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What the Fox News Channel billed as the “The Great Red vs Blue State Debate” was marked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom talking over each other — a lot — but it left no doubt as to who’s on the side of LGBTQ+ people.
“DeSantis wants to rollback voting rights, civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights,” Newsom said early on. "“I’m here to tell the truth about the Biden-Harris record and also compare and contrast. Ron DeSantis, his record and the Republican party’s record as a point of contrast, that’s as different as daylight and darkness."
DeSantis staunchly defended his state’s Parental Rights in Education law, nicknamed the “don’t say gay” law, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades in public schools. “The role of the school is to educate kids, not indoctrinate kids,” the Florida governor said, using language that’s become common on the right.
His response came to a rather loaded question from moderator Sean Hannity, asking if instead of teaching about these subjects, schools should be focusing on reading, writing, math, science, and other basics — like it’s an either-or proposition.
DeSantis went on to say he doesn’t believe kindergarteners should be taught that gender is a choice or second-graders they were born in the wrong body — although it’s unlikely anyone is teaching that. He also brought up the book Gender Queer, a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about grappling with gender identity. The book is often challenged in schools and, as a result, banned from school libraries. It includes a few sexually explicit images, and DeSantis called it “pornography” that’s being marketed to children.
Newsom did not directly address Gender Queer, but it should be noted that booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble designate it as appropriate for people in their late teens, not younger readers. And such books are usually not required reading in class but are available in school libraries.
Newsom did say Florida had been on a “banning binge,” with 1,406 books banned from schools in the past year. He asked if books by authors such as Toni Morrison and Amanda Gorman, both Black, should be banned, and DeSantis responded that they haven’t been. Actually, writings by these authors have been banned or restricted in several Florida school districts. Such bans are usually a matter of local school board action, not state law, although it could be argued that DeSantis has set the tone with his opposition to both LGBTQ-inclusive education and lessons dealing with the effects of racism.
Hannity also brought up books such as Flamer and This Book Is Gay, saying they contain sexually explicit content, and asked Newsom if they should be taught in schools. Newsom responded, “Come on, those are not part of the curriculum.” He added that sexuality education isn’t taught in the lower grades but in age-appropriate ways to older students.
“It’s just made up,” Newsom said of basis for the right-wing fight against LGBTQ+ content in education. “It’s part of this cultural purge,” he continued, adding, “This is a ginned-up, made-up issue to divide this country.” It’s offensive to him, he said, that so many of the books being challenged and removed are focused on LGBTQ+ and African American content.
“I don’t like the way you demean LGBTQ people,” he told DeSantis at one point.
California is indeed focusing on math, science, and other basics, and it requires parental involvement in education, Newsom noted. The state requires that public schools include mention of historically important LGBTQ+ figures as well, although the governor didn’t talk about that. DeSantis claimed California is dividing people by teaching about social justice movements and ethnic studies.
Newsom also invoked a conservative icon to clap back at DeSantis — a former president and former California governor, Ronald Reagan. Reagan's record on LGBTQ+ rights and on AIDS was famously poor, but in 1978 he did speak out strongly against California's Proposition 6, a.k.a. the Briggs initiative, a ballot measure that would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools in the state. Voters rejected the measure.
DeSantis went on to claim that minors can go to California from other states to receive hormone therapy, puberty blockers, and gender-affirming surgery without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
Newsom’s answer wasn’t audible, but in any case, this is not true. California requires parental consent for such care, and in any case, genital surgery is not usually recommended for minors anywhere. California did pass a law, signed by Newsom, that protects young people and their families from out-of-state legal action if they come from a more restrictive state to California to receive gender-affirming care.
DeSantis is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, but he's far behind Donald Trump among GOP voters. Newsom has been mentioned as a potential Democratic nominee, but he denied that he had any intention of taking the 2024 nomination away from President Joe Biden.