WILTON MANORS, Fla.—It is 8 a.m. and nearly a hundred people have gathered in a dimly lit pub on the Wilton Drive strip to meet with local mayors.
Almost all are men and members of the local business association in Wilton Manors, a district of Fort Lauderdale that is trying, against a formidable opponent, to live up to its motto: “Life’s Just Better Here.”
Most are also stuffing themselves with eggs, bacon and coffee to get the juice flowing on another sweltering Florida day.
One older gentleman scrolls through images of leather-clad men on his phone, pointing out one pleasing image to the man seated next to him, and passing the time until the event gets underway with discussion of the perpetual concerns of any municipality: public transit, infrastructure, affordable housing, tourism investment.
All are essential to the continued success of Wilton Manors, Florida’s LGBTQ mecca. But they pale next to the matter at the top of everyone’s mind — the full-out attack on diversity and minority rights that has served as the prologue for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid to occupy the White House in 2024.
‘This is the good fight’
Here, they call him “Ronda.” It’s the drag name for DeSantis, a politician who casts himself as the hardest of hard-right Republicans.
It is a backhanded homage — more taunt than tribute — to a political culture warrior with a particular distaste for men who sing and dance in women’s clothes.
DeSantis, who launched his bid to seek the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election this week, has instigated something of a civil war in the Sunshine State.
The startling string of bills he has signed into law has been dubbed Florida’s “Slate of Hate.”
DeSantis has banned books and restricted teachings about sex and race in schools; he has banned abortion six weeks after conception; he has banned transgender females from competing in women’s sports and using women’s bathrooms; and he has banned transgender medical treatment for minors.
He has a particular ire for pronouns other than “she” and “he,” “his” and “hers.”
Come July, it will be illegal for the rainbow-coloured Pride flag to flutter above government buildings, but legal to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
DeSantis promotes Florida as a fortress of freedom in the United States of America. But his legislative record has prompted the NAACP, Equality Florida, the Immigrant Hotline and the League of United Latin American Citizens to issue advisories to Black, gay, Latino and other visible minority travellers to steer clear of the state.
There are differing opinions here on the Wilton Manors front line.
“We need more people here,” says Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, who is himself gay. “We need more African Americans, more LGBTQ people. We need more and more and more to stand up to and stand up against the bigotry and hatred.
“This is the good fight. This is the fight where we must stick together and make sure that we are speaking with a single voice … We are not budging. We are not going to be afraid of who we are and what we stand for.”
Like many destinations, Wilton Manors was built upon a myth.
In 2010, it was recognized as the second gayest small city in the United States, based on the number of same-sex couples who called the municipality home in the national census.
When City Commissioner Chris Caputo purchased a tanning salon and moved to Wilton Manors around that time, the reality fell far below his expectations.
“I thought: ‘What? This is what everyone’s getting excited about?’ ” he recalls.
“It really seemed like a not-nice neighbourhood at the time. It’s come a long way very quickly.”
Today, it’s home to dozens of gay-owned and gay-themed businesses, with cheeky names such as the Tap that Ash cigar bar, the Gaysha and Thai Me Up restaurants and Ball Beachwear.
“We started as this haven that was very affordable for people who were shunned elsewhere,” Caputo says.
“Now we’ve become a very nice neighbourhood that’s expensive and has gentrified. That’s a tragic problem in and of itself.”
The influx of well-to-do gay and lesbian residents choosing to retire in Wilton Manors has turned it into a place where those who lived through the AIDS epidemic and fought the first rounds in the battle for equality have created organizations and social infrastructure that is helping the next generation.
Howard Griffon refers to this as “the bubble.”
“The closer you live to Wilton Manors, there’s more bubble over you. The further you go out, there’s less.”
The haze of past intolerance and hate fuels Wilton Manors’ current fears.
In 2016, a gunman opened fire at The Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 and wounding 53 others. And in a little over a month, new gun laws in Florida will make it easier for people to carry a concealed weapon.
And on the same day earlier this month that DeSantis signed into law anti-transgender bills, Orlando police reported a digital traffic sign has been hacked so that it read, “Kill all gays.”
That’s why Griffon can’t sympathize with those who complain about the strict ID and stamp regime for those seeking entry to Hunter’s, a popular local nightclub.
“They’re protecting you,” he says. “If someone wants to start shooting and kill 10 or 15 people, they know who was there.”
It’s all part of the protective bubble that, even as the state under DeSantis has seemingly turned against them, has allowed men and women to hold hands, to greet each other with hugs and kisses, to dress as they want and say what they wish.
But every bubble runs the risk of bursting.
‘Igniting a civil war’
The effect of Florida’s legislative onslaught has left many reeling.
Samuel Wright, a longtime educator and appointed member of Florida’s African American History Task Force, said that teachers are “scared to death” of being reprimanded or losing their jobs for straying from the rapidly changing school curriculum, which restricts sex education teaching, bans critical race theory and is now seeing books pulled from libraries if they fall afoul of conservative orthodoxy.
