MP Michele Rayner-Goolsby on GOP: ‘I’m literally trying to exist’

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — 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.

“Outward expression is to show God’s love. I was taught that,” said Jones, a Democrat. But he said, “I’ve got 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 slew 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 laws are thriving — as if they are being personally attacked and that they must continually defend their community’s right to exist. The issue exploded in the national spotlight last week, as Montana Republicans voted to expel Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyrwho is transgender, off 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.

Ahead of a possible presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gained national attention for proposing and signing legislation to ban class discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, something opponents have been calling for Don’t say gay legislation. As DeSantis and other GOP leaders have increasingly delved into the culture wars as part of their political toolkit, emotions are running high on both sides.

“I actually have a policy of no more crying in Tallahassee,” said Florida Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby. “I’ll cry when I go home.”

Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby of Florida speaks during an interview in her office in Tallahassee, Fla. Thursday, April 20, 2023. Rayner-Goolsby and other LGBTQ+ lawmakers across the country feel they are being squeezed in conservative states for their existence to fight where Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is moving forward. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)

Rayner-Goolsby is an attorney currently in a Masters of Divinity program and grew up with a strong religious background. She is also the first black lesbian statehouse legislator to be out.

“I’m literally trying to exist,” she said. “The harsh things we say are in defense of our lives. The hard things they say are meant to shore up a governor’s political ambition and his desire and quest for power.”

In some cases, LGBTQ+ members with deep faith are contrasted with GOP members who say God makes no mistakes and that there are only two genders. There are also LGBTQ+ members with children who have been taunted and told that children in general need to be protected from their community.

Texas has three bills that would classify gender-affirming child care as a form of child abuse.

Other conservative states have followed Florida’s example with bills restricting trans people’s access to gender-affirming care, gender-appropriate bathrooms and LGBTQ+ books, as well as their ability to socially transition at school and play sports in high school and college .

It puts pressure on LGBTQ+ lawmakers, who face opposition, misunderstanding and even hatred from their Republican peers.

North Dakota Senator Ryan Braunberger, a Fargo Democrat, said it’s “frustrating” and “crazy” to be a gay lawmaker in a legislature where anti-LGBTQ+ laws are being debated and most of his peers are voting in favor of them to adopt.

When he served on a committee, that session and conversation shifted to a bill banning drag shows in public spacesBraunberger said 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 existence,” he said. “This is what the far right is pushing for… It represents a small but powerful segment of the legislature. And I’m afraid if we don’t fight it, it will continue to grow.”

While LGBTQ+ legislators make up a small fraction of state legislatures, their number is growing, according to the group Out For America.

The statehouse debate on LGBTQ+ rights has increasingly turned into personal attacks and goes against traditional practices of maintaining decency and respect for one’s peers.

During a recent committee debate in Florida, Republican Rep. Webster Barnaby called trans people “demons,” “mutants,” and “goblins.” In Kansas last year, the 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 colleague attacked, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Byers, was the state’s only transgender legislator and chose last year not to seek re-election.

After Byers testified against a law banning transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports, a Republican colleague pulled her aside to say he was sorry Byers had to listen to the bill’s supporters.

Nonetheless, he voted in favor of the bill.

The next day, Byers said lawmakers told another member of Kansas’ so-called “Queer Caucus” that he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror.

“I think the same for every LGBTQ+ legislator, no matter what state they serve in,” Byers said. “You don’t know what to trust. When they say, “I like you, I love you, and I’m glad you’re here,” is that sincere? Or is he standing by the fountain swearing at LGBTQ+ people, is that the honest person?”

For Florida Sen. Jones — the state’s first black gay legislator — it’s depressing to hear repeated “I love you, but” from people he connects and works with, even more so when an anti-LGBTQ+ message carries religious overtones. Despite hinting that he would not win re-election, he came out in 2018 and still won his seat.

Though it’s difficult, he said he was determined to fight hate with love.

“Now I’m praying more than ever, and I believe in my heart that God loves me more than ever. I hate how they treat people,” Jones said of the Republican lawmakers who created those 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’s not my job to hate her. It’s not my job to do anything but love her.”


AP writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis, and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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