WARNING: This story contains language some readers may find offensive.
Any time Will Larkins leaves the house, the soon-to-be college student has a long, hard think about what to wear.
In the suburban Orlando community of Winter Park in central Florida, Larkins says that at times it can feel unsafe living authentically as someone who identifies as gender fluid.
“The threat of violence is very real, very scary,” said Larkins, who uses they-them pronouns. In some public spaces, they say appearing “too queer” can be risky.
“I was walking with my sister down my own street, and a car pulled up next to me, rolled down the window and someone screamed out the window: ‘F–k you, f—–t.'”
While being bullied is not new for Larkins, 18, they say new anti-LGBTQ laws in the state have emboldened bigots.
“I’m not used to having the government back up my bullies.”
Life has become harder for Larkins under Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
He’s signed multiple laws restricting LGBTQ rights, banned educational programs on racism, ended access to abortion after the six-week mark of pregnancy and made it easier for people to carry guns.
But DeSantis has also been credited with creating livelihood-saving pro-business policies, allowing the state to economically thrive during the pandemic.
Now that DeSantis is officially running to become the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential election in 2024, voters can examine his time as Florida’s governor to get a better sense of his priorities. And while his campaign is just beginning, and he’s yet to roll out his formal policy pitches, Florida serves as an initial blueprint for how he operates.
In this moment, in Florida, DeSantis is widely seen as a polarizing figure, eliciting a strong response from both critics and supporters.
A different COVID strategy
DeSantis has been able to bring about so much change, at such a fast pace, for a fairly simple reason: he and his party won big in Florida’s 2022 midterm elections.
DeSantis earned a second term as governor by beating his nearest opponent by nearly 20 points. Voters elected enough Republicans to give him and the party a super majority in the state house, which makes it a lot easier to pass laws.
“I would say the reason for success on his re-election bid was absolutely how he handled COVID, and how he opened the stores as quickly as he did,” said John Louizes, owner of Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop, a small chain of candy stores in popular tourist areas.
Louizes is a third-generation candy maker who also owns a factory in Daytona Beach that produces saltwater taffy and ice cream.
“He definitely saved our business,” Louizes said of the governor.
During the pandemic, Louzies defied the odds by growing his company. He went from four candy shops across the state to 10.
Demand surged after DeSantis lifted COVID-19 restrictions and tourists rushed back to the state. Despite intense criticism from public health leaders, Louzies thinks the governor made the correct call.
“Back then, it was the crazy thing to do … and it ended up being that he was right. To be on the right side of what I feel is the right side of history on this one felt really good.”
In past elections, Louizes said he’s usually supported Democrats. But in 2022, he decided to back DeSantis, the Republican, because of his pro-business policies.
“It’s hard not to pull for someone like that … someone who did such a solid for you.”
‘I am proud he is from Dunedin’
On the other side of the state, along the central Gulf Coast, there are more voters who feel the same way.
“Governor DeSantis is an individual who has been very successful at everything he’s done,” said John Tornga, the vice-mayor of Dunedin.
The city has deep Canadian connections and is perhaps best-known as the place where the Toronto Blue Jays play their spring training games.
It also happens to be where DeSantis is from.
“I oftentimes don’t like to use the word proud,” said Tornga. “But I am proud that he is from Dunedin. Who wouldn’t be? Who couldn’t be?”
Tornga would not explicitly say whom he plans to support for president because his city council position is non-partisan. But he thinks DeSantis is doing a good job managing Florida’s finances and keeping the state safe through his immigration and security policies.
Any criticism of the governor’s social policies, he said, is typical political pushback.
“There are some laws that may get put into place that some people will disagree with. That’s always going to be the case.”
Fleeing the state
It is a mistake to dismiss concerns over Florida’s laws targeting marginalized communities, according to a wide range of DeSantis’s critics.
Partly in response to changes about how Black history is taught in schools and the banning of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) issued a formal advisory against travelling to the state.
“Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of colour and LGBTQ+ individuals,” the statement says, citing DeSantis’s “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”
Some members of the LGBTQ community say they’re ready to leave the state for good.
DeSantis has passed a ban on gender-affirming health care for trans kids and new restrictions for adults. Patients over the age of 18 are required to seek written consent from two medical oversight boards in order to obtain some elements of gender affirming care.
He also signed a law allowing medical practitioners to refuse care on moral or religious grounds, new restrictions around bathroom use and made it easier to ban books with LGBTQ content.
DeSantis also expanded what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which eliminates lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation in all grades of public school.
“I have plans to move as soon as I can, but it sucks because Florida is my home…. I don’t want to leave my family behind, but it’s just not safe for someone like me,” said Dylan Orrange, a 20-year old from Orlando who identifies as non-binary and uses they-them pronouns.
CBC News spoke with Orrange and their partner Matty Joseph in front of the memorial at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. In 2016, a gunman shot and killed 49 people at the gay nightclub. It stands as one of the worst acts of violence against the LGBTQ community in U.S. history.
“Seeing what [DeSantis] did with Florida, we don’t know what’s going to happen if he has the power over the whole United States,” Joseph said.
Florida’s largest employer, the Walt Disney Company, has become one of the governor’s loudest critics.
After being pushed by employees to speak out, Disney irked DeSantis by criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It’s triggered a back-and-forth legal fight, with massive economic consequences.
Disney announced it’s cancelling plans to invest more than $1 billion in a new campus, which would have created 2,000 jobs.
“Florida needs Disney maybe more than Disney needs Florida,” said Richard Foglesong, a political science professor at Rollins College in Winter Park and the author of Married to the Mouse, a book on Disney’s relationship with Florida.
Foglesong said there’s a lot to learn from DeSantis’s fight with Disney. Mainly, it shows that he’s willing to abandon traditional Republican positioning, which helped carry him to overwhelming victory in 2022, in favour of a divisive fight.
“Historically, it has been the pro-business party in favour of low taxes and reducing government regulation … that is really what Walt Disney World represents,” Foglesong said.
“But he’s pursuing a different strategy, a culture war strategy. We’ll see whether that works out for him or not.”
Source : https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/florida-desantis-critics-supporters-1.6854959?cmp=rss