Proud purple to angry red: These Florida residents feel unwelcome in 'new' Florida

When Alexander Vargas was a senior at Port Orange's Spruce Creek High School in 2021, he spoke at a school board meeting to fight for recognition of LGBTQ+ Health Awareness Week. The school board voted against the idea, but the superintendent later decided the week should be acknowledged.
When Alexander Vargas was a senior at Port Orange's Spruce Creek High School in 2021, he spoke at a school board meeting to fight for recognition of LGBTQ+ Health Awareness Week. The school board voted against the idea, but the superintendent later decided the week should be acknowledged.
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Jean Siebenaler moved to Florida following her retirement to bask in the warmth of the Sunshine State.

"I finally thought I'd be sitting on the water with an umbrella drink in my hand," she said.

The Milton resident, a military veteran and retired physician, now says she wonders if Florida was where she needed to relocate after all. Having been politically active in her home state of Ohio, she finds beach time consumed by "steaming and stewing" over the state of the state and local politics.

"It's very upsetting, the direction we see Florida heading," she said. "Every day I wonder why I am living here."

For many, Florida has changed. What was once a proudly purple state has turned an angry red, they say. Gov. Ron DeSantis, with the dedicated backing of a Republican supermajority in the state legislature, is waging war on what he calls "wokeism" — a term he has loosely defined as "a form of cultural Marxism." But many — people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, non-Christians, teachers, union members, students — feel it is a war against themselves, as they face ridicule, discrimination, and, potentially, violence.

The NAACP, Equity Florida and the League of United Latin American Citizens each issued travel advisories for Florida. The NAACP advisory states, in part, "Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ individuals."

"Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, the state has become hostile to Black Americans and in direct conflict with the Democratic ideals that our union was founded upon," the advisory states.

Democrats feel vilified because of affiliation

There exist widespread reports of people abandoning the state because they no longer feel welcome here. Following her family's exodus to Pennsylvania in May, former Brevard County resident and Democratic Party activist Stacey Patel told FLORIDA TODAY, "It's like breathing, you know? After holding your breath for a really long time."

Nikki Fried, the state's former commissioner of agriculture and current Florida Democratic Party chair, predicted 800,000 immigrants had left the state after DeSantis signed SB 1718 into law. It imposes strict restrictions and penalties to deter the employment of undocumented workers in the state.

Democrats also count themselves among the groups feeling persecuted. Patel's family was vilified, she said, for its party affiliation.

Siebenaler, who has stepped into the position of legislative chair for the Democratic Women's Club of Florida, attended an early June meeting of the Santa Rosa County Commission to call out Commissioner James Calkins for labeling the Democratic Party as evil.

"I took an oath to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic," she told the governing board. "And I must speak out against the hate speech that is emanating from the Santa Rosa County Commission dais."

Calkins has been admonished on several occasions by the public and his peers for his incendiary rhetoric and disruptive behavior. But Siebenaler is not one to typically show up at county board meetings.

"It's very, very upsetting. We've lost all sense of sanity, logic and civil discourse. It's so difficult to sit in on meetings because it's such a clown show," Siebenaler said. "People are so dramatic, so theatrical. It makes me just so sad that we have gotten to the point where the average person doesn't want to go to these meetings, where all people do is yell and scream."

Teachers are heading for the exit

Similarly, according to Lisa Masserio, the president of the teacher's union in Hernando County, a minority segment of that county's school board attached to Moms For Liberty is creating chaos in that area.

The school district typically provides at its May 30 meeting an accounting of how many teachers will be leaving the school district that year. This year it was announced that of the 49 people not returning to Hernando County schools next year, 33 had voluntarily tendered their resignations.

Masserio estimated the number of resignations had approximately doubled those of the year before and would create "the highest number of vacancies we've had in a long time."

"We've seen so many resignations of people who have made the decision 'I don't want to teach here,' " she said.

Eighty-three percent of the Hernando County teachers with three years or less experience were among those who resigned, said Dan Scott, a former World History teacher at Springstead High School.

Scott, who was in his third year of teaching, was one of "13 or 14" at Springstead alone who chose to pursue another occupation, in large part, "based on the overhead decisions in the government of Florida," he said.

