Brandon Wolf on the Fight for LGBTQI+ Rights in Florida and Beyond
Part of a Series
This week, Brandon Wolf, activist and press secretary for Equality Florida, joins Daniella to discuss the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, restrictions on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and what right-wing attacks on equality mean for LGBTQI+ individuals and their families. Daniella also discusses the latest disturbing revelations out of the Republican Party and the uplifting outcome of the French presidential election.
Learn more about the podcast here.
Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. There’s a lot of policy coming out of Florida lately that’s horrendous, even by Florida’s standards. Today, Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, is here to talk about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, limitations on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and what this all-out right-wing attack on equality means for LGBTQ+ folks and their families. Equality Florida has been on the front lines in the fight against these attacks, so you won’t want to miss our conversation. But you know we have to get to some news first.
In case you missed it, the wheels have fallen off the Republican bus this week. “MAGA Republicans”—as I call them, because that’s what they are—are in chaos. Let’s start with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Last week, Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns from The New York Times reported that after the events of January 6, McCarthy suggested during a phone call with House Republican leadership that Donald Trump should resign—a reasonable recommendation that would have been great to know at the time. But of course, no Republicans these days can actually speak out against their dear leader without fear of retribution. So, Kevin McCarthy decided to just lie and say none of this ever happened.
But unfortunately for him, the reporters had an audio recording of him saying Trump should resign, and they played it live on Rachel Maddow. It was brilliant. But it doesn’t end there. We know from the audio that McCarthy also said Trump acknowledged he had some responsibility for what happened on January 6, and on Tuesday, Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns released even more audio, where McCarthy told House Republican leadership that in the immediate aftermath of January 6, he feared that the rhetoric coming from members like [Rep.] Matt Gaetz (R-FL) could result in even more violence and wanted his own members removed from Twitter.
The minority leader has spent the past week folding himself into pretzels to try and explain away what he said in 2020, which … why? This is what I don’t understand about this Trump-worshipping MAGA party. Most of them understand that January 6 and the “big lie” were wrong, but they won’t do a damn thing about it because they are just that power-hungry.
Which brings me to the 2,000-plus Mark Meadows text messages that CNN obtained this week. And there are some gems in there. But I want to focus on the ones from [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Keep in mind, this is a woman who repeatedly spouted wild, sensationalist, QAnon conspiracies that fueled the violence on January 6, a woman who has since denied any wrongdoing on the part of any Republicans and has praised insurrectionists, heckled survivors of school shootings, and even spoke at a white supremacist rally recently. Like, she’s a peach. What was she doing the day it all happened? According to the texts, she was frantically telling Mark Meadows that the whole thing had gone too far, and that Trump needed to get the insurrectionists under control.
But what do she and other MAGA Republicans say now? That the 2020 election was stolen, that January 6 was a, quote, “legitimate political discourse,” and that the party shouldn’t move on from what every legitimate election official—even the Republican ones—say was a free and fair election. Even Republican primary candidates from the midterms this year are now spewing this crap.
It just shows two things: one, how ready these people are to lie when it benefits them and keeps them in power, and two, what happens when they actually get what they’re asking for. No one wins. Even they realized that on January 6. And yet, in the wake of this revelation, what did they do? Did they turn against the man who radicalized their party to the point of plotting an insurrection against the United States of America? No—they hid behind him, lied for him, and covered up his crimes.
And they do have a lot to hide. I am not at all surprised that Trump refuses to comply with the New York attorney general’s subpoena. He was held in contempt of court for that this week, in case you missed it. That’s a $10,000-a-day fine. Imagine what he’s trying to protect for $10,000 a day.
I wonder if there’s any point at which Republicans will say, “Enough is enough.” Jonathan Swan from Axios recently did this great interview with [Sen.] Mitch McConnell (R-KY) where he asked him how he draws his moral redlines. Quick reminder, folks, that according to Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, Mitch McConnell was, quote, “exhilarated” after January 6, thought Trump would rightfully be impeached, and said that Democrats would, quote, “take care of this SOB for us.” Once more, would have been helpful if you had said these things out loud for the world to hear then, Mitch.
Fast forward to now, to nobody’s surprise, Mitch didn’t answer Jonathan Swan’s question about his moral compass—probably because he doesn’t have one. But it’s a question I’d honestly like to pose to MAGA Republicans during a week when we’ve seen story after story showing how rotten and corrupt the party has become. Do they have any moral redlines? I have yet to see any, if they do.
