By Dara Kam, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — A key Senate committee on Tuesday approved a scaled-back proposal aimed at requiring transgender men and women to use restrooms that line up with their sex assigned at birth, as protesters marched to the Capitol to speak out against bills targeting the LGBTQ community.
Florida is among more than two dozen Republican-led states that are considering controversial measures seeking to prohibit or limit medical care for transgender people, prevent minors from attending drag shows and impose restrictions on which bathrooms trans people can use.
The House last week passed a bill (HB 1521) that would prohibit transgender people from using the restroom of their choice in restaurants, schools and other places, including private businesses.
But the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Tuesday approved a version of the bill (SB 1674) that would apply restroom restrictions to public and private schools, “public buildings” such as government facilities and correctional institutions, including prisons and jails.
“There are differences between biological men and biological women, and this bill ensures uniformity in the use of restrooms and changing facilities,” Senate sponsor Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, told the committee.
Lawmakers have focused heavily during the annual legislative session on transgender and LGBTQ-related issues, sparking Tuesday’s march to the Capitol from a nearby park.
The House, for example, gave final approval last week to a bill (SB 1438) that would block venues from admitting children to “adult live performances.” The bill, which is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, defines “adult live performances” as “any show, exhibition, or other presentation that is performed in front of a live audience and in whole or in part, depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, specific sexual activities, … lewd conduct, or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
While the bill doesn’t specifically mention drag shows, it came after DeSantis’ administration took steps such as filing a complaint against the Hyatt Regency Miami hotel for hosting a “Drag Queen Christmas” event in December.
The measure would prohibit local governments from issuing public permits for events that could expose children to the targeted behavior. The legislation, which would allow state regulators to suspend or revoke licenses of operators that violate the law, has already prompted some locales to cancel pride parades.
The proposed bathroom restrictions approved by the Senate panel Tuesday would require schools to “establish disciplinary procedures for any student who willfully enters … a restroom or changing facility designated for the opposite sex … and refuses to depart when asked to do so”’ by administrators or staff members, including school-safety officers. Under the bill, law-enforcement officers or security guards also would have the authority to order people to leave bathrooms at colleges and universities.
People other than students or instructional staff who violate the restrictions would commit the offense of trespassing. The measure also would allow people to file complaints with the attorney general’s office alleging that agencies or schools “failed to meet the minimum requirements for restrooms.” The attorney general’s office would have authority to file civil lawsuits to enforce the restrictions.
The bill defines sex as “the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role, as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.”
Grall said her bill would allow unisex restrooms, which she said already are in use at some schools and public buildings.
But Democrats on the committee and members of the public who spoke against the bill questioned how it would be enforced and said it could endanger trans people.
“I’m going to use whatever bathroom I want, because what are you going to do about it? It’s unenforceable. Are you going to check what’s in my pants? Is there going to be somebody there to check what’s in my pants? No, I am going to use whatever bathroom I want,” Tsi Day Smith, of the group Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, said.
Cindy Sullivan, a 53-year-old transgender woman from Land O’Lakes, argued that the bill — called the “Safety in Private Spaces Act” — would put her and other trans women at risk.
“I would prefer to not have to drop my panties to prove who I am,” Sullivan said, adding that she is identified as female on her passport and driver’s license. “This bill fails to address real safety concerns. Rather, it purports a witch-hunt against the vulnerable minority, which I apologize that I am one of.”
But Matthew Woodside, a Brevard County teacher, said the measure would make children safer at schools.
“It is our job to protect their dignity, their privacy, and their safety, especially when they are at their most vulnerable state, when their pants are down, and when their shirts are off,” he said.
As the committee signed off on Grall’s measure, about 200 drag queens and their allies gathered on the steps of the Old Capitol, decrying the spate of legislation aimed at the LGBTQ community.
“We are going to change hearts and minds. We’re going to hold candidates and politicians to the task. We’re gonna go back to our communities and ask the questions. We’re gonna record them on social media and flood the internet with their statements, to hold them accountable,” Darcel Stevens, a drag-queen activist who helped organize Tuesday’s rally, told the crowd.
Lawmakers also are considering a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to use gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgeries to treat children. The House signed off on its version of the measure last week.
Ariel Rimm, a drag performer from West Palm Beach who attended Tuesday’s march, said drag “kind of gave me the license to be the person I wanted to be.”
“It freed me. It really allowed me to find happiness within myself and not necessarily hate myself for all of the things I had been ridiculed about for my entire life, growing up,” Rimm said.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban and videographer Mike Exline contributed to this report.