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“Gender identity is real” – Federal judge blocks DeSantis’ ban on gender-affirming care for three Florida minors after a lawsuit

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Three members of the Polk County Commission have scuttled a five-year tradition of expressing support for LGBTQ residents.
Federal judge blocks DeSantis' ban on gender-affirming care for three Florida minors after a lawsuit | Tampa Tech Wire

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Florida law banning transgender youth from getting medical treatment is temporarily on hold after a surprise decision Tuesday by a federal judge.

The ruling comes amid a bevy of legislation sweeping state houses this year restricting gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked portions of a new Florida law that bans transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers.

“Gender identity is real,” Judge Robert Hinkle said, ruling that the state has no rational basis for denying patients treatment.

Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction saying three transgender children can continue receiving treatment.

The lawsuit brought by the three children’s parents challenges the law Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed shortly before he announced a run for president.

The judge’s decision focuses on the use of GnRH agonists, known as puberty blockers, and cross-sex hormones. The litigation focuses on language involving minors and doesn’t address other wording that makes it difficult to nearly impossible for adults to receive or continue gender-affirming care.

Three members of the Polk County Commission have scuttled a five-year tradition of expressing support for LGBTQ residents.

Commissioner Neil Combee forcefully led the rejection of a proclamation declaring June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month at Tuesday’s regular meeting. The item was listed on the consent agenda, a slate of items the board typically approves unanimously and without discussion.

At Combee’s request, the commission moved the proposed proclamation to the regular agenda, and he quickly made it clear he opposed any statement of solidarity with residents in the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or nonbinary.

“The truth of the matter is this issue seems to get more divisive by the day, certainly by the week and by the month, but almost daily, it gets more divisive,” Combee said.

He said the commission should “get out of the business of proclaiming lifestyle and talking about sexual orientation.”

Two other commissioners, Bill Braswell and Rick Wilson, concurred with Combee.

“It’s gone too far,” Braswell said. “It’s at the point of being silly.”

He added: “I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents in the last 24 or 48 hours. I don’t know of any of them that were for it.”

Though the other two commissioners expressed no objections to the proclamation, the item died without any motion to adopt it.

And with that, Polk County officially changed a position it first adopted in 2018 and has confirmed each year since, except for 2020, when proclamations were suspended during the disruptions of COVID-19.

Tuesday’s reversal by the County Commission symbolized the uneven status of official support in Polk County for the LGBTQ community during June, the period designated as Pride Month.

Polk Pride, a nonprofit organization, submitted requests for symbolic proclamations to the county, 15 cities and the Polk County School Board. As of Wednesday, nine entities had either issued proclamations or scheduled them, while seven cities and the county had denied the requests.

Those approving proclamations: Bartow, Davenport, Dundee, Haines City, Lake Alfred, Lakeland, Mulberry, Winter Haven and Polk County Public Schools.

The ones rejecting requests: Auburndale, Eagle Lake, Fort Meade, Frostproof, Lake Hamilton, Lake Wales, Polk City and Polk County.

“Honestly, I’m glad that as many proclamations as we’ve requested, that we received the majority of them from local governments,” said Scott Guira, founder and president of Polk Pride. “It’s disappointing that there are some officials within our local governments that don’t believe that including everybody in our community is important. That’s why we’re here to continue to change that.”

Mixed responses in Polk

Polk Pride, formed in 2015, stages a series of events each June, the most prominent of which is Pride in the Park, a gathering in Lakeland’s Munn Park billed as suitable for all families.

The past two decades have seen a dramatic rise in visibility and acceptance for LGBTQ people in the United States, a period marked by the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide and the widespread embrace of Pride Month in corporate branding and messages. Over the past year or two, though, criticism has grown louder, at least partly in reaction to the push for transgender rights.

Fox News, a prominent conservative news outlet, has regularly reported on the backlash against LGBTQ pride expressions, including statements by “Sesame Street” and the U.S. Navy, a pride event at an elementary school and promotions by Target and other retailers.

Scott Guira, front, president of Polk Pride, received a certificate as Winter Haven Mayor Brad Dantzler issued a proclamation declaring June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month at the May 22 City Commission meeting. Shown with Guira are, from left, Commissioner Brian Yates, Commissioner L. Tracy Mercer, Dantzler and Commissioner Nathaniel Birdsong.© Provided by City of Winter Haven

In Polk County, Winter Haven was the first city this year to issue a proclamation, doing so at its May 22 City Commission meeting. The city has released such statements each year since 2016, Guira said.