"There are a lot of limitations being placed on teachers in regards to how we can communicate with students and what kind of content we're allowed to discuss within the curriculum," he said. "Education has become a very hostile environment from top to bottom."

Among the limitations, Scott said, were soon-to-be-imposed sanctions on what text he could use. Among the outrages, a school board member stalking school hallways searching for items that didn't correlate with the curriculum. In other words, Pride flags, Scott said.

"Not everyone left for the same reasons I did. For me, I didn't want to teach if I couldn't teach the truth and if I couldn't represent students the way I thought I should," he said. "I let every student be exactly who they wanted to be, whatever religion, whatever they identify as. I tried to give everybody their space. Whenever I couldn't do that any more I realized I didn't need to be in this career."

Scott has returned to school himself to embark on the study of technology and cybersecurity, and Siebenaler remains steadfast in her dedication to battle the state's continuing rightward trek. "I'm hoping it's a blip on the historical radar and that I live to see sanity come back," she said.

Others around Florida are facing what they view as ostracization by their state government in different ways. These are their stories:

'Fighting with one hand tied behind your back'

David Lucas, left, unwittingly became the poster child for urban renewal in the early 1960s when he was a small child. His father, Harold Lucas, at right, was shopping for fishing poles in Sears on Beach Street in Daytona Beach when a man asked if it was OK if he photographed his son. The elder Lucas said OK, not realizing the photographer was a government official involved in the urban renewal program that wound up leveling many homes and businesses in Midtown.

David Lucas grew up listening to his 90-year-old father's stories of how cruel the world was to Black people in decades past.

While the 60-year-old Lucas has been spared much of what his father's generation endured, he's been getting an unexpected reality check on how some things have yet to improve for minorities.

The flurry of bills passed in Tallahassee over the past two years that impact voting, immigration, education, guns and LGBTQ+ people has left his head spinning.

"I just don't understand how they can make so many changes so fast," Lucas said. "As a Black man it's alarming because we have so many different fronts we have to fight."

The new laws have already impacted Lucas and his wife, who works alongside him at their Jamaican food restaurant in Daytona Beach's Midtown neighborhood.

She's from Jamaica, and while she's not a U.S. citizen yet, she's in the United States legally and has a visa. Some of Lucas' friends from Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, Russia and Poland also have visas, but others are undocumented.

Several of those friends cleared out of Florida and headed north more than a month ago after a new immigration law left them scared they could be sent back to the countries they chose to leave.

"They were people who had lives here," Lucas said.

David Lucas and his wife Claudette are shown in front of their restaurant, A Golden Taste of Jamaican Food and Treats, on Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard in Daytona Beach. Lucas is still trying to digest all the new laws passed in Florida the past two years that impact voting, education, immigration, guns and LGBTQ+ people.
David Lucas and his wife Claudette are shown in front of their restaurant, A Golden Taste of Jamaican Food and Treats, on Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard in Daytona Beach. Lucas is still trying to digest all the new laws passed in Florida the past two years that impact voting, education, immigration, guns and LGBTQ+ people.

The new law requires employers with 25 or more workers to use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system to confirm employees' eligibility to work in the United States beginning July 1. E-Verify is an Internet-based system that compares information entered by an employer from an employee's Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to records available to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to confirm employment eligibility.

The new Florida law imposes penalties for those employing undocumented immigrants, and enhances penalties for human smuggling.

The statute also prohibits local governments from issuing identification cards to undocumented immigrants, invalidates ID cards issued to undocumented immigrants in other states, and requires hospitals to collect and submit data on the costs of providing health care to undocumented immigrants.

Lucas is also bothered by a new law that will allow people to carry concealed weapons without securing a permit, taking a previously required class, or getting fingerprinted.

"You'll have a lot of armed heroes," Lucas predicted. "A lot of people don't know how to use a handgun, but they'll have their chest poked out waiting for a reason."

Lucas said permitless carry has him personally worried.

"Now I don't want to go anywhere there'll be a lot of people," he said.

A third of Black men in the United States have felony convictions, which prohibits them from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Lucas is afraid that's going to mean many of them will be left vulnerable as more people than ever will be carrying concealed firearms without a permit.

Lucas is also bothered by recent changes in Florida laws that could make it more difficult for some people to vote.

