Florida takes aim at marginalised groups in war on ‘woke culture’

Spate of conservative bills on abortion, critical race theory and gender identity signal worrying trend, critics say.

Florida students hold a protest
Florida high school students protest a Republican-backed bill dubbed 'Don't Say Gay' that would prohibit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity [File: Octavio Jones/Reuters]

Miami, Florida – Marking the latest salvo in a barrage of socially conservative legislation across the United States, Florida lawmakers have approved a series of bills that limit access to abortion, restrict the teaching of critical race theory, and prohibit lessons on gender identity for public-school students up to the third grade.

The bills, endorsed this month by Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature and expected to be signed into law within days, are part of a countrywide backlash against recent progress on minority rights, critics say – and their effects could be felt for years to come.

“They represent a pretty extreme infringement on our freedoms and liberties as Floridians, and their impact will be far-reaching,” said Kirk Bailey, political director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The governor’s policies are becoming increasingly radical, and these bills are proceeding because lawmakers know they have the support of [Governor Ron] DeSantis,” he told Al Jazeera.

DeSantis, whose office did not respond to multiple interview requests, is widely expected to seek the Republican nomination for the US presidency in the future. Although the governor has not confirmed such speculation, he took the opportunity last month to tout his track record at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

“We need people all over the country to be willing to put on that full armour of God, to stand firm against the left’s schemes,” DeSantis said. “You’ll be met with flaming arrows, but the shield of faith will stop them. You will emerge victorious.”

‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

The flurry of legislation approved in Florida this month includes a bill to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy; a bill to end classroom discussion of issues such as white supremacy and its harmful effects on non-white Americans; and a bill to forbid teachers from giving lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity to students in the third grade or younger.

Opponents say the latter piece of legislation, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, will further marginalise the LGBTQ community. The chief executive officer of Disney, a major employer in Florida, announced last week that the company would pause all political donations in the state, after initially drawing criticism for failing to take a firm stand against the bill.

“It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights,” CEO Bob Chapek wrote in a letter to staff published on Friday.

DeSantis has rejected the company’s position, saying government policies must “be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations”.

The governor and other proponents of the bill have portrayed the issue as one of parents’ rights. His allies say there is no intention to target minority groups, even as DeSantis has publicly waged war on “woke” activism and the left’s alleged assault on traditional American values.

“[Gay parents] should love this bill because I’m empowering parents and supporting the notion that they are in charge of their children’s education,” Republican Senator Dennis Baxley, who co-sponsored the bill, told Al Jazeera.

“School districts sometimes get too involved in the social engineering of children. They shouldn’t try to explain and acknowledge every social debate that’s out there.”

Threatening social progress

Florida is by no means alone in its campaign against “woke culture”. Across the US, conservative politicians have made a concerted effort in recent years to push legislation that threatens social progress, critics say.

Earlier this month, the governor of Iowa signed a law banning transgender girls and women from competing in school sporting events. Ten other Republican-led states have passed similar measures over the past two years.

On the issue of critical race theory, a field of study that explores the inherent racism of government institutions, dozens of states have passed or are considering legislation to limit its application in the classroom. And in Mississippi, a law that directly challenges the landmark Roe v Wade abortion ruling is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing across the country to suppress the voting rights of minority communities, including through measures such as Florida’s stricter voter ID requirements.

Critics warn that such measures aim to reverse years of gains on behalf of historically marginalised communities in the US.

“We’ve seen calls for a reckoning on race, an increased visibility of and respect for transgender rights – and whenever you see progress being made, there are forces who want to reverse those gains,” Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU’s national office, told Al Jazeera. “That progress has sparked the backlash that we are seeing now.”

Source: Al Jazeera