Antigay bill is Florida's latest culture war

·Senior White House Correspondent
·5 min read

As the first openly gay Latino legislator in Florida’s history, state Rep. Carlos Smith was already an outspoken opponent of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which Republicans had introduced under the guise of parental control — and which critics like Smith say is little more than an effort to frighten LGBTQ teachers and students into silence.

But what happened last weekend left Smith truly stunned, while also bolstering Florida’s standing as the nation’s premier culture war battleground, one that is increasingly the core of a national Republican Party figuring out its post-Trump direction.

Florida state Rep. Carlos Smith speaks into a microphone at a protest against Donald Trump.
Florida state Rep. Carlos Smith at a protest against then-President Donald Trump in 2019 in Orlando. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

As the controversial bill headed for passage, Christina Pushaw, press secretary to Gov. Ron DeSantis, took to Twitter last Friday to say that the measure was in fact an “Anti-Grooming Bill,” a reference to some conservatives’ unfounded fears that frank discussions of gender and sexuality in the classroom are part of a leftist conspiracy to turn American children away from traditional gender roles and sexual behaviors.

“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules,” wrote Pushaw, who has emerged as a Twitter firebrand with the kind of intensely partisan attacks that are rare for most state officials.

In reality, the controversial bill — known as H.B. 1557 in the Legislature’s lower chamber and titled “Parental Rights in Education” — says nothing about the practice of grooming. Instead, it stipulates that lessons on “sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Parents can sue school districts that violate this vague standard, which leaves the question of what is or isn’t “appropriate” unanswered.

Most observers believe that the practical effect of the law would be to effectively prevent all but the most anodyne discussion of sexual identity and practice. President Biden has called the bill “hateful,” but because Republicans control the state Legislature, Democrats have little say in the bill’s shape or outcome. It’s expected to be signed by DeSantis soon.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stands at a podium as he addresses attendees at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in late February. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For his part, Smith responded to the provocative “grooming” tweets by charging that Pushaw was assigning grotesque motives to the measure’s opponents. “Bigoted attacks like this against LGBTQ people are the worst of the worst,” wrote Smith. He called on Pushaw to resign.

Instead, she only sharpened her attacks, in keeping with the confrontational style DeSantis learned from former President Donald Trump, which has made both of them a darling of Fox News and talk radio. “A hit dog hollers,” Pushaw wrote back.

“She basically called me a pedophile,” Smith told Yahoo News in a phone conversation on Monday evening. “Literally, it’s the oldest trick in the book against LGBTQ people.”

Pushaw reminded Yahoo News in an email that the proverb about a “hit dog hollering” had been deployed by DeSantis’s opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial race, Andrew Gillum, to imply that DeSantis was a racist. And she defended her description of H.B. 1557 as an “anti-grooming” bill: “Why would anyone be so angry about a common-sense policy to safeguard children?”

The bill passed the state Senate earlier this week, accompanied by unrelenting criticism from Smith and Democrats in Florida and nationwide. State Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is like Smith openly gay, called the debate over H.B. 1557 “the culture war of all culture wars.”

At a White House press briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki also condemned the bill. “It’s a form of bullying,” she said. “It is horrific.” Even though the White House has generally avoided culture war skirmishes of the kind Trump relished, it has not shied away from confrontations with DeSantis, whose polarizing personality appears to motivate progressives almost as much as it does conservatives.

People protest the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill outside a Florida lawmaker’s office. They hold signs reading: Proud to be gay, My identity is more permanent than your job, and We are permanent.
People protest the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill on Wednesday in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Everything that DeSantis does is through the prism of advancing his political ambition,” Smith says. “I mean, there’s no other explanation. It’s all about him.”

A likely 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis has waged a number of divisive battles — on vaccines, racial justice, face masks, highways — that have raised his national profile.

This week also saw DeSantis and his controversial surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, turn Florida into the first state in the nation to recommend against a childhood vaccination, a move denounced as dangerous by public health experts. It is unclear why DeSantis and Ladapo took the step now, with the coronavirus pandemic in an apparent wane.

Politics has closely trailed the pandemic for Democrats and Republicans alike. Recently, DeSantis has emerged as the right’s most vociferous opponent of all public health measures, so much so that he earned a rebuke from Trump for refusing to disclose whether he was boosted.

But it was Trump, not DeSantis, who faced conservatives’ ire in that exchange, with many expressing a sense of betrayal over the former president’s revelation that he had, in fact, been boosted. And while Trump continues to litigate the 2020 election with false claims that he won, DeSantis has deftly moved on to the issues animating the right — education and social justice foremost among them.

“My concern,” Smith says of DeSantis, “is that he is much smarter and much more calculating than Donald Trump ever was.”

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