"Voting is most important because that's how things are changed," he said. "That's how jobs are created and taken away, laws are created and taken away. If you don't have the strength of voting, then you're basically fighting with one hand tied behind your back."

New laws impacting what's taught in Florida classrooms are also not sitting well with Lucas.

"I have children now that are in school not learning history the way it happened," he said.

It appears to him to be an effort to erase pieces of history "like it doesn't exist."

Lucas said some people around his age aren't pushing back on recent changes impacting minorities.

"They close their eyes and hope it'll get better," he said. "They say we'll just have to live with it. Younger people aren't going to have it. They have groups trying to fight it."

'Pretty damn depressed'

Erin Rothrock of Lakeland is a transgender man. He said the current political atmosphere in Florida makes him depressed and scared.
Erin Rothrock of Lakeland is a transgender man. He said the current political atmosphere in Florida makes him depressed and scared.

Until recently, Erin Rothrock felt relatively stable and content living in Florida.

Rothrock, a veterinarian and a married father of four (with another on the way), was considering buying into a clinic to become a business owner. His wife has a well-established law practice. Their children are enmeshed in their schools and have plenty of friends.

But Rothrock, a transgender man, no longer feels secure in Florida, his home since 2009.

“Emotionally, if I think about it, I get pretty damn depressed,” said Rothrock, 39, a Lakeland resident. “And I get scared.”

Rothrock said the climate of acceptance in Florida for LGBTQ+ people, and especially for transgender residents, has dramatically altered.

“It really feels like it's really changed in the last six months,” he said. “Before that, it really felt like — OK, yeah, there are some conservative people around, but things aren't bad. And now it's just like — OK, now we have this environment where these conservative ideas and these conservative people are just making life miserable for people that are living here.”

He added: “I mean, it's really uncomfortable. It's off-putting. It's unwelcoming, and it feels dangerous.”

Discussions with other transgender people have lately taken on a fraught quality, Rothrock said.

“So, conversations I've had with a lot of other trans people — besides just the usual, ‘Hey, how you doing? How's life? How's school? How's work? How are the kids?’ — it’s ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling? Have you had any problems? Have you had any trouble getting your meds? Are you going to move? Where are you going? I've heard this place is safe,’ ” he said.

Rothrock and his family are considering a move out of Florida. He said he knows other transgender people who have already taken that step.

“I've got a friend in Canada that's begging me to move up,” he said. “They're offering to assist me. I've got a friend in New York begging me to move up. They're offering to help me.”

Rothrock said that what’s happening in Florida seems to counter the prevailing overall trend in the country.

“I feel like nationally there's a big push and pull because we know that the general consensus is that most people are OK with gay marriage, support gay marriage,” Rothrock said. “They support transgender people being able to transition and use the restroom that they fit into. But I feel like there's this real pushback from that conservative base. At this point, I think they've outmaneuvered the progressive side.”

The push for new laws — in Florida and elsewhere — targeting medical care and other aspects of life for transgender residents seems a reaction against their increased visibility and acceptance, Rothrock said.

“I think it's that backlash to the small gains in equality that we've made,” he said. “You know, we see it time and time again, historically, that whenever minorities get progress and make some advancements, there's always a backlash. After the Civil War, there were these Jim Crow laws because Black people got too much power. Marriage equality (emerged), and now we have these new transgender restrictions and restrictions on what people can do.”

New guidelines on gender-affirming care are affecting adults and not only minors, Rothrock said. He recently had to scramble to find a new provider for his regular supply of hormone treatment and briefly ran out of medication.

“I don't do well mentally, my mental state declines, when I'm not on my medication,” he said. “So I've got a therapist; I talk to her on a regular basis. I do everything I can to mitigate those things. But that's extra mental baggage.”

'Fear culture' in the classroom

There is ‘no way’ retired educator Lillian De La Concepcion Martinez would step back into the classroom to do the work she once loved: teach Spanish and Art History to students in Manatee County.

Born to Cuban parents in Miami and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Martinez served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Coast Guard in the mid-1970s, and worked as an educator at Manatee County schools from 1989 until she retired in 2020.

