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Florida’s Duval County Public Schools censors LGBTQ visibility

Duval County Public Schools slammed for removing ‘Safe Space’ stickers by Equality Florida as schools across state return to classes

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Screenshot/WJCT PBS Jacksonville, Florida

JACKSONVILLE – As Duval County Public School’s K-12 students begin their first day of school Monday, they are returning to classrooms that have been stripped bare of visible support for LGBTQ students.

Last week, Duval County Public School’s leadership held an emergency meeting with all of the school district’s principals in which they were directed to remove all posters, wall decorations, and stickers that support and affirm LGBTQ students, the latest in a wave of what LGBTQ+ advocates say are censorship efforts in the wake of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law (HB 1557) taking effect across the state.

Equality Florida — a statewide civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community — published a statement criticizing Duval County Public Schools officials for putting out guidance to principals that advised the removal of the rainbow signage.

“The district’s censorship of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments sends a dangerous message to young people,” said Joe Saunders, Equality Florida Senior Political Director.

“In tearing down rainbow Safe Space stickers and tossing inclusive posters into the trash, Duval County Public Schools is telling students that there is something inherently wrong with LGBTQ people — and telegraphing to LGBTQ youth that they should remain hidden. Despite false assurances from Republican proponents of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law that its scope would be narrow and its impacts limited to grades K-3, we are witnessing sweeping effects of this intentionally-vague policy across the state, with broad censorship of LGBTQ people being applied to every grade level.”

The Florida Times-Union newspaper reported Duval Schools officials say the removal is one facet of a district-wide rebrand of its existing “All In For Safe Schools” campaign that will better comply with the new Parental Rights in Education Act, which became law in July. Equality Florida calls the gesture “censorship.”

The move from Duval County Public Schools comes as schools across the state grapple with implementing the Don’t Say LGBTQ law. Already, the law has resulted in the banning of books and stigmatizing of families in counties across the state. Exactly what advocates say they warned about since the law’s inception. This decision by Duval County Public Schools to censor LGBTQ inclusion across the district has angered the community.

It also comes as LGBTQ youth, the very students now seeing their identities scrubbed from Duval classrooms, continue facing higher risks of depression, anxiety, bullying, discrimination, and suicidality than their peers.

A recent study by the Trevor Project showed a staggering majority of LGBTQ youth sharing that recent policy battles like that over HB 1557 and the subsequent impacts have had a negative impact on their mental health.

“We are in the process of rebranding the ‘All In for Safe Schools’ program,” district spokesman Tracy Pierce told the Times-Union. “The purpose of the rebranding is to send a clear message to all students that the support available through the program is open to them and not limited to any specific student population.”

“School districts are charged with doing everything in their power to mitigate the harms of HB 1557 and ensure that every student is protected in school and every family is respected. Duval County Public Schools should reverse course and recommit to cultivating an environment that is inclusive of and celebrates all students,” said Equality Florida’s Saunders.

In another circumstance of Florida’s newly minted ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law’s negative impact, last month a 12-min training video aimed at teaching middle and high school students how to prevent bullying and support their LGBTQ+ peers in Duval County Public Schools has been removed from student access.

Jacksonville Today journalist Claire Heddles reported at the time that besides the video, the district planned to dramatically reduce a LGBTQ+ support guide.

The video is now inaccessible and, in response to questions from Jacksonville Today, Duval Schools District spokesperson Tracy Pierce said, “The materials you referenced have been removed for legal review to ensure the content complies with recent state legislation.” 

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Largest school district in Florida rejects LGBTQ+ history month

School security had to intervene when the crowd got rowdy after Mendez, 17, said she supported the recognition of LGBTQ History Month

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Audience members react with rancor during debate on LGBTQ proclamation (Screenshot/YouTube WPLG)

MIAMI – DADE COUNTY – The Miami Dade School Board rejected, by an 8-1 vote, a proclamation recognizing October as LGBTQ History Month in the district. This proclamation mirrored a nearly identical proclamation approved by the board with a 7-1 vote last year.

The board’s lone non-voting student advisor Andrea S. Pita Mendez, told Miami ABC News affiliate WPLG that she was very scared during the meeting. School security had to intervene when the crowd got rowdy after Mendez, 17, said she supported the recognition of LGBTQ History Month after talking to her peers.

“Our students want this to pass,” said Mendez.