OK, let’s turn to some positive news in the international sphere. I was watching France’s elections with a bit of bated breath these past few weeks. So, I’m relieved to report that incumbent President Emmanuel Macron was reelected Sunday night with a pretty healthy margin. Fun fact, for those who don’t know this about me: I am a dual citizen of the United States and France. So, I always pay extra special attention to what’s happening over there.
So, let’s recap why this is good news. Marine Le Pen, the far-right challenger in this presidential race, is—let’s be honest, she’s the Trump of France. She proposed limiting the arrival of migrants with family connections or asylum claims by 75 percent. She compared Muslims praying in the street to Nazi occupation and pledged to fine women who wear hijabs in public, calling them an “Islamist uniform.” And let’s not forget, she denied that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal and said the world, quote, “misunderstands Putin and the Kremlin.” She also called Trump’s election a, quote, “stepping stone to build tomorrow’s world.”
So, I am sleeping a little bit easier knowing that Macron continues to lead France, especially in the middle of one of the biggest refugee crises in history. But I’m not over the moon, and I’ll tell you why: Because despite losing, Le Pen’s National [Rally] party performed stronger in this election than they ever have. This to me is just another signal that right-wing extremism is on the rise worldwide, and we need to be vigilant.
Like Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, right-wing extremists of all kinds are getting more sophisticated and savvy about how to spread their messages and how to cloak things in, you know, appearing normal. They feed on dissatisfaction with the status quo and with democracy, promising people that locking down borders and rolling back protections for the most vulnerable is the way to achieve positive change. But we can’t let that kind of rhetoric turn into policy.
But back to the good: I don’t think this is the worst news I’ve heard this week, mainly because there are ways to combat these growing threats from the far right. One of the strongest is to make good policies that fix problems. Small-“d” democracy has to prove it can deliver for people. That is true in France. It’s true here in the United States. And it’s true everywhere else. I hope Emmanuel Macron keeps this in the back of his mind as he’s celebrating this week. And I hope with this in mind, we see some of these far-right threats begin to disappear from Europe.
If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you are streaming from, and we really, really appreciate your feedback. Stick around for our interview with Brandon Wolf in just a beat.
Gibbs Léger: Brandon Wolf is a gun safety and LGBTQ+ civil rights advocate. He’s currently the press secretary for Equality Florida and vice president of the Dru Project, a nonprofit he co-founded to empower youth and provide young LGBTQ leaders with higher education funding. Brandon is also a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. And in 2019, he became the first survivor to testify before Congress.
Brandon, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent.”
Brandon Wolf: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be here.
Gibbs Léger: You work to protect LGBTQ+ rights in Florida. So, we’re gonna jump right into the Parental Rights in Education bill that was recently signed into law, also known as “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Now, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what the “Don’t Say Gay” bill actually says and what it actually does. I know you’ve read this bill in its entirety several times and have been closely analyzing the language, so can you tell us what is the purpose of this law? And what does it change in Florida? And what are the implications for children and parents?
Wolf: Yeah, well, I really appreciate you leading by naming the misinformation that’s out there. We’ve heard a lot of it from proponents of this piece of policy. And that really stems from them trying to disguise the intent of the policy. They’ve sort of masked this anti-LGBTQ animus in parental rights language in an effort to slip in really a very bigoted policy in a way that confirms, you know, folks’ bias who may be just tuning in occasionally on local news, or otherwise.
So, let’s be really clear about what the “Don’t Say Gay” law is, what it does, and what it’s meant to do. The “Don’t Say Gay” law is a piece of policy that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K through three, and it restricts that instruction in grades four through 12. And when we ask the question, “What is it intended to do?”, I think we don’t have to look any further than the Senate bill sponsor, [state] Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), who told us during floor debate on this legislation that he was drawn to filing the bill because he’s, quote, “concerned” about how many young people feel comfortable coming out as LGBTQ when they’re in school. And so, he and his son in a conversation were talking about how they would curb that sort of comfort level around identifying as LGBTQ.
And the solution that they coalesced around was erasing queer people from classrooms. And we know that that’s been, you know, it’s long been a tactic by the right wing, to try to push back against LGBTQ civil rights. This insinuation that queer people, simply by existing, are a threat to children, or are dangerous or contagious in society, has long been used by the conservative right to try to curb civil rights for LGBTQ people. And it’s being weaponized again in this instance.
Sen. Baxley and other supporters of the policy will tell you that they think that schools, and specifically teachers, are turning kids gay or trans [transgender]. And the truth is, we all know that’s not happening. If it were possible to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, everybody in the world would be cisgender and heterosexual because we’re all, you know, fed that imagery every single day from the time we’re very young.