“I’m of a different generation,” Martinez said. “When I showed up to boot camp, my staff sergeant looked at me, because I was this pretty girl, tan, nice clothes and I had this designer luggage with me. Nobody told me I couldn’t bring any clothes and I was carrying my suitcase.”

“He gets all us girls together and says, ‘well you girls are going to learn to cuff like a man or grow hair on your chest.’ Can you imagine that now? It’s almost like people are too sensitive nowadays, they take everything personally,” she said.

Lillian De La Concepcion Martinez
Lillian De La Concepcion Martinez

But he is glad she never had to experience the fear her former coworkers say they experience as educators today.

“There is a fear culture in the classroom now,” Martinez said. “I’m glad that I retired when I did, because I don’t know that I would want to teach under these circumstances. They did call me a few months back because they wanted to know if I wanted to come back and teach. I said, not ‘no,’ but ‘hell no.’ There is no way.”

Martinez began her career teaching English to migrant students as a tutor in Manatee County, then as a parent social educator. She attended the University of South Florida at night, and when she graduated in 1999 she became a teacher. Her last teaching job was at Lakewood Ranch High Schoo from 2003 until she retired.

She loves to teach, and always enjoyed using music and poetry and other outside-the-box strategies to teach her students.

“I just have a love for the language, for the culture, so I like to get them enthused,” Martinez said. “I love teaching Spanish 1 because they are fresh, but I really love teaching (Spanish) 4 because I could do so much with them culturally, and with poetry.”

“I think the last couple years (the song) "La Gozadera" was very popular,” she said. “I played that one for my level one kids like their second day. I gave them a sheet and said ‘write down how many countries that they say in Spanish that you recognize,’ just to see what they could hear, and they would surprise themselves when they were able to pick out a lot of words.”

“My kids had to memorize José Martí poems,” she said. “I said ‘guys, it will help with your language’ because of the flow. You can’t come up here and just say, ‘Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma.’ You have to have emotion. That’s what they had to work on and it helped with their fluency.”

But today, under the watchful eye of parents and politicians, Martinez said she doesn't know how others would perceive many of the books she kept in her classrooms, or the historically accurate lessons she imparted to her students.

“I had a lot of books in my classroom by Spanish authors,” she said. “Books that I had read, and they were open and free for kids that wanted to take a book and read it. I did have a lot of multicultural-type books. Biographies on Hispanic people, artists. Frida. Dalí. Celia Cruz. Roberto Clemente.”

“And I’m hearing that a lot of those books are being pulled now, because they reflect a culture that’s different,” she said. “What is it, that it could ‘stress them out’ for whatever reason. Like with Celia Cruz, you have to talk about communism. She fled Cuba, and she said as long as Castro was alive she would never set foot in Cuba again. That’s very political. I don’t know if I could teach that now. You know? Because that’s a political statement. And Celia Cruz is Afro-Cuban, she identified as that. Could we even say that?”

Martinez questions the future of art history classes, especially after an incident in March when Hope Carrasquilla, a former principal at the Tallahassee Classical School, was forced to resign after teaching sixth-grade students about Michelangelo's "David" and showing photos of the masterpiece sculpture.

“Somebody complained that it was pornographic,” Martinez said. “I just rolled my eyes and told a former colleague of mine that is also retired, I said, ‘you wait and see.’ This is after they banned the AP African Studies program. I said ‘pretty soon, they are going to drop AP art history,’ because there is nudity in AP art history.”

She wonders about her lessons about the casta paintings, and how lessons about their historic significance would be perceived today.

The paintings were drawn in the 18th century as a way to establish hierarchical scale of races after Spanish colonization of the Americas led to anxiety over racial mixing between Spanish colonizers, indigenous people and African slaves.

“The casta paintings, it’s treated like a work of art but it’s really an anthropological piece, because of what they documented in that artwork,” Martinez said. “I talked about one, but there were others. It’s really about the mixing of the races, and that white European is No. 1 on the hierarchy.

“I don’t know if that would fly right now,” she said.

“I like history, so I used art to teach something about the stuff that was going on,” she said. “It was never like ‘oh my god, Spaniards were bad, or anything.’ No. Those are just facts, it’s just the way it was. We can’t change history, all we can do is just not repeat it.”

