In another emotionally fraught meeting that drew some 80 proponents and opponents of the issue, the Florida House Government Operations Subcommittee Tuesday morning voted 7-4 to approve a bill (HB583) that would criminalize the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals who cannot prove that they are of the sex they say they are when entering facilities. The bill applies to bathrooms in public buildings, private business and public schools, making businesses and schools liable for infractions.
The bill is the work of Rep. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, who was driven to write it after the Miami-Dade County Commission passed an ordinance extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bi0-sexual and transgender persons in housing, employment and public accommodations. The public accommodation part rankled Artiles, who fears that men who “feel” like women may enter a bathroom and ogle women or girls there. He considers his bill a public safety measure.
But the bill has drawn the sort of critical national attention that portrays Florida in a more regressive light.
“I’m offended by this bill and how many it affects in the community of the LGBT,” Elizabeth McCarthy, legislative director for the LGBT Democratic Caucus, said. “we’re not only targeting restaurants, we’re targeting the tourist industry in itself, the imports that are coming into the state of Florida and how this could affect many different avenues other than just the transgender bathrooms.” Rep. Edwin Narain, the Democratic ranking member on the committee, said he was “concerned about the harm it would do to our business community.”
On March 5 the bill passed its first hurdle, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, on a party-line, 9-4 vote. On Tuesday, the bill passed easily, but with one Republican dissenting: Ken Roberson, of Port Charlotte.
“How is your bill going to stop illegal acts that are already illegal in Florida?” Roberson asked, raising a question that would be raised repeatedly during public testimony. “Some proponents of this bill claim that this will stop criminal acts that are already illegal.”
Artilies, who had trouble answering direct questions with sound evidence in his first appearance before a committee on this bill, could not answer Roberson’s question. Rather, he focused on a tangent: “Access, access, to enter these facilities, watch these women shower, undress and so on and so forth, to watch teen-age children, adolescents changing. In my opinion, I believe it begins the cover of law for a pedophile a sexual deviant or deviants in general to have access to a facility that they would not have access to, but for a local ordinance like Miami-Dade and-or bathroom exemption that allows men, heterosexual men, to walk into those facilities. Further, I want to make it perfectly clear, my bill is not attacking transgenders, it’s not attacking bi-sexuals or homosexuals or any type of sexual orientation. My bill specifically goes to the language used in Miami-Dade which is overbroad and subjective and allows heterosexual men to enter into facilities where women, children, are changing and have access but for this local ordinance, would not have access to.”
The Miami-Dade ordinance does not, in fact, grant such access—nor has the ordinance resulted in any of the scenarios Artiles is imagining, a Miami-Dade commissioner said in March. Roberson said the bill would have “unintended consequences,” and opposed it. In his final remarks, he said the crime-prevention arguments are “weak,” and said: “I really have major problems with this bill. I just think there’s a lot of unintended consequences of this bill. The major concerns I have–I don’t see how you;d ever enforce it without putting a security guard in front of every public facility in the state of Florida. I’ve got real concerns over the private cause of actions in the bill. They’re especially troublesome. I think we’d be opening Pandora’s box when it comes to frivolous lawsuits, and we’ve spent a lot of time up here since my time in the Legislature trying to prevent frivolous lawsuits.”
Artiles was asked how the law would be enforced. “That was one of the concerns that I had from the beginning,” Artiles said. But enforceability would be the same as it is today. “There is no bathroom police,” he said. “I do not want to hurt businesses and I do not want to fine businesses.” He was asked why it was necessary to legislate the issue when it’s not an issue beyond Miami. Artiles’ answer: he tried to change the ordinance in Miami but failed. Plus, he said, 10 counties have “conflicting” rules that “have gender identity and gender expression ordinances on their books that are different,” so in the interest of uniformity, he’s proposing the bill, which he described as the liberal copy of Volusia’s rules. “I’m actually passing a Volusia County ordinance throughout the state of Florida,” Artiles said.
But Nadine Smith, the co-founder of Equality Florida, said the self-policing provision gives anyone the power to demand an ID from a bathroom user, and to demand an arrest if the individual using the bathroom is not a transgender person as defined by the law. “Dignity and respect is what everyone wants. This robs people of their dignity and respect,” Smith said. Volusia County’s one representative on the subcommittee, Democrat Dwayne Taylor, was opposed to Artiles’s proposal.
The bill, another opponent said, would single out an already targeted minority. Several transgender individuals spoke in opposition to the panel, some of them calling the bill “redundant and unnecessary,” and “unenforceable,” as well as “hateful and discriminatory.” One individual said the measure “harkens back to 1930s Germany, being required to produce papers on the spot.” But one transgender individual thanked Artiles for bringing the matter to the Legislature, as it’s given the LGBT community a chance to show the diversity of the state. Others called it fear-mongering.
Though the overwhelming majority of those who spoke to the committee this morning are opposed to the proposal, the bill has its ardent supporters, too, sometimes with vivid testimonies.
“I was in a bathroom about three months ago when a man came in dressed as a woman,” Jane Carren or Destin said. “He did not know I was in there. And it was a very awkward time for both of us. It was at a church. He was a member of the church. And I was a guest. It was a hard time for both of us. I ask you to vote yes for this bill.” Numerous opponents of the bill spoke as members of the religious community, one of them saying, “the lord would be pleased,” if the committee voted yes. “This is not about discrimination,” another said. “This is about the personal safety of women, and girls and teen-age girls.”
A highlight of the hearing earlier this month was an appearance by Cindy Sullivan, a transgender individual, who became emotional during her speech. Today she shed no tears, but her voice was no less forceful as she addressed the panel. “I was called brave by the Republican chair in my last testimony,” Sullivan said. “Brave is someone who stands up for injustice against overwhelming odds. Whether it’s storming the beaches of Normandy, crossing a bridge in Selma, a lone woman sitting on a bus, or now a person crossing the threshold of a bathroom that matches their gender identity. While religion and millennia of precedents was used to justify slavery, it was overturned in the name of freedom and liberty. These old arguments are used here again today to try and strip the innocents of their freedom.”
Naomi Bradley, a transgender woman, seized on the recurring fear among proponents of the bill of heterosexuals walking into women’s bathrooms. “If you send me and a woman like me into the men’s rest room,” she said, “we will be assaulted, we will be raped, we will be psychologically terrorized. If that’s what you want, so be it. Vote for this bill. Otherwise, oppose it. You all disgust me if you vote for this bill.”
In is closing remarks, Artiles took on Sullivan and others directly.
“When does your privacy outweigh my privacy?” Artiles asked. “And that is the issue and the central theme that not one person has addressed. This is the reality. According to Cindy Sullivan, 100,000 people are transgender or transitioning. I think that number is low, why? Because the number is even lower—the Census—so out of 19 million people, less than 1 percent is dictating policy throughout the state in reference to who uses bathrooms because we have to cater, like, the good representative said, to cater to their loud voice, but a very small minority.” Turning to the audience, the representative continued: I find it insulting that you would actually use the Holocaust and that the 6 million Jews, as well as slavery, 12.5 million African-American slaves coming into this country, in your dialogue. It’s insulting. Insulting. Please don’t ever use that again in committee.”
“Frank will you please address the committee?” the committee chairman said. (In fact, no one had made comparisons of the bill to the Holocaust, and Sullivan had referred to slavery as an example of discrimination that had been ended.)
The House bill’s companion bill in the Senate is SB1464.