Pride Month 2021 was cause for celebration nationwide, officially certified by the White House for the first time ever, but it was not all gumdrops and gorgonzola in the larger fight for equality. As is so often the case, in so many different ways, Florida played the role of spoiler. Governor Ron DeSantis is famous for being extra, but never more so than in recent weeks.
As the Democratic establishment begins building their arsenal to move against an incumbent who’s already being touted as a possible Republican presidential nominee in 2024, the chief Florida Man has sought to bolster his defense by burnishing his conservative bonafides. That has made for quite an interesting year so far. That is the larger context into which the trans athlete controversy can be situated.
Barely a week goes by without hearing the shrill trill of DeSantis’ dog-whistle act, but that process has seemingly accelerated as spring swings into summer. Perhaps the most extreme example of this tactic so far took place on June 1, when the governor chose the first day of Pride Month to launch a legal fusillade against Florida’s LGBTQIA+ community. The “Fairness In Women’s Sports Act” is, in classic right-wing style, blatantly designed to have the opposite effect of what its title implies.
Sponsored by rising star Kaylee Tuck, HB 1475 passed the Florida House on a straight party-line vote of 77-40 on April 14. (Interestingly, Rep. Tuck’s father Andy chairs the state Board of Education, which is now in charge of interpreting and implementing the new law.) SB 2012 was written off as “dead” by the Orlando Sentinel just a few days later, but its corpse was reanimated and slipped into the margins of an education bill, SB 1028, which then passed by a margin of 77–39 on April 28, a mere two days before the end of the legislative session.
Rather than sign the bill immediately, which is what normal people do, DeSantis let it marinate for over a month, red meat for his base, dry-aged and sliced thick, blood-rare, for the consumption of conservatives. He picked June 1 because it was the first day of Pride Month, and he picked Trinity for reasons that might not be obvious to those unfamiliar with the site.
“He couldn’t find a public school in Duval County that would have him” explained attorney and activist Jimmy Midyette, a driving force behind the HRO process that forced the governor’s hand, as far as the venue he chose. “The policy in Duval County, of course, is that transgender students are treated with dignity and respect, and aren’t discriminated against. So he had to go to a school that is attached to a church that has a long history of sexual assault of young people by a former pastor at that church. He couldn’t even find an athlete to stand by him––he had to bring in someone from Connecticut.”
With fewer than a dozen trans athletes known to exist in all of Florida, and none in Jacksonville, the sense of urgency behind the law, and the relevance of signing it here, was not immediately clear. DeSantis defenders claim that he had no knowledge of the history of Trinity in that regard (despite there being a very good book about it by local author Tim Gilmore), and they also claim the connection to Pride month was entirely coincidental. But still, DeSantis followed up, on the second day of Pride, by vetoing mental health funding for LGBTQIA+ people, right before the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre. Put it all together, and the patterns are easy enough to discern.
“I think it’s a terribly discriminatory and hateful bill,” says Dan Merkan, Director of Policy at the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN). “There was really no merit to this bill. There haven’t been any real cases or concerns that have been brought up in Florida.” The bill was created at the behest of a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF,) whose ambiguous name belies a very specific agenda––namely, standing athwart the movement for LGBTQIA+ equality, yelling “Stop!” Local observers may recall their role in herding sheep in a failed effort to block our HRO a few years ago.
Based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the group has branches in four other states, as well as Washington D.C., not to mention loyal supporters scattered across the country, one of whom is currently governor of Florida. (I should have probably reached out to them for comment, but nope. I know what they think, and I have no interest in speaking to them, or anyone who supports them.) They took the lead in seeking to expel a trio of trans girls running high school track in Connecticut. Having seen their efforts rejected by the courts over the last couple of years, they’ve modulated their methods in favor of legislating morality.
