I’m taking a class now where the syllabus has to have a specific disclaimer saying something like, ‘We’re not legally allowed to say this, but we can discuss it in this particular way.’ There are a lot of loopholes that professors have to go through, and I think that will only get worse.
“This isn’t just happening in Florida. Other states, including Texas, are trying to prevent critical race theory from being discussed. Part of the problem is that it’s such a vague term – it can be applied to Black history in general, any history involving people of colour and even queer history. So it’s scary to think about, and I worry that this is just the beginning. The best thing that we can do to fight against this is to have a strong student movement, not just against DeSantis himself but his agenda in general.”
“Regressives will always find scapegoats – if it wasn’t us, it would be another group – so the onus is on everyone to act whenever that crops up” – Andy Pham
ANDY PHAM, PRE-MED STUDENT AND SENIOR OFFICER OF THE TRANS+ STUDENT UNION, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA (USF)
“The administration has politicised gender-affirming medicine. DeSantis uses deceptive, provocative rhetoric: ‘I’m protecting your kids from having their genitals chopped off by the school nurse!’ [But] many of their claims are flagrantly false; our healthcare is safe, effective, and in accordance with established science and internationally recognised medical standards.
“There’s been concern that the administration will forcibly detransition young people. As far as I’m aware, it’s not happening en masse, because these services are not outright banned for existing patients. But we know – and DeSantis knows – that their ultimate goal is to ban gender-affirming healthcare at all ages, at all facilities, publicly funded or not. That would leave the vast majority of medically transitioning people in Florida absolutely stranded.
“I think most queer students feel this very acutely. Without exception, all the trans and nonbinary people I know are politically active, even though it is hard to combat all the misinformation and vitriol. We cannot afford to disengage when our civil rights and healthcare are on the line. We sense that if we don’t fight now, then we won’t have the chance to later.
“Regressives will always find scapegoats – if it wasn’t us, it would be another group – so the onus is on everyone to act whenever that crops up. I believe one of the greatest resources – and perhaps the greatest vulnerability – of the left is solidarity between many different communities in opposition to right-wing, Christian, white supremacist nationalism. When you organise against hegemony, you must knit together a beautiful tapestry of people. Yes, the cracks and wounds are there, but healing them presents the opportunity for a wondrous and inimitable strength.”
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