One fifth-grade teacher was investigated for wrongdoing after showing the Disney movie “Strange World” to reinforce her lessons about ecology and the environment. The complaint from a school board member focused not on the main message about the need to phase out fossil-fuel use, but on the fact that the film featured an openly gay character.
“What DeSantis is doing is almost igniting a civil war in the United States with the way he’s pitting people against each other,” says Wright, who lives in Tampa.
“It seems like he wants to put Black and brown people and gay people and all that in slavery. That’s what it sounds like. I don’t think people in this day and age are going to stand for it.”
With the opening of the summer festival season, many Pride organizers are on edge, too.
Several Pride events across the state have been cancelled, scaled back or moved indoors after DeSantis signed a law that threatens permit and liquor licence holders for exposing children to sexually charged drag performances — a mainstay of many Pride parades and festivities.
But no group is more vulnerable than those who identify as transgender.
Adrianna Tender, a transgender woman and program co-ordinator with Transinclusive, a Wilmot Manors advocacy group, said her own doctor recently refused to provide her with female hormones, which she has been taking on-and-off for years.
The decision coincided with passage of a state law prohibiting minors from receiving transgender surgeries and treatments, such as puberty blockers, and banning state-funded medical facilities from using government funds to provide sex-reassignment procedures and prescriptions.
“There are a lot of trans people that are on hormones every single day. This is the part of keeping them together, mentally, physically and emotionally,” Tender says.
“I just think it’s a sad day when we have a governor and a government that’s more concerned with trying to hurt people than help people.”
Transinclusive manages an emergency fund for individuals who find themselves in dire straits — who can’t pay their rent, their bills or their urgent medical needs.
Recently, transgender people have been inquiring whether they can tap into the emergency fund to flee Florida.
“The conversation is that they don’t feel safe, and they feel like their lives are in danger and that it probably would be better suited to them to leave and go elsewhere where they are welcomed,” Tender says. “It just seems at the moment that people are looking for a way out.”
They want the uncomfortable focus on them to pass, they want DeSantis’s term as Florida governor to end. Life may not have been easy before, but it seems downright peaceful compared to the barriers now being thrown in their paths.
But with DeSantis’s run for the Republican nomination, the future looks even more menacing, she says.
If DeSantis “takes these laws and bills and tries to govern the country like this, it will just be awful.”
The dress for success
When Wilmot Manors celebrates Pride in mid-June, Caputo, the city commissioner, will shave his beard, slather himself in makeup and squeeze into a flashy dress.
He is a local gym owner — not a drag queen. But this is the uniform he has chosen to lead the counteroffensive against Florida’s legislative assault.
He’s still working on the routine, but he already has a name for his drag character: Lady Vote.
The plan is to have her walk the fine line spelled out in the anti-drag law between what DeSantis has prohibited in the state — nudity, sexual conduct, lewd and lascivious behaviour — and that which is protected under the highest and most fundamental laws of this troubled land.
The law makes an exception for performances that have “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for the age of the child present.” And that is the trail Caputo intends to blaze —provocatively, defiantly and a little uncomfortably.
“I would argue that saying, ‘Children, vote!’ is politically relevant for … a child,” he says.
DeSantis will be touring the country by then, raising money and seeking voters for his presidential bid. But the governor has proven himself a vindictive opponent for those who question his authority, and it’s not lost on Caputo that residents have the power to recall local elected officials.
“I have very little to lose. I’m a better representative for the people that I serve by being recalled and going to court,” he says. “That’s the best way I can serve this community at the moment.”
The bigger fight, the longer fight, the harder fight, though, is in the political arena. The fight to convince average Americans across the country to be concerned about the state of affairs in Florida.
Caputo knows first hand how hard that will be. While he launches what could be the defining fight of his political career, his own father is a supporter of DeSantis.
“It’s that old Hitler thing: ‘… and then they’ll come for me,’ ” Caputo says.
“He doesn’t realize that they keep inching close to me and closer to me and closer to me. He’d give the shirt off his back for me and never once wanted me to change and be a straight person, but he doesn’t see the connection.”
He says he finds it discouraging, but it’s also pushing him to the realization that all of the diverse groups forced now to fight for their rights in Florida must work harder and smarter to raise both voter consciousness and heaps of money, as their opponents on the right have done.
If you are Black, gay, transgender, poor — if your rights and your well-being and your future are in peril — failure is not an option.
“It reminds you that what you think is yours is not necessarily yours,” says Caputo, adding that the notion of a ban on drag performances would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“We just got gay rights. We got every gay right we wanted. But I also think that this is the pendulum swinging,” he says.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in a very short period of time, and the nature of progress is that it’s two steps forward, one step back.”
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