City Manager T. Michael Stavres read the proclamation, which was signed by Mayor Brad Dantzler. The statement said that members of LGBTQ+ communities “still face ongoing discrimination based on their innate status, resulting in immeasurably human tragedy, loss of life, community isolation and abuse.”

The proclamation was offered in “recognition and praise of those in our community who constantly fight the battle for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, race, color, creed, ethnic origin or religion.”

Guira attended the meeting, wearing a black polo shirt bearing the “Polk Pride” logo with a rainbow swirl.

“I just want to thank you all very much for consistently offering this proclamation every year,” Guira said at the meeting. “Especially at a time right now when there’s so much question about how we’re going to treat each other equally and kindly and fairly, I really appreciate the commission standing up and standing firm that they are going to continue to embrace everybody in the community.”

Lakeland issued a proclamation Monday at its City Commission meeting, along with recognition of Juneteenth, Airbag Recall Repair Month and World Vitiligo Month, which draws attention to a disease that causes loss of skin color in patches. Though the city has offered LGBTQ Pride proclamations since 2015, the matter became contentious last year when Lakeland Christian School reportedly pressured Mayor Bill Mutz to leave its board of directors over his allowing the proclamations to occur.

Cities reverse course

Among the cities rejecting Polk Pride’s request for proclamations, at least two — Auburndale and Lake Wales — have provided such statements in the past.

That practice ended last year in Lake Wales, following the election of Jack Hilligoss as mayor. Hilligoss, a pastor of an evangelical church, ordered a proclamation removed from the agenda of a City Commission meeting after the city clerk had added it. That break from tradition provoked a stream of criticism at meetings, with some citizens accusing Hilligoss of imposing his religious views on the entire city.

Guira, a Lakeland resident, submitted a request on behalf of Polk Pride by email to the city on April 13 and followed up two weeks later. Tammy James, a Lake Wales resident, made a separate request on May 9.

Hilligoss responded to both by email, explaining why he would not approve a proclamation. The mayor listed Lake Wales’ criteria for proclamations, adopted by the City Commission last year.

The city issues proclamations for public campaigns to raise awareness “of issues pertinent to the physical safety and well-being” of citizens and to honor public service by residents, acts of heroism by civil servants, to recognize honors or achievement of citizens and to acknowledge “the history and achievements of various ethnic groups which are a part of the Lake Wales community.”

“‘LGBTQ Pride Month’ meets none of the criteria for a city proclamation stated above,” Hilligoss wrote.

He added that the city does not offer proclamations for “matters of political or social controversy, ideological or religious beliefs, or individual convictions” or anything suggesting an official position on a matter under consideration “or a political, religious, or social issue.

Hilligoss wrote that a Pride Month proclamation “promotes and imposes an ideology upon all Lake Wales citizens in the name of their City Government. That is an inappropriate action for any Municipal Government to take.”

Over the past year or so, Lake Wales has issued proclamations for Black History Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month, Public Works Week, Florida Water Professionals Month, Responsible Fatherhood Month and to honor the Ancient Order of Hibernians, among other causes. Hilligoss has denied requests for proclamations to honor a local pastor and his wife and for Equal Pay Day.

Auburndale had offered LGBTQ Pride proclamations the past two years but denied the request from Polk Pride this year, Guira said. Auburndale Mayor Dorothea Taylor Bogert declined to explain why she did so.

“It’s a decision I made to not sign the proclamation under the authority I’m given under the city charter,” she said.

Guira noted that Frostproof, which denied his request for an LGBTQ Pride proclamation, voted to proclaim “Donald J. Trump Week” in February 2021. Frostproof Mayor Jon Albert did not respond to a request for comment made through the city staff.

Commissioner: I’m protecting grandkids

Polk County’s criteria for proclamations, last amended in April 2022, says the statements should recognize a period “that holds local, statewide or national significance or serves an educational purpose for a significant number of Polk County residents.” If a request meets the criteria, the communications department adds it to the consent agenda, and it is reviewed by the county attorney’s office and then goes to the county manager’s office, said Mianne Nelson, a county spokesperson.

