TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State Sen. Shevrin Jones can often be seen at the Florida Capitol greeting staff and colleagues with a smile or laugh, but when he’s alone it’s a different story.
“The outward expression is to show God’s love. That’s what I was taught,” said Jones, a Democrat. But, he said, “I have enough tears in my car to fill a lake.”
For Jones, who is gay, the past two years have been emotionally draining as Florida passed a flurry of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
More than 200 LGBTQ+ lawmakers across the country feel just like Jones, at a time when anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation is flourishing — as if they are under personal attack, and that they need to continually defend their community’s right to exist. The issue exploded into the national spotlight last week when Montana Republicans voted to bar Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who is transgender, from the House floor after a standoff over gender-affirming medical care for minors.
The ACLU is tracking nearly 470 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 16 states, most with Republican-controlled Legislatures. Texas, Missouri and Tennessee alone account for more than 125 such bills; Florida has ten.
In the leadup to a possible presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gained national attention for proposing and signing a bill to ban class discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity, which opponents have called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. While DeSantis and other GOP leaders have increasingly waded into the culture wars, as part of their political toolbox, the emotions on both sides are ratcheted up.
“I actually have a policy of no longer crying in Tallahassee,” said Florida Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby. “I will cry when I go home.”
Rayner-Goolsby is a lawyer currently in a Master of Divinity program who was raised with a strong religious background. She's also the first Black lesbian lawmaker in the statehouse to be out.
“I’m literally trying to exist," she said. "The harsh things we’re saying are in defense of our life. The harsh things that they’re saying are to prop up a governor’s political ambition, and their desire and quest for power.”
In some cases, LGBTQ+ members who have deep faith are pitted against GOP members saying God doesn’t make mistakes, and that there are only two genders. There are also LGBTQ+ members with children who have faced derision and been told that children at large need to be protected from their community.
In Texas, there are three bills that would classify providing gender-affirming care to minors as a form of child abuse.
Other conservative states have followed Florida's example with bills that restrict trans people's access to gender-affirming care, bathrooms that correspond with their gender and LGBTQ+ books, as well as the ability to socially transition at school and to play sports at high school and college.
It's put pressure on LGBTQ+ lawmakers who are encountering opposition, misunderstanding and even hate among their Republican colleagues.
North Dakota Sen. Ryan Braunberger, a Democrat of Fargo, said it’s “frustrating” and “maddening” to be a gay lawmaker in a Legislature where anti-LGBTQ+ bills are debated and most of his colleagues are voting to pass them.
When he was serving on a committee this session and conversation shifted to a bill prohibiting drag shows in public spaces, Braunberger said that a colleague wanted to make it illegal for people to host drag shows in their own homes.
“They want to eliminate members of the LGBTQ+ community from existing,” he said. “It’s what the extreme right is pushing for ... It represents a small but powerful part of the Legislature. And I fear that if we don’t stand up against it, that it will continue to grow."
While LGBTQ+ lawmakers only compose a small fraction of state Legislatures, their numbers are growing, according to the group Out For America.
Statehouse debate about LGBTQ+ rights has increasingly descended into personal attacks and ran counter to the traditional practices of maintaining decorum and respect for one’s colleagues.
During a recent committee debate in Florida, Republican Rep. Webster Barnaby called trans people “demons,” “mutants” and “imps.” In Kansas last year, Republican Rep. Cheryl Helmer made headlines for saying in an email that she didn't want to share a bathroom with a transgender colleague.
The targeted colleague, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Byers was the state's only transgender lawmaker and decided last year to not seek reelection.
After Byers testified against a bill banning transgender athletes from girls and women's sports, a Republican colleague pulled her aside to say he was sorry that Byers had to listen to bill supporters.
Still, he went on to vote for the bill.
The next day, Byers said the lawmaker told another member of what's called the Kansas “queer caucus" that he couldn't look himself in the mirror.
“It's the same thing I think for every LGBTQ+ legislator, in no matter what state they serve in,” Byers said. "You don't know what you can trust. When they say, 'I like you, I love you and I'm glad you're here,' is that honest? Or is standing at the well and berating LGBTQ+ people, is that the honest person?"
For Florida Sen. Jones — the first Black gay lawmaker in the state — repeatedly hearing “I love you, but” from people he socializes with and works alongside is depressing, even more so when an anti-LGBTQ+ message carries religious undertones. Despite advice that he wouldn’t win reelection, he came out in 2018 and still won his seat.
While difficult, he said he is determined to fight hate with love.
“I pray more now than ever, and I believe in my heart that God loves me more than ever. I hate how they treat people, “ Jones said of Republican lawmakers crafting these bills. ”I hate what they’re doing to the transgender community, I hate what they’re doing to immigrants. I hate it all. But it is not my job to hate them. It is not my job to do anything but love them.”
AP writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, and Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.