"Gut punch after gut punch'

Andy Crossfield was in an airport in Lyon, France, last year when a fellow tourist from North Carolina learned that he and his wife, Emily, hailed from Florida.

“Don't you just love your governor?” the woman asked.

Crossfield replied, “Are you kidding?”

Crossfield, a Lakeland resident and a self-described liberal Democrat, said the episode in France offered a reminder of his status as an undisputed political minority in Florida.

A Georgia native, Crossfield moved to Florida in 1978, during the tenure of Gov. Reubin Askew, the state’s third-to-last Democratic leader. Crossfield said that he didn’t become politically engaged until after his retirement in 1997 from a career as a mutual fund wholesaler.

He has since served as president of the Lakeland Democratic Club and an officer with the League of Women Voters of Polk County.

Crossfield, 70, said Democrats and Republicans seem to perceive virtually all occurrences through different lenses. He compared the phenomenon to the 2015 internet fad involving a photo of a dress that some perceived as blue and black and others as white and gold.

“We see instances of an event, and right away we try to figure out, ‘Is that good for my side, or is that bad for me?’ ” he said. “And this is politics taken to the extreme.”

Crossfield said the political divide has become personal for him and fellow Democrats. He said his relationship with his brother, who is conservative, has become strained.

“Everybody's lost friends and neighbors over this,” he said. “You can't have anything in common when you wish a completely different future for the country.”

Has Crossfield maintained friendships with any conservative Republicans?

“I try,” he said. “They make it difficult. I mean, they're intelligent people, but they want to believe the most ridiculous things. I had a woman tell me — that I had a pretty good relationship with, I guess — that COVID was a fake. All these people that were dying, (it) was just a lie. And that (former President Donald) Trump had intercepted the virus and had his people manipulate it into something benign.”

Andy Crossfield, a self-described liberal Democrat living in Lakeland, holds a spark-spitting, windup u0022Trumpzillau0022 toy in his office.
Andy Crossfield, a self-described liberal Democrat living in Lakeland, holds a spark-spitting, windup u0022Trumpzillau0022 toy in his office.

Crossfield said it is “humbling” to be a Democrat in Florida at this point. He is highly critical of the policies promoted by DeSantis and the Legislature.

“We seem to have Jim Crow 2.0 now, because the attack on voting rights is very frightening,” he said, “The restrictions that Florida has put on people who just want to register people to vote is outrageous.”

Crossfield said he now avoids watching the news because he finds Florida’s politics so irksome.

“I think the electorate, the populace, is responsible for this,” he said. “Life is so hard that they'll take somebody who wants to stick it to somebody they don't like, rather than make my life better. I hate to say that, but that's what it looks like to me.”

Crossfield lives in Polk County, which has not elected a Democrat to any partisan office in well over a decade. In recent cycles, some Republican legislators and county commissioners have been reelected without opposition.

“We have a catch-22 that I don't know how to solve,” he said. “You can't get quality candidates unless you have support from the grassroots. And you can't get grassroots support after gut punch after gut punch results from elections without a quality candidate. I don't know what breaks first.”

Crossfield empathized with liberal friends who yearn to flee the state.

“Yeah, there's a lot of people who say, ‘Well, I'm going to leave,’ ” he said. “Somebody on Facebook posted this thing, saying, ‘Don't leave Florida. Fix it’. And I think I responded, ‘Florida is not an old car that would shine with a little TLC. In fact, every time we take it in for repairs, the mechanic is stealing parts off of it.’ That's where we are.”

When asked if he has become depressed about Florida’s politics, Crossfield found optimism in the performance of Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, an evangelical Christian and a Republican who has defied some expectations by supporting the removal of a Confederate statue from a downtown park and by not blocking the city’s issuance of LGBTQ Pride proclamations.

Crossfield said he now concentrates on small, concrete measures to improve the lives of his fellow citizens. For example, he and others in the local chapter of the League of Women Voters are promoting the distribution of gun locks.

“All we're trying to do is just pick these areas that we can make some good, some change,” he said. “And yeah, that gives me hope.”