School Board member Luisa Santos, who represents District 9, told WPLG ABC 10 News she was outraged by the way the adults who were in the room disrespected Mendez. Some of the adults booed the high school student who was attending the second meeting of her term.

The measure, introduced by Board Member Lucia Baez Geller, would have symbolically declared October LGBTQ History Month in Miami Dade County Public Schools and included a request to district staff to explore ways to support 12th grade civics teachers interested in including landmark Supreme Court cases on marriage equality and nondiscrimination in their course work.

During the public comments, many of the statements made were decidedly homophobic and transphobic with emphasis on religious freedoms and parental rights. Amid the mention of religion WPLG noted that MaryBeth Loretta, a clinician at The Alliance for LGBTQ+ Youth, asked the members to support the recognition “like Christ would do.”

The Miami-Dade School Board’s majority during the debate made statements that indicated that the vote to reject was due to seeing the proclamation being in conflict with the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law.

Eulalia Maria Jimenez, the chair of Moms for Liberty Miami-Dade, asked the school board members to vote against the recognition and said it equated to “indoctrination.”

“Tonight’s vote is one more proof point of the sweeping chilling effect of Florida’s discriminatory Don’t Say LGBTQ law and the toxic anti-LGBTQ environment being fostered by Governor DeSantis,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders.

“The Don’t Say LGBTQ law is rooted in the same dangerous tropes about LGBTQ people and baseless attacks on teachers that were on full display in public comments at last night’s hearing. We are shocked and alarmed to see this reversal from the Miami Dade School Board. This is a horrible signal to send to the thousands of LGBTQ youth in Miami-Dade County public schools. Voting down this simple recognition of our LGBTQ community makes our schools less safe.”

In a statement released Thursday, Equality Florida, the largest statewide LGBTQ equality rights advocacy non-profit thanked School Board Member Lucia Baez-Geller, who brought the LGBTQ History Proclamation [and] “stood strong in the face of unprecedented vitriol from extremists last night.”

“Nearly every board member opposing the resolution voiced their belief that the proclamation violated the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law, further evidence of the sweeping censorship of this law. Across the state, the law has fueled bans on books and “safe space” stickers and has led to dangerous policies targeting transgender students. Miami Dade County Public Schools have a long history of leading on common sense policies that include, recognize, and protect LGBTQ youth. Last night, board members abandoned that mission in service to anti-LGBTQ fear, misinformation, and a governor obsessed with a future presidential run,” the statement added.

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Christian school asks LGBTQ children ‘to leave immediately’

“One’s biological sex must be affirmed- no attempts should be made to physically change, alter, or disagree with one’s biological gender”

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Grace Christian School (Screenshot/YouTube NBC News)

VALRICO, Fla. — A private, religious school in Florida told parents LGBTQ children “will be asked to leave the school immediately” and called queer people “sinful” in a June email. 

In the June 6 email obtained by NBC News, Grace Christian School administrator Barry McKeen said LGBTQ people are “sinful in the sight of God and the church,” and ”students who are found participating in these lifestyles will be asked to leave the school immediately.”

He also likened LGBTQ “lifestyles” to “bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and pornography” while citing Bible verses.

In addition, the email said the school — located in Valrico, Fla., 20 miles east of Tampa — would only refer to students by the ”gender on their birth certificates.”

“We believe that God created mankind in His image: male (man) and female (woman), sexually different but with equal dignity,” McKeen wrote in the email, according to NBC News. 

He added: “Therefore, one’s biological sex must be affirmed and no attempts should be made to physically change, alter, or disagree with one’s biological gender — including, but not limited to, elective sex reassignment, transvestite, transgender, or non-binary gender fluid acts of conduct (Genesis 1:26-28).”

The Los Angeles Blade could not independently confirm the contents of the email but attempted to contact Grace Christian representatives. The school did not return the request.

McKeen responded to the NBC News article on Facebook, confirming Grace Christian does not allow students who are “homosexual or transgender” because it is “rooted in scriptures.”

“God has spoken on those issues, explicitly, aggressively, and we have had these policies in our school since day number one in the early 1970s,” said McKeen. “This is not new.”

McKeen also said the policy would stay. 

“We are not a hateful group of people, he said. “We don’t hate students who are of a particular persuasion.”

NBC News also reported the email played a role in one 16-year-old student, who is gay, transferring to a more accepting religious school. The outlet did not name the student or her mother, citing fear of harassment, 

“It’s not like my daughter goes around wearing rainbow flags or anything like that,” the teenager’s mother said. “But I’m not going to have her feel ashamed of herself for any reason.”

