The Governor of Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis, has become the darling of Republican donors keen to move on from Donald Trump. While DeSantis does not have Trump’s ability to enthrall and excite crowds (a talent that is lost on me, but obviously not on millions of Americans!), he is young, smart, educated, has military credentials and knows how to win elections: a presentable candidate.
Presentable, but frankly terrifying. DeSantis has achieved notoriety by taking positions on women’s rights, abortion, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, guns, immigration, education, freedom of speech, and science that go even further right than Trump’s. And he does it systematically and ruthlessly.At 44 years old, DeSantis could have a long career ahead of him. He is a graduate of Yale University, where he was the captain of the Yale baseball varsity team, and of Harvard Law School. He served as a lawyer and prosecutor in the US Navy, including at Guantanamo Bay, before he left the military. From 2013 to 2018, DeSantis represented Florida’s 6th congressional district (North-East Florida) in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. He was elected governor of Florida in 2019, and easily re-elected (59% of votes cast) in 2022. He controls the Florida Legislature (28-12 in the Senate and 85-35 in the House).
Florida certainly seems to attract the extreme right. There is a reason defeated Brazilian president and coup plotter Jair Bolsonaro sought refuge in Florida, where he is consorting with other right-wing figures. For example, Bolsonaro recently rallied his supporters at the Trump Doral Miami resort at an event was put on by Turning Point USA – a far-right youth mobilization group that has organized rallies for Trump and, of course, for Ron DeSantis. “There is a very strong connection between far-right groups and movements in Brazil and far-right groups in America, especially in Florida,” says Feliciano Guimarães, the academic director at the Rio-based Brazilian Center of International Relations (CEBRI) in a recent Time article. “Florida is a place where this connection with Brazilian far-right groups is strongest in the United States.”
While in Congress, DeSantis was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, the anti-government, right-wing Republican Representatives that held the House speakership hostage earlier this year and threaten to have the US default on its debt.
But it’s as governor that DeSantis has gone full tilt on culture wars, opening new battlegrounds in the name of protecting children and youth from “wokeism” and supporting parental rights and the traditional family. These ideas do not originate with him – they are developed by far-right think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – but DeSantis has been relentless in deploying them. The resulting media coverage from mainstream and right-wing media alike has turned DeSantis into the dominant challenger to Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination – even though he has yet to formally announce his candidacy.
What would a DeSantis presidency mean for women, children, and young people? Here are some examples.
On COVID and science: DeSantis has systematically attacked science and public health. While he initially aligned with Trump on vaccine development and was seen wearing a mask, DeSantis soon moved to the right of Trump. He was slow to guarantee public access to COVID vaccines, even refusing to preorder pediatric COVID vaccines for Florida children when they first became available. In 2021, he outlawed mask mandates in public schools and imposed fines on businesses and hospitals that required proof of vaccination for employment. You might even remember him bullying schoolchildren into removing their masks at a press conference in March 2022. Earlier this year, he proposed a permanent ban on all COVID mitigation measures in Florida.
On teaching gender and race in schools and universities: DeSantis has wielded the power of state funding to bar teachers from discussing race and gender in Florida public schools, colleges, and universities.
In the spring of 2022, DeSantis signed two laws with this goal in mind. The first one, HB 1557, the so-called Parental Rights in Education Act, came into force in March 2022. Better known as “Don’t Say Gay,” HB 1557 seeks to limit how – and at what grade level – public school teachers can teach about gender identity and sexual orientation. Under the law, children in kindergarten to third grade may not receive any classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. But that presumes that being heterosexual is not a sexual orientation, or that being cisgender (expressing the gender that corresponds to the sex one is assigned at birth) is not a gender identity. Hmmm. And how can children who feel or know they are different, or who have relatives or friends who are, talk about their families or themselves in the classroom? HB 1557 also states that teachers, at all grade levels, cannot refrain from informing parents about their child or adolescent "coming out" at school – a withholding of information that can, in some cases, be critical to the welfare and safety of the child.