'To hell and back because of who they are'

Transgender Stetson University student Alexander Vargas wants the same things other people his age do: To finish college, find a career he enjoys, and share his life with friends and family. Some new state laws are making his day-to-day life harder, including one measure that's making it more difficult for him to find a bathroom he can legally use.
Transgender Stetson University student Alexander Vargas wants the same things other people his age do: To finish college, find a career he enjoys, and share his life with friends and family. Some new state laws are making his day-to-day life harder, including one measure that's making it more difficult for him to find a bathroom he can legally use.

Alexander Vargas is a 19-year-old college student. His biggest worries should revolve around getting good grades, figuring out what kind of a career he wants after college, and deciding what he wants to do for fun every weekend.

Instead the Stetson University psychology major is always reminding himself to steer clear of public men's restrooms so he won't get fined for using bathrooms that align with his gender identity, but not the gender he was assigned at birth. Stetson officials have set him up with a one-person restroom he can use on campus, but once he leaves school property, bathroom access becomes a problem again.

He's also adjusting to new state government rules that have made it more complicated for him to get the testosterone his doctor prescribes so he can more fully live as a male.

The young transgender man is trying to figure out if he should move to another state where basic day-to-day living wouldn't be such a struggle, and he could escape the worsening anti-LGBTQ+ climate in Florida.

"Moving out of Florida is a last resort if things get worse, like if I can't receive my gender-affirming care," Vargas said. "I could move to another state and switch schools. It would be the easiest way to do it."

He has both a "Plan B" and a "Plan C," but he hopes he never feels compelled to use either one. Vargas would prefer to stay right where he is.

Vargas has a very supportive family he still lives with in eastern Volusia County. His partner and job are in the area.

He would love to finish his last two years of college at Stetson as he progresses toward his goal of working with autistic children and using art therapy as a form of communication for the kids when they become nonverbal.

"My life is here, and the thought of uprooting it is terrifying," he said.

Vargas has been called a freak and he's had slurs hurled his way.

He's seen others in Florida subjected to the same things.

"I have trans friends who've been to hell and back because of who they are," Vargas said.

Two years ago, when he was a senior at Spruce Creek High School, he found the courage to speak out.

Vargas attended a school board meeting to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of a board vote that shot down recognition of LGBTQ+ Health Awareness Week. The school superintendent eventually decided the week should be acknowledged.

Vargas knows his family and friends have his back, and that empowers him to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. But if things ever do get bad enough for him in Florida, he'll start a new chapter somewhere else.

"I'm just waiting for that last straw," he said.

Fighting against misinformation and fear

Grace Resendez McCaffery, the publisher of the Pensacola-based La Costa Latina Newspaper, a Spanish-language newspaper that covers Northwest Florida and South Alabama, has lived in Florida for 30 years after moving from her hometown of El Paso, Texas.

She founded La Costa Latina Newspaper a year after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004. She saw the need in the region for a Spanish-language publication, and her newspaper has become a hub of information for the Hispanic community in the Panhandle.

Since DeSantis signed SB 1718, which targets immigrants who lack a permanent legal status, Resendez McCaffery has worked to fight against misinformation about the new law as well as make the broader community aware of its impact on the Hispanic community.

She said it's discouraging to see a law like SB 1718, but is more worried about the state's actions being adopted at the national level.

"I don't have plans to leave," Resendez McCaffery said. "I have imagined what would happen if our governor became the president."

"If these types of policies became national policies, I think that would be pretty unpleasant," she said. "And I have toyed with the idea that I might have to somewhere (out of country)."

Grace Resendez McCaffery, right, and Jessica Rangel, 21, hug as they and other protestors in support of DACA gathered at the corner of Palafox and Garden Streets in Pensacola on Sept. 5, 2017. United States attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program.
Grace Resendez McCaffery, right, and Jessica Rangel, 21, hug as they and other protestors in support of DACA gathered at the corner of Palafox and Garden Streets in Pensacola on Sept. 5, 2017. United States attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the end of the DACA program.

In the meantime, Resendez McCaffery sees her mission as getting accurate information out to her community.

"My concern is an individual's need right now," she said. "They're hungry, or they need housing, or they need just some support to know that not everybody hates them. Sometimes that's all they want to know. And so, I know that my purpose here is to kind of relay that."

Heartbreak and anger

In March, Jason DeShazo spoke to a Florida Senate committee while dressed as Momma Ashley Rose, his drag character, in a demure yet colorfully checkered dress with a fluffy blond wig.