And then your last question is: What’s the impact on people? Well, we know that the impact will be detrimental on LGBTQ people across the state. We know that, you know, for instance, a second grader who comes to school and wants to present their family tree project, if there’s two moms on one branch of that tree, may not be allowed to have their family affirmed by the teacher in that classroom. They may walk away thinking there’s something wrong with having two moms. We know that LGBTQ educators may fear that having a picture of their partner on the desk or being themselves in a classroom will invoke a lawsuit from an angry parent, and so they’ll be forced back into the closet.
And we know that ultimately, LGBTQ young people, who are at much higher risk of adverse health outcomes right now, are going to feel more isolated, more stigmatized, more alone. We’re going to be, you know, seeing rainbow safe space stickers torn from windows and books about queer people ripped off of shelves. And that’s going to leave us in dire straits with a population of young people who are already four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide before graduation.
So, while all of this is wrapped in “parental rights”—I’m putting that in air quotes—you know, rhetoric and language, this policy has never been about parental rights. It’s always been about some parents’ rights to impose their beliefs on others. And it has always been about helping Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and his allies build a right-wing resume to help him run for president in 2024.
Gibbs Léger: Oh man, and unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of these anti-LGBTQ+ laws and efforts get picked up in different formats across red states. So, lawmakers in Alabama, Ohio, and Texas are all looking at measures similar to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Florida is also taking a page out of Texas’ book and attempting to restrict access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth, without going to the legislator. So, I want to ask you about the spread of these hateful, harmful policies across the country in a moment. But in the short term, if Florida does decide to do what Texas did and restrict access to gender-affirming care, what impact would that have in your state?
Wolf: Well, first of all, I just want to, you know—if there are health care professionals that are listening—I want to reassure folks that right now, this is nonbinding guidance, and we do not want health care professionals to be changing the kind of care they provide to young people and their families. We know that there’s been, again, some misinformation spread by proponents of efforts like this that have caused confusion in the health care space. And so, you know, it’s one of my jobs to encourage health care professionals to continue doing the right thing, continue offering science-backed best-practice medical care to our most vulnerable young people, continue to have really important conversations with parents and families to help them make the best decisions for their kids and their family, to make sure that they get the best care possible.
And then your question about, you know, what happens if this does become binding or—as one, you know, Republican state representative has threatened—if they actually moved to make gender-affirming care a felony in the next legislative session? And we know that it’s that that would cost young people their lives. We already know that this care is not just affirming. It’s not just best practice. It’s lifesaving. We know that when we affirm and celebrate trans and nonbinary young people, when we give them every resource possible to be the very best, authentic version of themselves, that they’re more likely to go on and thrive. And when we take those things away, when we demonize them, when we stigmatize them, and we tell them that there’s something wrong with them because of who they are, we know what happens next. That’s the reason that so many trans and nonbinary kids unfortunately consider and attempt suicide before they graduate. It’s why so many trans and nonbinary kids are represented in homeless populations right now.
We have a duty to make sure that every single student, every single young person in Florida and beyond is protected. We have a duty to invest in their well-being to make sure that they have a shot at a future. And what’s terrifying right now is we have, you know, legislatures and policymakers around the country, including here in Florida, who see trans and nonbinary young people, who see the LGBTQ community, as nothing more than a political lightning rod to help them get to their next destination.
Gibbs Léger: Yeah, so I want to touch on that a little bit. Because in order to get all these horrifying measures through, like, right-wing Republicans are leaning into, you know, very old and dangerous narratives that they’ve peddled before about the LGBTQ community. You know, in particular, they’re framing LGBTQ teachers and adults, and those who seek to protect them, as quote-unquote, “groomers” and “pedophiles.” It’s disgusting, what they’re doing. I mean, what’s behind this blatantly bigoted campaign? Is it strictly about politics and gaining power? And, you know, how do we combat this particular vile argument they’re spewing all over the media?
Wolf: Yeah, well, it begins with politics, right? I don’t think that Gov. DeSantis and people like him—politicians like him—particularly care about the outcomes for trans and nonbinary young people. I don’t know that they’ve ever met with trans and nonbinary young people. And so, for them, it really is cynical and political in nature. They’re looking to climb to the next rung of the political ladder, and they will climb on anyone’s back that they think they can, and get away with it, in order to get there.
