Anti-LGBT+ ‘attacks’ from Ron DeSantis spark statewide student walkout in Florida

College students across the state of Florida walked out of their classrooms on 23 February to protest Governor Ron DeSantis and his administration’s agenda targeting LGBT+ people in the state and on its campuses, including a requirement for state universities to submit information about students and other patients who sought gender-affirming care at their facilities.

The statewide walkout demanded that the administration end its “attacks” against LGBT+ students and staff at Florida universities, which the governor’s opponents have linked to his sweeping agenda to eliminate access to gender transition healthcare and transform public education in the state.

Protests followed the governor’s recent directive that public entities such as state-run colleges submit aggregate medical information for anyone who sought gender-affirming care services at their hospitals and clinics. At least six state universities have complied with the request, according to Insider.

Thursday’s Stand for Freedom walkouts and “Can’t Ban Us” protests – efforts supported by newly elected US Rep Maxwell Frost, several state lawmakers and LGBT+ advocacy group Equality Florida, among others – accused the governor’s office of “hijacking” the state’s schools and implementing policies that “marginalise” LGBT+ students and students of colour.

“He says we are being indoctrinated by wokeness, but we say he is using us in his narrative, and destroying our schools to achieve his vision,” according to a statement from Stand for Freedom. “We are Florida’s students and citizens. It is our education that is being tarnished and our schools being discredited.”

A memorandum issued by the state’s budget director Chris Spencer to 12 state public universities in January requested the number and ages of their patients.

“Our office has learned that several state universities provide services to persons suffering from gender dysphoria,” the letter states. “On behalf of the Governor, I hereby request that you respond to the enclosed inquiries related to such services.”

Following the revelation of that initial request, students at the University of South Florida collected more than 2,600 signatures demanding that the university reject the governor’s order. A statement from USF to WUSF said that the university “has an obligation to be responsive to requests from our elected officials” but will “not provide information that identifies an individual patient or violates patient privacy laws”.

The memo asked universities to “provide the number of encounters for sex-reassignment treatment or where such treatment was sought” as well as data for students referred to other facilities. It also requires that the universities identify the ages of patients who received hormone therapy or affirming surgeries, regardless of whether they were 18 or older. It requests that the universities protect the identities of patients in their responses.

Andy Pham with the University of South Florida’s Trans+ Student Union told WUSF that students did not consent to this data being sent and fears that the information from the surveys will be used to shutter services for LGBT+ students and others who rely on public facilities for their care.

“I think another narrative that the state is pushing is that transgender identity is inherently sexual or inherently perverse or predatory,” he said. “I think that’s interesting. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how to answer such vitriol, you know? …. “Medical professionals who treat us understand this is necessary … If I had colorectal cancer, for example, would you want an orthopedic surgeon to treat that?”

Students also protested the governor’s proposal that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature cut funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, part of a slate of higher education plans from the governor’s office now in the hands of state lawmakers.

“This is basically a component of the administration within universities that are imposing a political agenda, sometimes things like critical race theory,” Governor DeSantis said during a press conference on 1 February. “The bureaucracies are hostile to academic freedom, and really they constitute a drain on resources and end up contributing, certainly around the country, to higher costs as the bureaucracies metastasize.”

A statewide union representing roughly 25,000 university faculty members condemned the proposal and other “extremist, authoritarian attacks from Florida’s executive and legislative branches.”

“Real defense of viewpoint diversity means defending the rights of everyone, regardless of their political or ideological beliefs, to live, work, teach and thrive in Florida’s higher education system,” United Faculty of Florida said in a statement.

The protests also echo the walkouts at high school campuses across the state in 2022 as the state legislature advanced the DeSantis-backed Parental Rights in Education Act, which opponents condemned as the “Don’t Say Gay” law over fears that its broad language – and enforcement through civil actions against teachers and schools for perceived violations – will chill classroom speech and how students learn about LGBT+ people, history and events, or their families, or themselves, and raises questions about how students can discuss any of those issues without potential lawsuits.

At least 38 similar measures have been proposed in 20 other states in the wake of that law.

University of Central Florida students and supporters join protests against the DeSantis administration on 23 February. (AP)
University of Central Florida students and supporters join protests against the DeSantis administration on 23 February. (AP)

Governor DeSantis also has led high-profile efforts to block advanced high school courses on American American studies and install conservative trustees to the state’s most progressive higher-education institution, known as a haven for LGBT+ people in the state.

The governor’s tight grip on the state’s education policies joins parallel efforts from his administration and right-wing activist groups that critics warn will restrict or eliminate access to gender-affirming care and radically reshape how students learn about history and social studies – replacing honest instruction on race, gender and civil rights with disputed materials and rhetoric that opponents have linked to the American right’s broader campaign to undermine public education and erase LGBT+ people from public life.

Florida state Rep Anna Eskamani, who also is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida, joined the protests on Thursday

She told The Tampa Bay Times that the DeSantis administration’s proposals are personal to her; the state’s university system allowed her father to send her and her twin sister to college at the same time as a single parent, while college credits and scholarship programmes made that higher education affordable.

“Every culture war is a class war,” she told the newspaper. “Some people will have access to critical thought and some won’t. We’re going to be left with this state-censored option.”