“Do I look like a stripper?” the Lakeland resident asked members of the House Judiciary Committee, as they considered a bill intended to curtail drag performances.

With the legislative session over and the law taking effect July 1, DeShazo said it is a bleak time for Florida’s drag performers and the LGBTQ+ population in general.

“It’s kind of a mix between heartbreaking and anger, right?” said DeShazo, 44. “You just want to kind of shout it from the rooftops, like, we've got more important things to worry about. We worry about a drag queen reading stories to children when children are having to learn how to do active-shooter training and how to get away from active shooters in schools. And you're telling me that I'm the issue?”

DeShazo, a gay man, has been performing in drag for more than 20 years. He created Momma Rose Dynasty, a nonprofit that he says has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support LGBTQ-oriented charities.

DeShazo specializes in “family friendly” shows and readings, at which his matronly character serves up affirmation and acceptance for youngsters who are LGBTQ or unsure about their sexuality or gender.

Last December, about a dozen men wearing Nazi attire showed up to protest a Lakeland event DeShazo had organized. The demonstrators projected lights onto the venue’s exterior bearing such messages as “Warning: Child grooming in process” — a claim DeShazo vehemently rejects.

An Orlando high school canceled DeShazo’s appearance in March as Momma Ashley Rose at a long-planned “Drag and Donuts” after-school event, under pressure from the Florida Department of Education.

And then the Legislature passed and DeSantis signed the bill officially titled “Protection of Children.”

“It’s just something that we never thought we would have to go through again,” DeShazo said. “This is stuff that our community went through in the ‘50s, '60s and '70s. It's just kind of a shocker that drag has become such a target — not only just drag, but the trans(gender) community, too, is a huge target with what's happening politically right now.”

Jason DeShazo of Lakeland performs as the drag queen Momma Ashley Rose. He said he is shocked that drag performers have become such a political target in Florida.
Jason DeShazo of Lakeland performs as the drag queen Momma Ashley Rose. He said he is shocked that drag performers have become such a political target in Florida.

Since the Nazi incident, DeShazo said he has been forced to spend hundreds of dollars at every event for extra security. He has also bolstered protections at his house in response to death threats.

In May, the group Fathers for Freedom urged supporters to “accost” parents who took children to a tea party brunch in Lakeland staged by DeShazo’s organization. He said he was relieved that no protesters actually showed up.

“So, it is a daily fear,” he said. “I mean, I can honestly tell you that there are times I'm walking through a grocery store and I'm having to look over my shoulder because you never know, right? Especially now that my face as a boy and in drag is out there.”

DeShazo said he sought legal help to review the new law, and he is confident that his performances do not violate it. His costumes do not feature prosthetic breasts, one of the elements identified in the law as potentially lewd when used in “adult live performances.”

DeShazo said he knows of two drag queens who have already fled Florida and another who is making plans to leave. But he is determined to stay.

“I have no judgment for anyone that wants to leave because I think everyone has their own reasons — and valid reasons,” he said. “But for me, of course I want to pack up and leave. I don't want to have to sit here and worry about my life and worry about what laws are going to be passed next to dehumanize me. But who's going to stay and fight if we all leave? If everyone who is different, that they're trying to drive out of here, leaves, who's going to be here to stay and fight for the ones that can't leave?”

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Does DeShazo feel that as a gay man and a drag queen he is no longer welcome in Florida?

“Politically, 100%,” he said. “It’s been known that we're not welcome here. It's been known that we're not wanted here. But it definitely seems like the people don't necessarily agree; the majority don't agree.”

The publicity surrounding the taunts by neo-Nazis in December produced an outpouring of solidarity, DeShazo said.

“I think people are starting to see other people's true colors, like, other people's true discriminations and hate,” he said. “At the same time, we've had a huge influx of support, right? I would say 90% of the contacts we get are support, are love, are ‘We thank you for what you're doing. Keep fighting; we stand with you.’ But that 5% to 10% is a lot to weigh you down because that could make a huge difference.”

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USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA journalists Jim Little, Eileen Zaffiro-Kean, Finch Walker, Gary White and Jesus Mendoza contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: DeSantis war on "wokeism" leaves many missing a Florida they once knew