Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination earlier this week. It was the end of his less-than-year-long presidential bid, in which he has repeatedly attacked the LGBTQ+ community in the hopes of scoring political points with Republicans.
When she saw the news that DeSantis was out of the race, Floridian SimoneChriss said she felt a brief moment of relief.
“Thank God he’s not going to be at the helm of our country,” she recalled thinking.
But Chriss, a civil rights lawyer at Southern Legal Counsel in Gainesville, is also worried about the governor turning his undivided attention back home. “The other side of me was like, ‘He’s not distracted now and campaigning and traveling and focused on the presidency. He’s going to have all of his volatility and hostility and whatever motivates him just to laser focus back on Florida.’”
The last year of campaigning has offered a window into what the future might look like for queer and trans Americans, as a record-breaking number of bills to restrict their access to public spaces and services have been filed in Florida and in statehouses across the country.
DeSantis built his extremely online campaign in part on promises to bring the anti-“woke” agenda he had pushed in Florida to a national stage, making fearmongering attacks on parents of trans kids and highlighting his record of restricting LGBTQ+ rights in Florida. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, his campaign even shared a cringeworthy, since-deleted video that highlighted the governor’s efforts to curtail the rights of LGBTQ+ people. This strategy, along with DeSantis’ general awkwardness and hostility to the press, failed spectacularly.
But even with his presidential aspirations ended, advocates and trans Floridians are still worried about other harms DeSantis could inflict on the LGBTQ+ community. In May 2023 alone, DeSantis signed six anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Florida, including bills restricting access to gender-affirming care for youth and many adults, barring trans people from using public restrooms and allowing universities to gut funding and education on race and gender studies.
These laws have created widespread fear, prompting hundreds to leaveFloridainordertofindgender-affirmingcare for their children or themselves. Scores more Floridians, like many of Chriss’ clients, cannot afford to move, whether due to their jobs, the financial toll, or simply because Florida is their home.
Chriss herself spent much of last year sounding the alarms about DeSantis stocking the state agencies that regulate health care with officials that were sympathetic to his anti-trans agenda: DeSantis’ appointments made Florida’s state boards of medicine the first to ban trans health care for youth at the end of 2022, which helped grease the wheels for a similar ban to pass in the state’s legislature last spring.
“I don’t think we can take much more,” Chriss said. “I don’t think the trans community here can take many more blows. It’s terrifying to think that it could actually get worse given how bad it already is.”
Last May, she was sitting in trial in Tallahassee as a judge deliberated over the case she was arguing, Dekker v. Weida. The case challenged a Florida health code that blocked transgender Medicaid recipients’ coverage for gender-affirming care. Chriss’ phone began to buzz with messages from colleagues and friends.
One of the new laws DeSantis had just signed, S.B. 254, barred trans youth and adult Medicaid recipients from accessing gender-affirming care, enshrining in law what had previously been a more easily-overturned agency regulation. In one swift moment, it rendered Chriss’ case meaningless. The new ban also created new administrative and financial burdens for patients, who would now be forced to meet with a doctor in person in order to receive prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy — instead of using telehealth, or seeing a nurse practitioner, even though they administer 80% of trans care in the state.
After leaving trial that evening, Chriss spent a few sleepless nights in her hotel room as she filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to block S.B. 254 and amended her complaint on the Dekker case.
“It was just the most insane time,” Chriss said. “I felt so helpless and hopeless because I was challenging two out of so many laws that had just gone into effect that were literally eroding the ability of trans folks to just exist in this state.”
Chriss has represented LGBTQ+ clients at Southern Legal Counsel since 2016. Back then, the majority of her work involved helping trans people change their gender marker and name on identification documents — an increasingly crucial step, as civil rights groups worried about the impact of the Trump administration on federal LGBTQ+ protections.
But now, over the last year of DeSantis’ crusade against LGBTQ+ people and people of color, Chriss said she is the busiest she has ever been, missing holidays and time with family as she prepares for numerous federal challenges to the state’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, alongside other national legal groups.
She speaks with parents every day who want to help affirm their child’s gender identity but feel hopeless and disempowered by the state’s hostility towards trans kids.
“They’ve just had their legs cut out from under them by a state that pretends it cares about parents,” Chriss said.
The health care ban has forced some trans adults to turn to alternative, potentially dangerous options.
Corinne Mariposa, a gardener in Miami who runs a seed bank, lost access to her hormones last spring the day after DeSantis signed the health care ban, because a nurse practitioner had been writing her prescription for it. For the following few months, she turned to the black market to continue taking estrogen.
“I never stopped because that would be a death sentence for me,” Mariposa told HuffPost.
She was able to resume care at her former clinic a few months later, after getting an appointment with a doctor, as required by the new law. But for the months that she was forced to take a do-it-yourself approach, she went without the routine blood work that she would normally receive at the clinic and didn’t know whether her estrogen levels were in a healthy range.
But Mariposa has friends who are still using black-market drugs. Appointments with doctors are significantly more expensive than those with nurse practitioners in a state already facing a doctor shortage.
On top of rising housing costs in a city still rebuilding from pandemic shutdowns, Mariposa said that DeSantis’ anti-trans agenda has rattled her queer and trans community in Miami.
“We all had to scatter,” she said of the months after the health care ban went into effect.
“It’s harder to make it work and we’re leaving… like this hurts culture. Where is the queer culture in Miami now?” she continued.
Beyond restrictions on health care, other anti-LGBTQ+ laws have affected Floridians in troubling, sometimes unexpected ways. Chriss highlighted the state’s bathroom bill, which requires public buildings to have bathrooms and changing facilities separated by sex or offer a unisex option. The law made headlines last year for making it a misdemeanor trespassing offense for anyone to use a bathroom that does not align with their “reproductive role.”
While there hasn’t been much enforcement, Chriss says enforcement isn’t the point. “We’re seeing exactly what the state intended, which was to put vague, ambiguous laws with undefined terms with these scary penalties.”
Even without arrests, in practice many of Chriss’ clients who are trans kids often forgo eating or drinking before school so they don’t have to use the bathroom, where they might be harassed or policed.
“That is so unhealthy,” she said. “They’re hungry and thirsty and not meeting their basic bodily needs.”
For Mariposa’s own mental health and wellbeing, she has intentionally avoided wading into politics. Last year she ran a stall at a local farmers market, inviting strangers to ask her about her experiences as a trans woman, which she hoped might put a human face to the people harmed by bills like S.B. 254. But by the end of 2023, Mariposa said it was too much; the questions were invasive and sometimes hateful. “It was just brutal,” she said.
Mariposa knows eventually she too will join the throngs of people fleeing the state — she dreams of someday buying a piece of land and gardening full-time. Until then, when she’s overwhelmed by the realities of what DeSantis has turned her home state into, she grabs her bike and pedals out to a park by Biscayne Bay.
“I go to the park and watch the manatees, especially this time of year,” she said. “It’s just beautiful. Thank God there’s nature here, especially when there’s not as much community. It’s just small groups now, and the culture in Miami is really beaten down.”