County commissioners consider the requests with staff in agenda review sessions held the Friday before a regular meeting.

Combee said Tuesday that he had raised objections to the LGBTQ+ Pride proclamation during the agenda session, which is not livestreamed or recorded for video, as board meetings are. No members of the public spoke on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting.

Combee said the proclamation was “headed to a place that I don’t want to go, and I think many others don’t want to go.” He mentioned a recent cover photo of the digital edition of Glamour UK featuring Logan Brown, a pregnant transgender man.

“I want to protect as many people as I can from that,” Combee said. “I want to protect my grandkids. I’m thinking there will come a day, if I don’t, they will look back and say, ‘What was Granddaddy thinking?’ ”

Combee mocked the LGBTQ+ acronym, sometimes expanded to LGBTQIA, for “intersex” and “asexual” or “allies.”

“When you look at — it’s actually kind of shortened on the agenda — I was trying to understand this in the last week, but you got the ‘LBGTQQIP2SAA-plus,’ ” Combee said. “And I don’t know what all that means; I have no idea. So for me to celebrate or proclaim something to be good or OK, or embrace it, when I have no idea what it all means, I’m just not interested in doing it.”

Braswell and Wilson supported Combee’s opposition. Wilson suggested that approving the proclamation would detract from the consideration of more significant issues, such as flooding problems mentioned during Tuesday’s public comments.

“If we don’t agree with everything that is out there, then we get bad consequences and people talk about us, how bad we are,” Wilson said. “And we say, ‘OK, we’re just going to slide this under the table.’ … But I’m going along with Neil on this. I’ve had about enough of this. I don’t think it’s our place to be doing whatever to promote this.”

Commissioner Martha Santiago said she had no problem with leaving the proclamation on the consent agenda to be approved.

“I have constituents that I must respect, whether I agree with them or not, but I must respect what they feel,” she said. “And I think all of us have been affected one way or the other with something like this.”

Commissioner George Lindsey said he had no objection to the proclamation, reading a portion of it aloud.

“There’s nothing offensive about that to me,” Lindsey said. “So, we make it as divisive as we choose to make it divisive, or we can make it as homogeneous as we need to.”

No commissioner made a motion to approve issuing a proclamation, and the matter ended there. Combee suggested a change in the process of approving proclamations, requiring each one to be sponsored by a commissioner. Lindsey said the commission could discuss that at a future meeting.

Guira expressed disappointment, saying that Polk County had granted each request for a proclamation since 2017.

“As if refusing the proclamation was not enough, the disrespectful comments made by Commissioners Combee, Braswell and Wilson prove this decision was based solely on personal biases against and limited understanding of their LGBTQ+ constituents,” Guira said in a text message.

No special months needed?

Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative political group based in Polk County, has expressed opposition to the practice of municipal proclamations supporting LGBTQ pride. Hilligoss is affiliated with the organization.

James Judge, a national spokesman for CDF, said cities should not single out any group for special recognition.

“Can you imagine if we had a heterosexual Christian Pride Month, what people would think, and what would be said on the other side?” Judge said. “We’re not asking to receive special favor. We just want to be treated equally. And that means also being respectful that our beliefs and values are not aligned with the pride movement.”

Judge said the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values and that the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. He said the foundational texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all describe homosexuality sinful.

The U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment of an official state religion. And many Christians support LGBTQ rights and consider non-traditional sexuality and gender expression compatible with their faith.

Judge said anyone who opposes declarations of LGBTQ pride risks being branded as hateful.

“That’s the go-to (description) for anybody who speaks out about this,” he said. “You’re labeled a bigot or a homophobe. It’s always a resort to name-calling. I’m not bigoted or hateful because I don’t think that we should all be forced to celebrate this month. I think that we shouldn’t have a special month for anyone.”

Kerri McCoy, vice president of Polk Pride and the leader of PFLAG of Polk County and Lakeland Youth Alliance, a support group for LGBTQ youngsters, offered a different perspective on the denials of proclamation requests.

“I think it’s unfortunate because — believe it or not — LGBT people live in every community,” she said. “So I think it’s sad when a city doesn’t want to recognize a month for LGBTQ people. It’s just one way of letting people know that they’re wanted and accepted here. Or the opposite, if they’re not going to do or say anything for pride.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk County Commission nixes LGBTQ Pride proclamation. Approaches vary in local cities

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