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Ron DeSantis’s Anti-LGBTQ Regime Is Crumbling

A court settlement has curtailed the “Don’t Say Gay” law while multiple anti-gay bills stall in the legislature.

Ron DeSantis frowns into the sun.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attends a press conference at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City in February.

If Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had a signature policy, it was “Don’t Say Gay.” The law, which prohibited discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, and was interpreted more broadly to remove LGBTQ books and students’ Pride flags from classrooms, burnished the governor’s national profile as he launched his failed run at the White House. His staff were so committed to defending the law, they launched conspiracy theories accusing anyone who opposed it of being “groomers”—i.e., sexual predators. Now, two years after it was signed, a courtroom settlement has determined that students and teachers are allowed to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity after all. This result, advocates involved in the suit say, has “successfully dismantled the most harmful impacts of the law.” 

Is it possible that the DeSantis’s reign of terror on queer and trans Floridians is coming apart? While the DeSantis administration immediately issued a press release calling the settlement a “win,” in that the law has not been struck down entirely, there’s no denying that its scope is now severely curtailed; the settlement stipulates that only formal instruction of gender and sexuality has been restricted. And the anti-queer and anti-trans lawmakers in the Florida state legislature should see this as a double rebuke: When their session closed last week, 21 of the 22 anti-LGBTQ bills they had proposed were effectively dead.

Certainly, the governor’s own self-aggrandizing pose as the last man standing between his state and all those he chastises as “woke” has taken a hit. Following the collapse of his presidential campaign, the governor’s return to Tallahassee could have freed up more time for him to focus on his anti-LGBTQ platform. But perhaps he’s too late. Even before the legislative session had ended, Carlos Guillermo Smith, senior policy adviser at Equality Florida and a former state representative, told me, “It appears that right-wing lawmakers who followed DeSantis off a cliff may have been the last ones to get the memo that Floridians are tired of this culture-war bullshit.”

With “Don’t Say Gay,” DeSantis and the Florida state legislature inspired similar bills all over the nation. More than a dozen states introduced their own copycat versions before the Florida law had even gone into effect. Alabama got there first. It had been 21 years since such a law had been passed in any state, Kate Sosin at The 19th reported; the quick regression was even more striking given that the same governor who signed Alabama’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in 2022 had just the year before signed a law removing similar prohibitive language from a state sex education law. By 2024, according to the Movement Advancement Project, or MAP, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and North Carolina had passed their own versions too. 

Common to much of the new wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation is vague language, leading those who would face penalties (and the lawyers advising them) to take a conservative path to life under the laws: Don’t do anything that could risk violating the law, even if it might not be clearly spelled out. These “Don’t Say Gay” laws opened up opportunities to police classroom behavior similarly. It was this vagueness that the law’s opponents seized on in their legal challenge. As one of the parents involved in the suit told The Tampa Bay Times this week, “The law was so vague that people stayed away from everything.” Of the settlement, she said, it “really defines what is not allowed, and everything else that is allowed. It’s going to change students’ experience.” On the other hand, the fact that this had to be fought in court at all could be considered a testament to how well these laws work—taking up advocates’ time and energy fighting policies that are pretty clearly illegal, and doing so as the political environment accompanying the law makes queer and trans people’s identities a point of debate.

While the Florida law was being challenged in court, it was reshaping the lives of queer and trans adults and kids alike in the state, in ways that can’t necessarily be recovered. More than half of 113 LGBTQ+ parents in Florida surveyed by the Williams Institute in 2022 had considered moving to another state because of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, as detailed in a report published in January 2023—16.5 percent had taken steps to leave Florida, and 21 percent said they were less out about their own identity. 

Though DeSantis and his legislative allies ought to be chastened by this settlement, as well as the failure of other bills in the legislature, the fallout of these laws in Florida and elsewhere is dangerous and will last for years. School hate crimes have quadrupled in states that have recently passed anti-LGBTQ laws, as was uncovered in a new investigation this week by The Washington Post. “The number of anti-LGBTQ+ school hate crimes serious enough to be reported to local police more than doubled nationwide between 2015-2019 and 2021-2022,” reporters wrote. “The rise is steeper in the 28 states that have passed laws curbing the rights of transgender students at school and restricting how teachers can talk about issues of gender and sexuality.” 

Then too, while the DeSantis agenda targeting queer and trans Floridians may be faltering and may be unpopular, he could not have gotten the agenda this far if it were his alone. There will be others waiting to take up the baton. Florida has shown how far some states will go to make life unlivable for queer and trans people, and it’s too soon to know whether this agenda is really crumbling. As LGBTQ+ Floridians and their allies celebrate a limited victory, a lot of uncomfortable questions remain—not just about how to fight off DeSantis and how to be resilient but how to prevent another DeSantis from ever getting this far.