The student said she feels “normal” at the new school. 

NBC News’s reporting comes as state leaders are pushing for and passing laws aimed at limiting the rights of LGBTQ youth. Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill took effect on June 30, prompting confusion as teachers cautiously wait to see how the law will be interpreted and enforced. Attorneys general in 16 states have filed a lawsuit against the law.

It is also at least the second time this month a religious school has been accused of shunning the LGBTQ community, according to NBC News. In Louisiana, a Christian school asked a same-sex couple to find a new school for their child because of “lifestyle choices.”

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Florida prohibits Medicaid reimbursement for trans healthcare

Lambda Legal tells the LA Blade its “exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking”

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Photo Credit: Equality Florida

TALLAHASSEE – On Thursday, Florida officially joined the roster of conservative states whose Medicaid programs carve out coverage exemptions for transgender related healthcare, including gender-affirming therapies for young people. 

Against the guidance of mainstream medical opinion, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) ratified new rules prohibiting taxpayer reimbursement for puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures to treat gender dysphoria. 

“We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking,” wrote Carl Charles, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, in an emailed statement to The Los Angeles Blade. “Lambda Legal has secured victories on this issue in other states such as Alaska (Being v. Crum), and just this month in our case, Fain v. Crouch, in West Virginia.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) wrote in an emailed statement to The Blade that they were “disheartened” by AHCA’s finalization of rules blocking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming care: 

“The state’s interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care will negatively impact Floridians who are trying to live their lives as their true, healthiest selves. As pediatricians, our only goal is to work with families and provide our patients with the best evidence-based care possible. When necessary and appropriate, that includes gender-affirming care. The AAP and FCAAP will continue to stand up in support of all young people, including those who are transgender.”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return a request for comment in time for publication. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Also on Thursday, Florida’s AHCA inaccurately accused HHS and the AAP of misleading the public about the safety of transgender related healthcare, though it was not the first time the state’s health agency has butted up against its federal counterparts and associations of medical practitioners. 

AHCA previously issued a bulletin in April that prompted rebukes from groups including the Endocrine Society, which accused AHCA of spreading misinformation about healthcare treatments for transgender people, including youth. The bulletin’s contents also conflicted with official positions on these matters held by HHS. 

A coalition of legal advocacy organizations including Lambda Legal immediately condemned the AHCA’s latest move in a joint statement Thursday, writing: “Ignoring thousands of public comments and expert testimony, Florida’s AHCA has finalized a rule that will deny Medicaid coverage for all medically necessary gender-affirming care for both youth and adults. This discriminatory and medically unsound rule will take effect on August 21, 2022, putting transgender people in jeopardy of losing access to critical gender-affirming health care services.”

The statement also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “AHCA’s actions, at the behest of Governor DeSantis and his political appointees, are morally and legally wrong as well as medically and scientifically unsound. This rule represents a dangerous escalation in Governor DeSantis’s political zeal to persecute LGBTQ+ people in Florida, and particularly transgender youth.”

The Movement Advancement Project publishes a chart tracking state-by-state Medicaid coverage for transgender-related care, which is a patchwork of different exemptions and carveouts that generally maps onto the extent to which each leans conservative. 

Much like with other public health insurance programs like state employee health plans, discriminatory state Medicaid programs have often been the subject of litigation challenging them, in lawsuits that are often successful.

Nikole Parker, Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality in an emailed statement said:

“Just over one week from today, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, at the behest of Governor DeSantis, plans to strip thousands of vulnerable Floridians of their health care. Transgender people have been accessing gender-affirming care through Medicaid for years. That care is now being shut off by a state agency that has been corrupted, weaponized, and stacked with extremists by a governor desperate to fuel his own political ambitions.

Today, more than 9,000 transgender Floridians access care through Medicaid. On August 21, the state government will put  that care on the chopping block. As further evidence for his complete disregard for the health and well being of transgender Floridians, the DeSantis Administration has done nothing to quantify or assess the terrible impact this rule would have on the thousands of transgender people who rely on Medicaid for their care. The transgender community, like all people, shouldn’t have necessary, life-saving care stripped away by extremist politicians working overtime to stoke right-wing fervor. This brazen, politically-motivated attack is cruel, dangerous and puts the health of thousands at risk.”

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