When the Disney Corporation, whose massive Disney World theme parks are based in Orlando, Florida, announced that it would pause political contributions in Florida in objection to “Don’t Say Gay,” DeSantis retaliated by grabbing control of the tax authority in Disney’s district. State Senator Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents Orlando, called it for what it is: “the entire move is retaliation by the governor for Disney’s vocal support for the LGBTQ community”.
The second law, HB 7, the Individual Freedom Act (April 2022), which DeSantis has dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act,” censors discussion of race and gender in Florida’s public schools and colleges. Interestingly, it is closely modelled on a September 2020 Trump Executive Order on diversity training in the federal workforce: no original ideas here! At a news conference announcing HB 7, DeSantis claimed the law would ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the classroom. CRT is an analytical method used since the 1980s in some law schools to identify and critique the systemic racial bias in US laws, policies, institutions, and the legal system: it is not used as a teaching method in public high schools in Florida or other US states, but has become a far-right bogeyman for any kind of teaching about racism.
What HB 7 does prohibit, however, includes teaching about important topics such as (my summary): unconscious racial or gender bias, white privilege, male privilege, “racial colorblindness”, whether requirements of “excellence,” “merit” or “neutrality” are used to discriminate against women or Black people, and the need for and usefulness of affirmative action, quotas or reparations. Mind you, HB 7 notes that teachers can mention these ideas in the classroom (First Amendment and all that!), but must remain scrupulously neutral when discussing them. You might wonder: how can a teacher instruct high school or college students about the US’s history of slavery and segregation, or the struggle for women’s equality, without being able to map out and discuss the pros and cons of these important concepts? Not being able to lead a proper discussion in the classroom means students will never get to fully assess, debate, or critique that topic - the prerequisite for developing an informed opinion. (Yeah, I’ve answered my question.)
HB 7 also prohibits classroom discussion of whether: “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.” Again, how can a teacher lead a lesson about slavery or people being denied the right to vote, without any student feeling discomfort? And whose comfort is this about? (See above)
The Palm Beach County School Board (where Trump lives) unanimously denounced HB 7 as censorship, saying the law "would compromise an educator's ability to teach honest LGBTQ history, Black history and the historic reasons behind gender and race discrimination”. These brave parents and educators added: “We are [also] concerned that HB 1557 would undermine existing protections for LGBTQ students by standing as a barrier to teachers who are currently providing a safe, inclusive classroom.”
In January 2023, DeSantis picked a fight with the College Board (the corporation that designs and administers college admissions tests and college-level courses for high school students) over its new Advanced Placement course on African-American Studies, claiming it violated HB 7 and could therefore not be taught in Florida schools. In response to this political threat, the College Board shamefully removed from the curriculum mention of many contemporary African-American scholars and their work, relegating them to optional research projects. Those removed include feminist, LGBTQ, and queer Black scholars, like Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Columbia University professor who helped define intersectionality as a legal concept, Roderick Ferguson, a Yale University expert on queer social movements, and bell hooks, the writer of classic texts on race, gender, and class. Black Lives Matter has also been excised. Simply outrageous.
Meanwhile, HB 1467, adopted in July 2022, requires schools in Florida to ensure school libraries do not contain any “pornographic” or age-inappropriate material. Under accompanying Board of Education rules, teachers now face the loss of their teaching certificates if any such book is found in their classroom. This has led multiple school boards to cover up or remove books from school-wide and classroom libraries, while a “media specialist” reviews them under these opaque new rules. HB 1467 combined with HB 7 and HB 1557 also allow anyone to challenge the use of any book or learning material in public schools. A classic like Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is now banned in over 100 high schools as a result of a single parent complaint. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, The Life of Rosa Parks, and [Black baseball legend] Hank Aaron’s Dream are also the subject of complaints. Are all books by and about Black people and people of color now suspect? How are books that feature same-sex couples or LGBTQ kids going to fare? What about sex education topics, such as puberty, contraception, or masturbation? Which book can survive this onslaught? This is beyond troubling.
More of this is planned for the upcoming Florida legislative session, beginning March 7, 2023. For example, DeSantis has vowed to cut funding to any diversity, equity, and inclusion program at state-funded universities in Florida, and would require them to submit their curricula and reading lists for vetting. This could results in cuts to courses in African-American and gender studies.
