Republican lawmakers in Florida submitted a batch of anti-LGBTQ bills this week with just hours to spare before the 2020 legislative deadline.
If signed into law, the four bills would walk back local ordinances that protect LGBTQ employees, legalize the controversial practice of "gay conversion therapy" and imprison doctors for up to 15 years if they provide certain transition-related medical care to transgender youth. Conversion therapy is a discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation through psychological or spiritual means. It is grounded in the belief that being LGBTQ is abnormal or unnatural and is banned in more than a dozen states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The bills -- submitted late Monday by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, Sen. Dennis Baxley, Rep. Bob Rommel, Sen. Joe Gruters, Rep. Michael Grant, Sen. Keith Perry, and Rep. Byron Donalds -- sparked outrage among many LGBTQ advocates and their allies.
The lawmakers submitted four pieces of legislation, each with a companion bill in the House and the Senate.
Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, said the "draconian legislation" would attack the rights of the state's LGBTQ population and make the 2020 legislative session "one of the most hostile to LGBTQ Floridians in recent memory."
"This is the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory,” Equality Florida Public Policy Director Harris Maurer said in a statement. "It runs the gamut from openly hostile legislation that would arrest and imprison doctors for providing medically necessary care, to legislation that would carelessly erase critical local LGBTQ protections."
The group called on leaders within the Florida House and Senate to denounce and defeat the proposed laws.
Florida Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, who considers himself the state's first openly gay African American legislator, spoke out against the bills immediately, calling them discriminatory and shameful.
"It's shameful that Republican lawmakers are wasting tax dollars attacking Florida's most vulnerable communities rather than prioritizing the issues that impact everyday people's lives," Jones said in a statement. "Clearly they've decided that discrimination and hate are central to their election-year platform despite our state's incredible diversity."
Gina Duncan, the group's director of transgender equality, took particular issue with the Vulnerable Child Protection Act, introduced by Sabatini and Baxley. If signed into law, the legislation would make it a second-degree felony for doctors to provide gender reassignment surgeries and hormone therapies to children seeking to transition to the opposite sex -- even if they have their parents' consent.
"Transgender youth are some of the most at-risk in our community. It is outrageous that conservative legislators would threaten their health and safety," Duncan said. "Medical professionals, not politicians, should decide what medical care is in the best interest of a patient. Forcing a doctor to deny best practice medical care and deny support to transgender youth can be life-threatening."
Baxley pushed back against Equality Florida's characterization of the his bill and accused the organization of trying lump eight different bills into one category.
"These are very different topics. My sole interest is the wellbeing of a child. I'm not trying to address the whole phenomena of how we're adapting to the changes in mores and views on LBGTQ community," Baxley told ABC News on Thursday. "I don't share their views, but I have no condemnation of anyone, OK. To me, those are personal issues."
He said he was inspired to draft the bill after hearing about civil disputes between parents who had different opinions about how they should deal with their child's gender dysphoria, a condition where a person feels like there's a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. He cited a case where one parent wanted to take medical action -- such as sterilizing the child or seeking hormone therapies -- to affirm the child's preferred gender, but the other parent was against it.
Baxley said the proposed bill protects children from having their parents make decisions about their health that the child may regret later in life.
"We're seeing some prominent lawsuits, particularly with divided husbands and wives, about what's to be done regarding the child's care. And obviously, if they're going to court, I think we need to do some kind of policy clarification on what's appropriate," Baxley said. "I am trying to start that discussion, as difficult as it is, but I think we have a responsibility in protecting children."
Equality Florida said Baxley's bill would go against the best medical practices recommended for transgender youth. Many doctors say it’s easier for a person to transition to the opposite sex if they begin the process early, but Baxley said young people dealing with gender dysphoria should be able work through those issues without medical intervention during childhood.
"During adolescence, they're trying on all kinds of things when they're in middle school and high school trying to figure life out," Baxley said. "But I'm very concerned about protecting children from medical procedures that could be damaging to them physically."
"There's a lot of people that have transgender lives that don't undergo surgeries that permanently change their physical makeup," he added. "Let them make these life decisions as they become adults. When you start these heavy hormonal treatments and you're talking about the sterilization of a child, these are very weighty issues to be making for them while they're children."
It's unclear exactly how likely the bills are to pass. They were each introduced by individual members, not committees, which would give them a better chance of advancing.
Baxley said he's more concerned with starting a discussion.
"The way a legislator starts a discussion is to file a bill. It will make people start thinking about that issue to come up with a public policy that is appropriate," he said.