What is really sinister is that they’ve joined forces with some of the most, you know, bigoted and extreme segments of society that want to see trans and nonbinary people erased entirely. They want to see LGBTQ civil rights eroded and pulled back. And in order to get there, they’re trafficking in some of the darkest and oldest bigotry against this community that they can think of. It all really started when, you know, there was incredible public opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the Legislature. There was fierce opposition, not just around the country but here in Florida. And Gov. DeSantis’ constituents were pretty firmly entrenched against this policy. And so in order to rip back the narrative, in order to, you know, put some polish on it before he signed it, the governor greenlit his office to go online and begin these really bigoted smears against, essentially, half of Florida’s population, people who oppose this policy. And then that, you know, metastasized onto Fox News and Newsmax, and you have Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens repeating it, and all of a sudden, it’s part of the zeitgeist that we’re accusing teachers, administrators, LGBTQ people, and allies at large of heinous things.
And, you know, I also think it’s really important that you pointed out that this has sort of been a tactic that’s been used over time. It’s the same rhetoric that was used by Anita Bryant in the 1970s, when she launched her Save the Children campaign to erode LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. It’s the same rhetoric that was used to try to stop us from becoming teachers, you know, that was used to try to block us from adopting children or getting married. For a really long time, segments of our society have trafficked in very bigoted and dangerous tropes that paint LGBTQ people as a contagious threat that must be suppressed. And the terrifying part for me—I’m, you know, I’m a survivor of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub—and what I can’t help but think about is that this rhetoric, this dangerous language that’s being used by powerful people in this country, ultimately leads to violence.
Gibbs Léger: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that, you know, about being a survivor of that shooting and kind of, you know, what this fight means to you personally. So, I’ll just, you know, turn the floor back over to you to talk a little bit more about that.
Wolf: Yeah, I think often about what Pulse as a space meant to me and other people in our community. Pulse was a safe space. And I know that that can be, you know, sometimes used as like a punchline against people like us. But the truth is, we carve out safe spaces like Pulse because we need them, because there is such violence and hate in the world. I wish we didn’t need spaces like that. And my hope is that we can create a world where the next generation of young people don’t need to carve out safe spaces, because every space is safe for them.
And then I also think about the fear and hell that was rained down on this community when that safe space was invaded violently, when I saw, you know, for the first time that even in the places that I should feel most comfortable being myself, I still had to look over my shoulder. The kind of rhetoric that’s being used by Gov. DeSantis and his allies right now is whipping up a fervor that will ultimately lead to a climate of violence against LGBTQ people.
We’ve begun to see the seeds of that sown. We saw a couple on a train with their kids outside of Washington, D.C., and they were confronted by a man on the train who was trying to remove the children from the parents, accusing the parents of being rapists, accusing the parents of trying to kidnap that child, all fueled by this dangerous rhetoric that’s coming out of our leader’s mouth.
So, I feel like, you know, I’ve seen the end result of hate. I’ve seen what it looks like when entire communities are torn apart, when parents have to bury their children. And you don’t come back from that. And it’s terrifying to me that we have leaders who are willing to fuel those things, who are willing to inflame those things, simply in order to win political points in the short term.
Gibbs Léger: It’s really powerful. And it’s really—“dispiriting” isn’t even the right word—disgusting and revolting to see politicians, almost gleefully sometimes, just using different communities as stepping stones to amass power, as political punching bags, of not seeing other people as equals, as humans. And, you know, I would, you know, years ago, when—I can’t remember which member of Congress it was—I feel like it was a senator from Ohio, who had, I believe, a child of theirs had come out to them as gay. And you know, they started changing their tune on LGBTQ rights. And I get angry, because I’m like, it shouldn’t have to come to that. It shouldn’t have to be that I know somebody who is—insert thing here—and therefore I’m going to be empathetic towards them.
Like, I don’t know what kind of—you know, if you’re a religious person—I don’t know what kind of Christianity these people believe in. But like, the church that I grew up in taught me to have empathy—for everybody. And I don’t want to live in a world where the only way that we’re going to get to a truly equitable and peaceful society is where everybody is going to have to personally know somebody in order to not be bigoted towards that group. So, I need to, like, I need to end—if we can, hopefully—on a slightly positive note. Your organization, Equality Florida, is involved in a number of advocacy and legal actions to protect youth and families as a result of this law, including suing the state of Florida, organizing on the ground, and more. So, what, in your opinion, are some of the best strategies that we can all deploy to fight these anti-LGBTQ+ policies in our states and in our localities?
Wolf: Yeah, thank you. And I appreciate you ending there because we have work to do. We can, you know, opine on some of the dangerous things that are happening. But you know, sitting and having conversations with one another is just talking to the echo chamber. It’s our job to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We have a North Star right now at Equality Florida, and that is that it’s our job to make sure that every student is protected and every family is respected. And that helps to guide all of the work that we’re doing moving forward.