On trans children and adolescents: DeSantis is particularly hostile to trans kids. In these ominous attacks, he joins a growing list of Republican governors and lawmakers across the US.
In June 2021, DeSantis signed SB 1028, the so-called Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, a bill barring trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in public schools. An earlier version of the bill contained a clause that would have allowed a school to inspect the genitals of any athlete subject to a complaint – imagine that! The final bill passed by the Florida Senate requires a birth certificate that shows the athlete was assigned the female sex at birth. This law would no doubt particularly affect Black female athletes, whose sex is more often questioned than that of white athletes. The law would also allow any student to sue for damages should a school deny her an “athletic opportunity” by allowing a trans girl to play on a girls’ team.
A lawsuit has so far suspended SB 1028’s application, arguing that: “By excluding transgender girls and women from girls’ sports teams and forcing them, if they want to play sports at all, to join a team that matches neither their gender identity nor their current physical status, the bill discriminates on the basis of sex and transgender status in violation of the United States Constitution and Title IX [federal protection against discrimination on the basis of sex].” Exactly.
I should note that, in the last 10 years, a grand total of 2 trans girls have sought to play on a girls’ school team in Florida, and that there is zero evidence that trans girls have an unfair advantage in sports over girls who have been assigned the female sex at birth. This is clearly a manufactured controversy for political gain.
DeSantis then urged Florida’s Board of Medicine and Board of Osteopathic Medicine to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under 18 in Florida. They obliged him in September 2022. Gender-affirming care for adolescents largely consists of puberty blockers or hormonal treatment (estrogen for trans girls, testosterone for trans boys). The new rules ban that treatment, as well as surgery, which is rarely performed on minors. Remember that DeSantis put forward HB 7 and HB 1557 to “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children”. That evidently does not apply to parents of trans children, who are now facing difficult decisions about whether to move out of Florida to ensure their child can access healthcare. Meanwhile, clinicians in Florida are deeply worried about the mental health repercussions of these rules on trans children. Research shows that gender-affirming care reduces depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and attempts, eating disorders, and substance abuse. What can be more important to a parent than saving their child’s life?
DeSantis has also joined the Republican bandwagon attacking drag performers in the name of protecting children. Earlier this month, he even rescinded the liquor license of the Orlando Philharmonic because it had allegedly allowed children to attend the show A Drag Queen Christmas on its premises.
On abortion: After the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June 2022, DeSantis moved very quickly to sign into law HB 5, a bill that the Florida legislature had already passed to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Research shows that those who seek abortion later in pregnancy are often the most vulnerable: people of color, those who have trouble paying for an abortion, immigrants, young girls, and survivors of sexual violence. These are the people now forced to travel out of Florida to seek abortion care.
HB 5 has no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest, but it does allow someone whose fetus has a fatal abnormality to terminate the pregnancy rather than be forced to carry it to term. Is this working in practice? No. The recent case of Deborah Dorbert, a Lakeland, Florida woman who was refused a legal abortion although her fetus has “devastating abnormalities”, demonstrates the chilling effect of restrictive abortion laws on all obstetric care, in Florida and elsewhere. Meanwhile, DeSantis has indicated he is ready to sign an even more dangerous six-week ban. Catastrophic.
And there is more! Taking control of the boards of publicly funded colleges that are deemed “too woke,” and sacking their administrators? Underway. Requiring colleges and universities to provide information about what gender-affirming healthcare their campus clinics have provided their students? Also happening. Requiring student athletes to give schools monthly information about their menstrual periods? Withdrawn for now, after tremedous pressure. Allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit and training? About to happen.
Florida students have led sustained and spirited protests against these measures – the one heartening development in all of this. If you want to help, check out their campaign, Stand for Freedom Florida. They will convene a massive march on Florida's legislature on March 8, and need help paying for the buses. This is their GoFundMe: https://linktr.ee/stand_for_freedom
This won’t stop – and hasn’t stopped – at Florida unless we act. If DeSantis becomes the next US President, I truly fear what is in store for women and young people in the US and around the world. The fight is on to make sure Florida is NOT the future of politics, here or anywhere.
In rage, solidarity and love,