Supporters of the new law parrot the ADF’s main talking point: that trans female athletes have a competitive advantage over their cisgender competition. These are the same folks who assert that trans women pose a direct physical threat to biological women in shared spaces like bathrooms, which is what led to the infamous North Carolina “Bathroom Bill,” HB2, in 2016. That law led to widespread boycotts of the state, and that seems to be in Florida’s future, as well. Already Gavin Newsome, the governor of California (and a potential competitor to DeSantis down the road), has ordered a halt to all official state travel to Florida, as a direct result of this legislation. It’s unclear what the pro sports leagues will do, let alone the NCAA itself, but the fact that speculation has already begun is bad news for sports tourism.
At the very least, any discussion of ever having the Olympic Games in, say, Miami, is off the table, forever, as well as any type of Olympic trials. Events like March Madness and the NIT are also in jeopardy, given the general center-left orientation of most key sanctioning bodies. The state of Florida boasts top-level talent in an array of women’s sports including golf, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, softball and, of course, swimming. The potential for ostracism is quite strong.
All this is going on at a time when the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, which runs from July 23 through August 8, will be the first ever (as far as anyone one knows) to include trans athletes among the participants. Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand qualified for powerlifting in the 87kg category making her a cause celebre, for all the wrong reasons. Her performance will be the world’s first major test case for trans athletes on the international scene.
One person who knows what it takes to compete on such an elite level is Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals and one silver in swimming at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Today, she serves as CEO of Champion Women, a non-profit organization that advocates for inclusion and representation for women across the spectrum of amateur sports. She currently finds herself walking a fine rhetorical line between the warring extremes on either side of this issue. “It is a crazy mix of politics, what’s going on right now,” she said. “The bill was passed as a way to shame trans people, to deny their existence, to use it as a way to raise money for the Republican Party.”
As a founding member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, she’s found herself having to push back against the perception that this is something she might support. “Our position is not that position,” she said. “For the vast majority of society, there is no reason to not have sex discrimination be the same thing as gender identity discrimination. When it comes to employment, education, marriage, adoption, it makes no difference whatsoever. There are a few places where biology is really important. Sports are intentionally sex-segregated, across the world, except in sports where the male puberty advantage doesn’t make any difference--things like equestrian, sailing, motorsports. We say that you can recognize the reality and have a fair playing field for everyone that doesn’t shame trans people or deny their existence.”
Hogshead-Makar is an attorney herself, and her husband is an appellate judge in the First District of Florida, so she has a pretty three-dimensional view of the situation. Like most people who were following the issue, she was shocked to see the language attached to SB 1028, and she immediately recognized the precarious legal ground on which it stands.
Days after the signing of SB1028, the Justice Department reiterated that gender identity is protected under Title IX, which sets the stage for legal challenges in the years ahead. John Phillips, the publisher of Folio, is also an attorney, and he is of the general opinion that this dispute will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. Prescient as always, he said as much to me mere days before the first official legal challenge was made, and now that process is well underway.
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) filed a suit in late June one behalf of a 13-year-old trans girl in Broward County. Known as “Daisy,” her real name is being kept secret, largely due to fear of death threats, if not indeed actual death. At a time when murder of trans women around the country has reached epidemic levels, all precautions must be taken.
HRC is taking the lead against this law, in part because it’s basically a trial balloon, with similar initiatives slowly floating upward across the country; extending the metaphor, consider this challenge the first shot from their BB gun. “There are so far more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in state legislatures across the country,” according to HRC. “Of those, more than 120 directly target transgender people and at least 66 of those would ... ban transgender girls from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.” The Tampa Bay Times notes that such legislation is pending in “at least 30” states.
The resistance to this law is rooted not only in concern for the trans community, but also for biological women who have already been heavily preyed upon by men in the sports world. If the gender status of an athlete is questioned, they bear the responsibility of proving they are “real” women, either through a blood test or a physical examination. If an opposing coach raises any objection to a girl’s presence on the field, or the track, or in the pool, they will simply have no choice but to give their blood, or else drop their pants. This should be alarming in a country whose entire national women’s gymnastics organization were systematically molested by their own doctor with no recourse, for years.
It’s unclear how this situation will ultimately resolve itself, or what complications it will present for Florida, its citizens and its athletes of all genders. But there’s one effect that has been immediately apparent: utter chaos, legal and political. And that, more than anything, is the point.