I think there are a few things that our community can do today to push back against this onslaught of anti-LGBTQ policy. Number one is to use this opportunity to share stories and elevate voices. I think about all the progress we’ve made in the LGBTQ civil rights movement over time, and the way that we’ve made that progress is not by changing an “and” to an “or” on a page somewhere on legislation, but by telling our stories. Think about the marriage equality fight, and the way in which we were able to share the stories of love that mark who we are—two people holding hands saying, “My love is as valuable as anyone else’s.” Those are the things that changed hearts and minds to propel us forward. I think about the nondiscrimination fight. And it was the courage of, you know, trans and nonbinary people in the workplace to say, “This is who I am, and I deserve to be seen and respected as such.” Same thing is true of the HIV and AIDS moment. There, you know, there were—I’m thinking about that picture of a Princess Diana leaning down and grabbing someone’s hand, and the humanity of that moment shifting the way we talk about HIV and AIDS in this country and beyond.
So, I think this is an opportunity for us to do the same. We need to share the stories of what it means to be LGBTQ in this country and specifically what it means to be trans and nonbinary. They are the primary targets. We hear it in all of the language, all of the rhetoric. And so, we take this moment to share, you know, these are the trans and nonbinary people in all of our lives. They’re everywhere. They’ve always been here. And they’re a beautiful part of the fabric of our society. I think that’s one way in which we can push back.
And then of course, we’ve got to mobilize and organize. We not only have to, you know, protest, and take direct action, and show up to school board meetings, and show up to legislative hearings, and lobby our lawmakers. We also have to hold them accountable at the ballot box. You know, we have midterms coming up in November. Gov. DeSantis is on the ballot down here in Florida, as are lawmakers in the House and the Senate. And we feel like it’s our responsibility to make sure that constituents know, these are the votes your lawmakers took when it came time to stand in solidarity with marginalized people, and you get to hold them accountable for that in November. We have a lot of work to do there. We have a lot of work to make sure that, you know, resources are language-accessible, that we’re reaching people exactly where they are, that we’re not trying to, you know, coax them to show up, or rather, we’re showing up for them. And it’s going to really take every single one of us, but I truly believe that it starts by authentically and honestly telling the stories of who we are, so that we can paint a vision of what this state and what this country can be if everyone has a seat at the table.
Gibbs Léger: Well, Brandon, I want to thank you for taking the time to join us today. I want to thank you for all of the hard work that you are doing down in Florida and for sharing your story and your fight and some advice with our listeners. So, Brandon Wolf, thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent.”
Wolf: Thanks again for having me.
Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Be sure to go back and check out previous episodes. So, I want to close with something that lots of people have been talking about, and that is that Elon Musk now owns Twitter. I don’t like it. I mean, a couple days ago, I was really complaining about the new format of Twitter. It assaults my eyes, and it makes it actually hard to follow my timeline. So, I find that I’m spending less time on it. This will probably make me spend even less time on it.
I don’t even know how to describe my feelings towards him. But everyone should be really concerned when he says that he wants to, quote, “restore free speech,” because I fear that what he means is that people should be free to spread disinformation, should be free to spread racist, sexist, homophobic crap, whenever they want. And I think, you know, a lot of my colleagues here at CAP who are much smarter about the tech world than I am, you know—this raises red flags for them. And like, we should be concerned about a centralization of our online spaces in the hands of a few select billionaires.
I guess we can just, we have to watch this space and see what he does. Maybe he’ll surprise us. Maybe all he’ll do is fix the format and give us an “edit” button, which a lot of people have been asking for. But I’m concerned. It’s complicated because obviously, it’s a company. You don’t have the right to say whatever you want anywhere. That’s not how free speech works, like on a private space. But I just worry that a platform that—they haven’t gotten everything right, but I feel like in the past few years they’ve tried at least to make it a space that is welcoming for all people—I really worry what it means when you have somebody who—I think—falls into the category of those people who rail against wokeness. They don’t know what the hell that means, but it’s like the thing that they do. I just worry that they’re going to roll back some of the things that made Twitter a safe space for people of color, for LGBTQ folks, and for other marginalized communities—or maybe I should say a safer space.
I’m pessimistic, but I guess we just have to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, we are still in a pandemic. Yes, it certainly seems like things are slowly getting back to normal, but our fellow citizens are still dying by way too many people by the day, by the week. So just remember that as you’re going about your daily lives, to carry that compassion with you: compassion for others, who maybe are immunocompromised, who maybe can’t get vaccinated for whatever reasons. And for the love of God, remember the parents who have kids who are under 5, who still don’t have access to a vaccine—hopefully soon. Alright, take care of yourselves, and we will talk to you next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer. And Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. Elyssa Goswick provided research and production support for this episode. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
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