Few fronts in America’s heated culture wars have been more active recently than the fight over sexuality and gender identity.
And few politicians have been as willing to charge into battle as Ron DeSantis.
Over the last year or so, Florida’s Republican governor has signed a bill blocking transgender female athletes from participating in scholastic women’s sports. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Disney over his support of a new law banning the teaching of sexuality and gender identity in public schools from kindergarten through third grade.
Last week, his administration moved to strip a Miami bar of its liquor license over the presence of a young child at a risqué drag show held during weekend brunch.
And now his health department, in defiance of federal guidance, is seeking to prohibit gender-affirming care for youths, including surgery and puberty blockers.
Critics, including those in the LGBTQ community, criticize the governor as a bully picking on a vulnerable minority group. DeSantis frames his positions as a response to a movement on the left to rethink gender and sexuality and promote those views to children.
“To the extent that sexual topics and gender identity are being injected into the education of — or marketed towards — children, the governor is standing up and pushing back,” said Bryan Griffin, spokesman for the governor.
But whether action or reaction, the governor has made gender and sexual identity key pillars in his platform as he runs for reelection and increasingly becomes the focus of 2024 speculation. And national conservatives — especially evangelical leaders — have noticed.
“He doesn’t wait, he recognizes a moment, and he speaks up,” said Penny Nance, CEO and president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America. “There are other governors that are good governors, but they don’t necessarily lead. But I think he has found his voice.”
The governor waded back into the conversation about gender and sexual identity on Wednesday, saying doctors who provide sex reassignment surgeries to minors diagnosed with gender dysphoria should be sued.
“That’s wrong,” DeSantis said, speaking at a health advocacy center in Rockledge. “And so we’ve stood up and said, both from the health and children well-being perspective, you don’t disfigure 10-, 12-, 13-year-old kids based on gender dysphoria.”
And on Thursday, DeSantis said he was suspending Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for signing letters saying he would not enforce certain laws, including in most circumstances those limiting abortion providers, or potential laws prohibiting gender-confirmation surgeries for minors.
The governor’s emphasis on these issues isn’t happening in a vacuum: Concern about cultural issues, especially related to gender identity, has surged among conservatives and parents more generally.
A confrontation during a congressional hearing last month, for example, between Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and law professor Khiara Bridges over who can get pregnant quickly went viral online, with the exchange receiving attention from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Conservatives have also dwelled on the perceived threat of drag queens reading to children at library story hours — the subject has been highlighted by conservative activists like Christopher Rufo — and focused on the concern they feel about transgender women competing against other women in athletics. In addition to Florida, multiple states with Republican legislatures have passed legislation imposing restrictions on who can compete in scholastic sports.
Lawmakers from both parties have also re-engaged on a debate about the legality of same-sex marriages after the Supreme Court revoked the constitutional right to an abortion in June, raising the prospect that it might eventually also overturn the right to gay marriage.
U.S. senators are expected to soon vote on a bill that would make same-sex marriage legal even if the court overturned its previous ruling, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that established the right to do so. The House already voted in favor of the measure in July.
The collective weight of all these developments has reignited a debate over sex and gender issues on the political right that had begun to flicker in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling in 2015, which guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage, according to Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative and evangelical leader from Iowa.
“The ripple effects have gone way beyond Mary and Nancy wanting to live together,” he said. “It’s gone to, let’s just all rewrite the foundations that have defined human history. And that’s why I think you’re seeing conservatives, they’re rising up saying this is nonsense.”
Vander Plaats said DeSantis’ attunement to those issues has helped vault him into the 2024 presidential discussion, even though the governor has repeatedly insisted he is focused only on winning his reelection for governor this year.
“As long as he’s willing to call this out, as long as he’s leading on these issues, he’s going to have a deep bed of support behind him,” Vander Plaats said. “And that’s why you see, whether it’s a Florida poll or an Iowa poll, he would favor very well in a run for president. That’s because of his leadership.”
DeSantis on Wednesday reiterated his opposition on transgender women in school sports, praising the work he and the Florida legislature did to restrict their involvement.
“So we said, we need to protect the fairness and integrity of sports for our girls and women athletes, so we did that,” DeSantis said, speaking at a health advocacy center in Rockledge. “And I think most people agree it’s the proper thing to do.”
DeSantis’ actions have provoked a very different reaction within the LGBTQ community, which accuses him of arbitrarily and dangerously singling out a minority group for political purposes, and even at his alma mater.
When Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration moved to deny Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming medical care, a group that includes legal and medical experts from Yale accused the state of issuing a supporting report that contained “glaring errors regarding science, statistical methods, and medicine.”
The experts referred to the agency’s report as “not a serious scientific analysis but, rather, a document crafted to serve a political agenda.”
Meanwhile, LGBTQ advocates have expressed outrage at a state investigation into the bar, R House, after a video went viral in July, showing a partially dressed drag queen leading a young girl through a performance.
In a statement, a spokesman for the progressive group Equality Florida said that the governor has shown he’s willing to “weaponize” state government against the LGBTQ community “in his quest to incite right wing fervor.”
“Hooters is headquartered in Clearwater,” said Brandon Wolf, spokesman for the group. “Has an investigation begun into parents taking their children to ogle in a restaurant with a name based on a sexualized premise/double entendre? What about bikini-clad gun show models? Will he police bathing suits on the beach?
“Since DeSantis is replacing a parent’s judgment with his own, we will see how far the Governor’s puritanical purge is going to go or if it is merely selectively enforced,” Wolf added.