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In a roundtable conversation with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida, advocates, teachers and parents say that the Florida legislature is creating an atmosphere of fear in schools and for families.

This is thanks to bans on transgender healthcare, attacks on drag queens, “Don’t Say Gay,” and the nearly two dozen anti-LGBT laws filed in Tallahassee — so much so that Equality Florida put out a travel advisory saying that Florida is not safe for LGBT visitors.

“We have to be very real and honest with ourselves in this moment: Florida is being held hostage by the political ambitions and political hubris of Ron DeSantis,” said Joe Saunders, the senior political director at Equality Florida. “DeSantis believes that he can punch down on us and pave a path to the presidency on our backs.”

The roundtable was hosted at First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee and live streamed via Facebook.

The Republican-controlled Congress in Florida has proposed laws such as HB1423, which seeks to ban drag shows where children might be exposed to them in restaurants, bars, or other venues. Before his death, SFGN co-founder Norm Kent planned to sue DeSantis over the state’s attacks on drag queens, saying it violated their First Amendment rights. While the bill does not specifically mention drag queens, the way that the Parental Rights in Education Bill doesn’t say “gay,” the message has been sent loud and clear to the LGBT community.

Saunders said that these bills are weaponizing Florida groups. In March, the Florida Boards of Medicine and Osteopathic Medicine banned treatment of gender dysphoria in youth; something doctors can now lose their license over. Muti Sekhem, a community organizer and the father of a trans teen, who also participated in the roundtable, said he found it interesting that DeSantis pushed for parental rights during COVID but is now backtracking.

“When it comes down to my transgender kid and how we get healthcare, it’s suddenly his business, it’s suddenly the legislature’s business, it’s the Department of Education’s business,” he said.

Samira Burnside, his daughter, said she was able to receive treatment before the cutoff thanks to the three hours of testimony from trans advocates in Tallahassee before the boards made their decision.

Each county has taken a different approach in response to “Don’t Say Gay,” from removing books from libraries to teachers in Duval County being instructed to remove their rainbow safe space stickers. Shari Gawanter, a first grade teacher in Leon County who is also gay, said in the roundtable that she always felt comfortable in the classroom until now. Even with more than two decades experience teaching, a number of certifications, and ongoing professional development, her judgment as an educator is no longer trusted, she said.

“Fear about what book I read, what conversations I have when visitors come to my classroom, the teachable moments that happen … I hesitate,” she shared.

The panel also pointed out that while the LGBT community may be targeted at the moment, others need to be vigilant. Just this week, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law, pending the results of a Florida Supreme Court decision.

“In reality it’s just testing the waters with governmental overreach,” Samira, 16, said. “It can happen to anyone.”

Even amid the uncertainty, though, the panel agreed that they would not be leaving Florida nor would they give up fighting for equality.

“We have a history of doing this. It’s in our DNA as people,” said Kelley Robinson, the president of the Human Rights Campaign. “What they’re saying about trans people now, 20 years ago is what they were saying about lesbian and gay people … I truly believe on the other side of this, there’s something greater that’s waiting for us.”